Robert Bianchi (President of the Order Sons and Daughters of Italy in America)

The Order Sons and Daughters of Italy in America: a difesa e in rappresentanza degli italoamericani dal 1905

Jan 14, 2022 1582 ITA ENG

When Italians began to arrive in large numbers in the United States, they had no representation and were heavily discriminated. Their rights were not recognized, until 1905 when a visionary, Vincenzo Sellaro, realized that only by uniting and associating themselves could they defend their rights and celebrate their origins.

That is when the Order of Sons of Italy in America (OSIA) was born, and it was the beginning of an associationism that has been fundamental to the success story of the Italian American community for the last 100 years and more. Our very appreciated guest for this interview is the new President of OSIA (today OSDIA), Robert A. Bianchi, and it’s a great pleasure for me to welcome him on We the Italians

Robert, let’s start with something about you. Please tell me about your Italian heritage, and what does being Italian American mean to you

Growing up, being an Italian American was always a point of pride instilled in me by my family. The immigration experience of my mother and father differed greatly, although both families hailed from Italy. My mother came from the more common Italian American immigration experience of a family that was relatively poor, although well educated and having a family trade. My father’s family members were extremely educated, were wealthy while living in Italy, and were very prominent and well-respected leaders after arriving in America. Unlike my mother’s family, my father’s family did not move to the United States out of need, or necessity.

The titular head of my father’s family was Dr. Angelo R. Bianchi who came to the US, speaking 7 languages, Greek and Latin included. He graduated medical school in the late 1800s, and became the first physician in the City of Newark New Jersey, and ultimately the first elected official of Italian extraction in the City of Newark. Dr. Bianchi was friends with Thomas Edison, had business dealings with Henry Ford, and entertained Mother Cabrini, to name a few prominent people who knew Dr. Bianchi. He also received awards from five US presidents, including John F. Kennedy, Harry Truman, Franklin D. Roosevelt.

Even though my parents came from “different sides of the tracks” their Italian roots informed them equally as to the love of family, God, and how hard work, respect, love, and passion for life were the ingredients of a life well-lived. To me, being an Italian American is to forever appreciate, and not take for granted, these invaluable attributes. Being National President of the largest Italian American organization in the United States enables me to the best extent possible to ensure that the greatness of our Italian heritage is never forgotten and that is preserved and passed down to our children.

The story of how Italians who emigrated to America began to associate starts in 1905 with the Sons of Italy: can you please tell more to our readers?

The Sons of Italy in America started when Dr. Vincenzo Sellaro realized that due to discrimination, lack of economic opportunities and desperate need for social safety net programs, Italian immigrants had to form a group to take care of our own. At the time, the OSIA provided that safety net, a network where Italians living in the United States could on their own move up on society. It was highly effective. Historically, the Italian Americans assimilated into American society very quickly. Unfortunately, at that time in American history, part of assimilating was to become as “American” as they could. In the process, we lost much of our language, as our forbearers wanted us to speak “American,” not Italian. Many years later, our ancestors regretted assimilating so much in that regard. That said, the ascendancy of great things that Italian Americans accomplished to contribute to American society is nothing short of impressive. OSIA was at the forefront of making that happen.

Today we have transitioned to an organization of men and women that have donated tens of millions of dollars in charity, scholarships, disaster relief, while promoting our Italian heritage and combating negative stereotypes, and presenting the positive image of great accomplishments of Italian Americans for the benefit of all Americans. A poem of my father entitled I am an Italian American well illustrates the point.

Back in those days, and up until a few years ago, it was just Order of Sons of Italy in America: but now you gained the “D” of Daughters, too…

This was a translation issue that existed for many years. The organization was always intended to be gender neutral, where “sons” was meant to be gender neutral. Women have always been members of the Order, holding office, and an integral part of who we are. But, as modern language progresses, the use of “Sons” became understandably confusing, and led people to think it was a male organization only. Realizing this confusion, we added “daughters” to ensure our sisters realize they are very welcome be part of all of the great things that we do. It has been a very positive development!

Please describe the activities of OSDIA today: together with OSDIA you also have the Sons of Italy Foundation and the Commission for Social Justice…

OSDIA is a little like the Holy Trinity: three separate beings as One. It is comprised of the Supreme Lodge, of which I am the National president. It has two arms that operate under the Supreme lodge where the National President serves as Chairman of the Board, that being, the Sons and Daughters of Italy Foundation (SIF), and the Commission for Social Justice (CSJ). The Foundation is the charitable arm of the Order, and the CSJ is the anti-discrimination, and positive image arm of the Order. The Foundation runs many fundraisers where we donate to many charities, including Alzheimer’s, autism, coolies-anemia, cancer research, modified vans for wounded veterans, disaster relief (which we have donated to Italy as well), and millions of dollars to worthy students for scholarships, to name a few areas we contribute to. We have donated tens of millions of dollars for our charities. The CSJ deals with all issues involving discrimination from media portrayals, discrimination, attacks on Columbus, as well as, promoting a positive image of Italian Americans.

We always welcome people to join and view all of our work on our website and our social media platforms, including YouTube, Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook.

What’s in the future of your organization?

We have a blitz on recruiting younger members, and empowering girls and women to join and take leadership positions. We are also branching out to Italy and honored to have our first lodge in Italy, located in Rome. Thanks to Carmelo Cutuli for making our Rome chapter a reality. The Rome chapter is such a treasure to us. It has surprised me that having lodges in Italy did not happen sooner. But, it was worth the wait. We are so excited to have a chapter in Italy, and I hope we can have more join us! While this is new for us, I envision meeting great, new people, building strategic relations, and working for the common good for a trans-continental relationship with Italy.

We are moving to build economic/business opportunities for our members, we are marketing OSDIA in ways never being done before, such as our Facebook Live Series, YouTube channel, and now we appear on TV reaching 3.8 million homes directly, and live streaming throughout the world. We are also seeking to build strategic partnerships with businesses.

You guys have several lodges, and they are spread in almost all the 50 States...

This is a unique strong point of our organization. Even though we are a National organization, it is built upon the local lodges throughout the US. We live our unique Italian experience through our local lodges that meet together, run events, raise money for charity: all locally. It is a comradeship on a local level that creates life long bonds of friendships, loving relationships, and being with people that share a common experience, being an Italian American. That said, the National Organization located in Washington D.C. provides us the clout to advocate for Italian American issues on a federal, state, and local level. There is such depth and texture to our membership. It is not just being a member, it is a shared and lived experience with like-minded Italian Americans!

What’s the relationship between the local lodges and the headquarter in Washington DC?

The National Organization is the entity that oversees the entire organization across the country. Under the National Supreme Lodge, are the Grand and Subordinate Lodges. Under the Grand and Subordinate Lodges are the local lodges. Each of these lodges are comprised of a SIF and CSJ, hence structured much like the National Supreme Lodge.

The last question is about Christopher Columbus. How do you see the issue of the vicious attacks against him, and what can be done to defend him without disrespecting those who doesn't like him?

From speaking with my Italian friends in Italy, some of what is happening with Columbus here may sound a little odd. I get that. In America, the Columbus issue is a very hot button issue, due to our history here in the US.

The institution of Columbus Day was created by President Harrison in response to the largest lynching in American history, that being, of Italian men in New Orleans. Columbus Day was to honor Italian Americans based upon the sprit of Columbus’ bravery, skill, and mark in history. So, for us in the US, Columbus Day was instituted to honor Italian Americans who fought for their place in American society. As such, Columbus is more than just a historical figure, he was a symbol of the greatness of our culture in American society.

The attacks on Columbus (being bankrupt of factual accuracy), reinforces to us as Italian Americans that we still are one of the last acceptable prejudices in American society. This movement would never gain support of politicians if it were another ethnic group. It is a direct slap in the face of all Italian Americans, who are not even shown the respect to have that day converted into another Italian American holiday (one which we will not accept, but proves a point nevertheless.) And, we have been willing to have the federal government do a study on the facts of this issue, but cannot even get them to do that. Why let facts get in the way of political expediency and special interest groups?! Very sad indeed.

OSDIA is committed to battling this, and has done so for many years. While there has been some progress, Italian Americans have so well assimilated into American society (and are not unified politically), so as to make our ability to get politicians to listen to our concerns pretty much non-existent.

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