John Maggio (Author of The Italian Americans, the PBS documentary)

Incontriamo John Maggio, autore e regista del meraviglioso documentario della PBS "The Italian Americans"

Feb 16, 2015 12168 ITA ENG

For our 100th interview (happy birthday to us!!) we talk about a documentary that will be aired in two parts: the first two hours on February 17th at 9 P.M.EST and the second two hours a week later on February 24th at 9 P.M. EST. The documentary is called "The Italian Americans" and, in our honest opinion, will be a milestone for the Italian American community: in these 4 hours all the Italian Americans will learn, cry, remember, smile, think, get excited in seeing depicted in a wonderful way the story of their families, their lives, their pride of being Italians in America.
We've had the privilege to interview the director of this masterpiece, John Maggio. We've also had the privilege to see the documentary and we strongly encourage everyone of our American readers to watch it, promote it through their friends and families, and not to forget or give for granted the story of the Italian Americans.

John, please tell us something about you, how this project was born, and how did you make it happen

I was approached by the PBS station WETA who had some success with a series on Jewish Americans and they asked me If I would consider making a film on the Italian American experience. This was five years ago and it took about four years to raise the money. We ended up getting generous support from CPB and the National Endowment for the Humanities.

My first task was to think about how to tell the story of an entire group of people. There are over 15 million Italian Americans today and they all have a unique story of immigration and assimilation. The one sort of unifying theme I seized on was the notion of family – which is very associated with Italian Americans – both positively and negatively. The Italian American crime family has loomed large in American consciousness. So I wanted to deconstruct that – and it seemed a very useful narrative device to help structure the entire four-hour series.

The documentary starts with the Roseto effect, which I found very interesting. We don't want to spoil the audience, but could you just give us a very brief sneak preview about that?

Because I decided to structure the film around the theme of family - I thought Roseto was the perfect story to begin with because it's a positive story of Italian American family and that's not what expected. The bonds of family helped Rosetans stay healthy because they focused on family and not individual goals. It runs quite contrary to the American ethos so I thought it was the perfect way to begin thinking about the Italian experience in this country. It's one of my favorite scenes in the whole film.

Another story I didn't know, that moved me very much, was the one about Anthony Margavio and his grandfather ...

Again this was a family story about a man who emigrated to America at the turn of the century to replace freed black slaves cutting sugar cane on southern plantations. This upends our notions about traditional Italian immigration through Ellis Island. Hundreds of thousands of Sicilians came into the port of New Orleans at the turn of the century and I never knew about it. In 1890 eleven Sicilians were lynched and it was one of the first times the term "mafia" began to make its way into the national press. From that point forward most Italians were seen as dark and criminal. I say it was like an albatross around the necks of Italian families for generations.

I enjoyed very much all the four episodes. But I must admit that the one that touched me most was the part called Loyal Americans. What about you? Which is the part that moved you more, and why?

I was very moved by that section but more by the "assimilation" section earlier in Episode II "Becoming Americans". For me it's the very intimate levels of change that come about in trying to assimilation to another country that stay with you the longest – they mark you as different – from what you eat, to the changing of your name, to how you raise your children and the language barrier. These are moments of shame about identity that are more private yet reverberate across generations. You carry these slights with you your whole life – yet they are deeply personal. So much gets lost in becoming an American – and no one ever talks about these small challenges.

Is there an anecdote that happened during the shooting, something that is not in the images that our readers will see that you would want to share with us?

I shot a beautiful scene with a performance artist named Laura Caparrotti performing the monologues of the satirist Farfariello. His act mirrored what was going on in the Italian immigrant community at the turn of century and I thought it was very insightful and a different way to see these early arrivals - but I just couldn't find a way to get into the final film.

Please, tell us something about Maria Laurino's "The Italian Americans: a history", the companion book to your documentary.

I met Maria while making the film. She was a lovely presence and I am very happy that she's the one who wrote the companion book, which basically follows the film chapter by chapter where the film unfolds and goes a little bit further in the last chapters, when it describes the contemporary years. Maria did a wonderful job, and I hope that the book will be translated in Italian, too.

We understand that an educational curriculum will be created from the contents of your documentary ...

Yes, definitely. We and PBS will put together a curriculum, for - I think - middle schools and high schools, and that will be available to them on the internet: so there'll be a big web presence, with a curriculum embedded in the website for teachers who can go and download materials, study guides, books and also other stuff. The hope is to get this into the schools because Italian used to be one of the romance languages they taught at schools, and we hope to help to increase bringing more Italian material in the classroom.

Of course, the part about Mario Cuomo is very interesting and exciting. Do you think that the United States will ever have an Italian American President? And more generally, which changes would you want to see in the Italian American community to be more united, and therefore stronger?

I don't think there is any real barrier to an Italian American becoming president. Giuliani ran and it didn't seem to slow him down – there were other reasons for his loss. I think whoever it is they will be framed by many of the stereotypes that have plagued us in the past but I think since Kennedy was the first catholic president and Obama the first African American, I think an Italian can win.

I think Mario Cuomo would have been a great president - he was a man of great character and an idealist. He typified the immigrant's journey in this country - and I think that would have shaped him into one of our great American Statesmen. Unfortunately I think his "Italianess" held him back in a way. In obvious ways like how he was treated in the press in the run up to his announcement and after - tainted by the stigma of the mafia; but also in small ways like his desire to stay close to home and keep a close and closed inner circle. I'm not sure these same traits would hold back an Italian American from the Presidency today - I'd like to think we've come far enough along into the mainstream, but who knows. It's interesting to contemplate and I thought it was important to examine Cuomo's rise in the film.

As for unifying the community I think it's important to understand our history. And that includes a lot of the hard parts. We must talk about our shared history and embrace it – not run from it. I think much of what has been done in this arena has been too nostalgic. I hope my film will help strip away myth and stereotypes and show a true story. Hopefully that will bring us together.

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