Joseph V. Scelsa (Founder and President - IAM Italian American Museum)

L’orgoglio italiano nel cuore della Grande Mela

Apr 12, 2013 6555 ITA ENG

In the original Little Italy in Manhattan where once only Italian was spoken (indeed, only the dialects of those who arrived even before the existence of an official Italian State), now no longer lives anyone actually born in our country. Chinatown grows more and more each day, and the Italians have moved up in Queens, Brooklyn, Long Island, The Bronx, in Westchester or New Jersey. Many of them still also live in Manhattan, but now the original Little Italy is home to only a few restaurants and memorabilia shops.

And then, there is the angle between the Mulberry and Grand, site of the Italian American Museum: the only major Italian institution in New York to be where our countrymen came, worked, lived, became Americans, learned English, sent home much of what they earned, leaving their children a greater hope for a better future. It is not by chance that the Founder and President of the Italian American Museum, Joseph V. Scelsa, wanted that to be the home of the museum.

Dr. Scelsa, you are one of the most respected and recognized figures of the Italian American community. You have written essays and publications, have sitten and still sit on the boards of some of the major Italian American organizations. You are Cavaliere della Repubblica and have been awarded with several others recognizements. What is your history?

I'm a proud Italian citizen: my family is from Sicily, Calabria and Campania. I strongly feel my Italian roots, particularly in the south. My grandparents came from Caccamo, near Palermo, in 1900.

I was born in The Bronx and I've always studied the histories of migration and integration of Italian people and culture in the United States, which are still very little known here in America, as well as little known is the history of Italy in general. I got the Ed.D. in Sociology and Education at Columbia University, and I have three masters degrees in Sociology, Social Studies and Counseling: my career has been in the University for more than 35 years. In 1984 I had the honor of being appointed Director of the Italian American Institute at the City University of New York (CUNY), which in 1987 became John D. Calandra Italian American Institute: in 1999 I was appointed dean of the institute. In 1992 we decided, together with the Italian American community, to bring a civil right suit against the CUNY for discrimination: this lawsuit ended in 1999 and was the first success for the Italians in America to pursue a class action lawsuit in accordance with the laws that regulate civil rights in the United States.
You are Founder and President of the Italian American Museum. Tell us about the museum

As part of the Columbus Day 1999, I organized the exhibition "The Italians of New York: Five Centuries of Struggle and Achievement", which introduced for the first time at a major American cultural institution, the New York Historical Society - the first museum born in New York, in 1804 - the struggles and achievements of the Italian Americans. The exhibition lasted 4 months and was visited by over 100,000 people.

After that success I realized that there was great interest in these issues, and in 2001 I gave birth to the Italian American Museum which was officially recognized under the aegis of the Department of Education of the University of The State of New York. Our mission is to document the many contributions made by the Italian people and by their descendants to the evolution of the society, the culture and the economy of the US, from its early beginnings to our days by philosophers, explorers, adventurers, entrepreneurs, scientists, educators, politicians and common but still extraordinary people who every day continue to tell a story of success that evolves in the actual America. For years the museum has been hosted by CUNY, organizing over 25 exhibitions in New York and some in other parts of the United States: In 2008 we found our permanent home buying 3 historic buildings (recognized on the list of Historic Places by NewYork City, New York State and The Federal Government) in the original Little Italy, which hosted for more than 100 years ago the Banca Stabile. The Banca Stabile acted as a stable reference point for all the many Italians who emigrated to New York at the turn of the nineteenth and twentieth century: in the heart of Little Italy, it was the place where they were helped, supported, accepted, in which they learned English and rallied together, and it was also a post office towards and from Italy, a key function for our countrymen of that time.

Today the museum is expanding, and we plan to open new spaces within the next year: we do cultural promotion activities through presentation of books and multimedia, hosting conferences and exhibitions, an annual gala and much more.

In 2009, after the earthquake in L'Aquila, you have started a fundraising that led to the restoration, transport and exhibition in New York Our Lady of Pietranico, a clay sculpture of the fifteenth century, severely damaged by the earthquake. Now, after the earthquake in Emilia Romagna you started a new fundraising.

Immediately after the earthquake in L'Aquila, I remembered what Governor Mario Cuomo did when the earthquake in Irpinia stroke. So I decided to immediately start a fundraising, and the main media networks talked about us giving visibility to the project and relaunching our appeal. $ 110,000 came from many small donations, which gave us even more a measure of the solidarity with earthquake victims.

We managed, with the help of our representative in Italy and working together with Italian institutions, to identify a work of particular importance for the Abruzzo region, the Madonna di Pietranico, which was restored and then brought in our museum to show to the donors the results of their effort and to the visitors the Italian excellence in the art and in today's restoration techniques. The statue was then the guest of honor at the celebrations held on June 2 2011 by the Italian Consulate in New York, where a thousand people have been able to admire the artwork.

After the earthquake in Emilia Romagna we want to repeat the project in order to give new aid. Fortunately, the earthquake did less victims this time, although even one death is a tragedy. But there were a lot of damages to cultural heritage, and we believe we can once again make our contribution.

How is Italy perceived in the U.S., from your point of view?

Italy is means quality and taste, in the US. The most popular food in America is pizza, the most desired car is Ferrari, as well as Italians are the most popular products in other important areas of Made in Italy. We Italian Americans are a bit of ambassadors of it, because we are the first consumers and promoters of Italy in the United States.

You are also a leader in the battle against stereotypes that affect the Italian Americans. Is this a problem that really affects them, or it's just obnoxious show business?

It's a very big problem indeed. And it is very difficult to act now, it would have been necessary to act long ago. In this we Italian-Americans have not been able to develop a counter strategy that would see us all united, as good has the African American community did. In the U.S. many Americans of Italian descent have had and today have great success in the highest positions. But this campaign of defamation damages us at the level of the middle class, in the intermediate places, between the younger generations. There, the stereotype is still alive and does much damage, and is now widespread. It is hard to fight it, but we try, because it is obviously wrong to depict Italian Americans as mobsters, and because even those television programs that give space to some young Italian-Americans demonstrating their boor behavior and pretending to identify with them all the young Italian Americans, mean that if those behaviors do not lead to crime, certainly do not seem so far from the mobster approach.

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