Matilda Cuomo (Founder - Mentoring USA)

Mentoring, la ricetta vincente di una grande Italiana: Matilda Cuomo

Jul 06, 2013 6248 ITA ENG

In the recent history of Italian immigrants in America – a community of around 20 million people from the second generation onwards – there are few references, emblematic personalities, shared and recognized by all. These are often established artists, great business leaders, or successful sportspeople. But there is one woman who represents all of the best qualities of the Italians who emigrated to the USA. Her name is Matilda Ruffo Cuomo, and we can happily say that we too fell in love with her energy, spontaneity, and liveliness. She is a force of nature with the enthusiasm of a child, despite having a long history of success.

Describing her as the wife – sadly, now the widow – of Mario and mother of Andrew is correct, because family for her comes first. Yet it doesn’t quite do justice to the many achievements she was able to attain in her field. If it is true that behind every successful man there is a great woman, in this case there is a great woman behind two successful men, and this explains the enthusiasm that everyone feels towards Matilda Cuomo.   

Mrs. Cuomo – you are an icon for the Italian-American community. You have dedicated your entire life to doing your best to promote this community. What does being Italian-American mean to you? What is the story of your family?

I have always been proud of being Italian-American. Knowledge of the beauty and greatness of Italian culture keeps growing, and everyday America grows more aware of the achievements of the Italians who came here – from Filippo Mazzei, a friend and inspirer of Thomas Jefferson, to all the artists who have realized great works in the United States, to the people who came with nothing and built a part of this country through sheer hard work. When I was First Lady in Albany, during my husband’s mandate as the Governor New York State, I was thrilled to find out that the great staircase and culture in the Governor’s Mansion were made out of Italian concrete. I was so proud of this that I ended up making sure that the guides included them in tours of the Executive Mansion. Just recently an article was published in the American press on the particular type of cement used by the ancient Romans, pozzolana, a material that has demonstrated its genius composition for over 2000 years and has recently been rediscovered for its sturdiness and resistance – by far greater than the concrete used today. This is just one example of how beauty, genius, culture and innovation have always been the norm in Italy: in every area in which it is possible to demonstrate talent. And every day, America learns a bit more about this, and every day we Italian-Americans are more proud of it.

My family are originally from the South of Italy. My dad was born in Pennsylvania, his parents were Francesco and Matìa: my real name is not Matilda, but Matìa, like my grandmother. My grandfather remained in Pennsylvania to work in the mines, whilst my grandmother went back to Sicily and raised her four children, three girls and one boy – my father Carmelo. My father grew up with the desire to see the country where he was born. When he managed to finally go back to America, he fell in love with its sense of freedom and opportunity. My parents had an extremely strong sense of the family, and they passed this onto me: the idea that the family is the first and most important locus of a child’s learning and education. They managed to send all their five children to college, and this made my father very proud. He was well aware that education is the key to success, and that was indeed the case for all of us. My sister and I are professors, two of my brothers are engineers and the third is a lawyer.

You were the wife of Mario Cuomo, Governor of New York State from 1983 to 1995, and the mother of the current Governor, your son Andrew. What differences and similarities are there in these two experiences from your point of view?

This is the first time in the State of New York that an elected Governor is the son of a predecessor. I don’t know if this has happened in other states, but it’s definitely the first time here in New York. What has not changed is the passion and complete dedication with which Mario interpreted the role of Governor in his mandate, and with which Andrew interprets it today, and the honor they feel for the great responsibility they were entrusted with. To be a good Governor of New York you must work extremely hard, and I know that both my husband and my son were aware of this from the very moment they decided to run for election, set on really helping the citizens of their State. The difference is perhaps that whilst Mario asked me to help him personally, and as First Lady I did so with great pleasure, obviously this is not the case today with Andrew – and so it should be.    

Amongst your many achievements, you are the founder of Mentoring USA, a project created in 1995 after many years dedicated to helping women, families and children in need, which also has a branch in Italy. Can you tell us something about this initiative?

During his mandate as Governor, my husband told me: you raised our children so well, why don’t you help me with the children dropping out of school in New York State? Both of us were deeply concerned with the tragic fact that many young kids abandoned school. School helped them, educated them, kept them off the streets and out of trouble. Drugs, alcohol, teenage pregnancies, were all consequences of leaving school early: so we tried to understand what to do, and we thought that prevention was the best solution, through assigning to each kid a mentor. We set up a “bipartisan board” to guarantee that there was nothing partisan in what we were doing. We made agreements with State schools and academic institutions, and in 1985 the New York State Mentoring Program was born – this was the first in the country. Barbara Bush really liked it, so she insisted that the program be replicated by the other Governors’ wives in other States. We managed to reach out to and help 10.000 children, and the school-leaving rate enormously plummeted. Unfortunately, the Governor who replaced my husband in 1995 canceled the program.

It was at this point that my son Andrew, who was working in President Clinton’s Government at the time, encouraged me to restart the program and expand it to the entire United States, calling it Mentoring USA – so to keep helping children no longer just in New York State, but all over the country. And thanks to his help we set up Mentoring USA. The current director is my daughter Maria: she is my boss now! Today the program also exists in Italy, Spain and Morocco. In Italy it is ran by Sergio Cuomo, also a family member, and is based in Salerno but works in the whole country. For a project born in America, its introduction in Italy was always going to be very difficult, but they managed to do it successfully and they do great work.

A few years ago, when Italian language teaching was eliminated from the AP (Advanced Program) for American high schools, you led the community in a battle to reintroduce it. You managed to get everyone on board and found the necessary funds by mobilizing Italians and Italian-Americans. You achieved something that some thought to be impossible: you brought together the entire Italian-American community in support of one project, collaborating. How did you do it?

To be fair, everyone was well aware that that battle was absolutely necessary. The language is fundamental for our community, it is part of our history, our tradition, our culture. We will never be able to do away with it, on the contrary we will always be very proud of it. My father always told me never to give up, and I repeated this to the leaders of the community: good and generous leaders, thanks to whom we were able to defend our language. We worked very well with the Embassy and the Consul Generals of the whole Italian diplomatic network in the United States. And we all put our hearts in it: because being Italian is a part of us, a part that we love, we defend, and we are extremely proud of here in America. It was the Italy that every one of us carries in their heart that us that brought us together to defend our language.  

The United States are still the land of the American dream, and many young Italians today would like to move there. This is a new type of migration, called the “brain drain”, because the people leaving Italy are often the best educated and brightest and promising. What can you say to these young Italians?

When I was First Lady of New York State, I started a program of scholarships that promoted exchanges between American kids who would go to visit the wonders of Italy, and Italian kids who had come here to American to study. It is important that young people get to know other cultures.

The Italians who came here between the end of the 1800s and beginning of the 1900s did so with no help from the state. The Italian state did not help them and neither did the American state: but they were not searching for public help. They knew they had to work hard, that their opportunity would come, that they had to guarantee a better future for their children and they would have to do so with their own strength, or with the help of their family and their friends. This is what us Italians are: back then but still today. And those who do not believe this should think again. It is a good thing that young Italians come to America, but then they should return to Italy and give their contribution to their own country: maybe not all of them, but many.

In conclusion, Matilda: from New York, how do you see Italy in this phase of deep crisis we are going through?

I have a sense of optimism about Italy. The country is full of talent, and it will be able to pick itself up again. The most important thing – and I want to really emphasize this – is that it invests in the future of the young, in the young generations. Helping children – for example like we do, assigning them a mentor – brings excellent results, both for them and for their country. The greatness of Italian history and culture calls for new, educated generations willing to push their country forward in the right and correct direction, and this is something that it really needs to work on because it is of fundamental importance.

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