Robert J. DiBiase (Chairman of the New Jersey Italian Heritage Commission)

Gli Italiani del New Jersey: orgoglio, dedizione e passione per l'Italia

Oct 08, 2018 1366 ITA ENG

Sometimes I’m lucky to meet great Italian Americans spread all over the country, who show their passion about Italy, their commitment about celebrating and representing the Italian American community, their loyalty to both the nations they belong to, America and Italy.

Today we have with us one of these fine gentlemen, Robert J. DiBiase. Bob is the Chairman of the New Jersey Italian Heritage Commission and, I’m honored to be able to say it, a friend of mine and of We the Italians’. Thanks Bob for all you have done and continue to do to promote Italy in the Garden State

Bob, you are the Chairman of the New Jersey Italian Heritage Commission (NJIHC). Please tell us something about this institution

The New Jersey Italian Heritage Commission is a permanent, State-level Commission that was signed into law in January 2002. It was founded as the “New Jersey Commission on Italian and Americans of Italian Heritage Cultural and Educational Programs.” 

It is the policy of the State of New Jersey that the culture, history and heritage of Italians and Americans of Italian Heritage are a proper concern for all people, particularly students enrolled in the schools of this State. It is desirable to educate our citizens about the positive aspects of the culture, music, art, language, history and heritage of Italians and Americans of Italian Heritage. 

Education is essential for your Commission: please tell us about the Italian Heritage Curriculum

One of our committees is Curriculum Development, Chaired by Cav. Gilda Rorro Baldassari, Ed.D. Also assisting in this development is our Board of Academic Advisors, professors and teachers from schools and Universities from across the state. They have developed a Curriculum Infusion Model whereby Italian and Italian American lesson plans are integrated into existing curricula K-12. 

We have had a distinct advantage in disseminating our materials because these lessons have been developed in consultation with the New Jersey Department of Education. They are carefully designed and thoroughly tested, beyond question and are relevant to all students. The Curriculum is available online for ongoing input, expansion, and review. You will find the Universality of Italian Heritage to be an educationally stimulating and rewarding experience for teachers, students, and, indeed, the entire community.

How many associations/groups/institutions are gathered under the umbrella of the Commission? Who and where are they?

There are hundreds and hundreds of organizations throughout our State of NJ, named by their geography, service, cultural, religious connotation, etc., including dozens of UNICO, Sons of Italy, American Society of the Italian Legions of Merit, the Coccia Foundation, Knights of Columbus organizations. Our founding members advanced the idea and promoted the need for a commission to help facilitate and promote efforts of these great organizations.  We continue to advance our cause through educational conferences and networking events. In fact our annual summit on Italian Studies is scheduled for October 28th at Rutgers University in New Brunswick. For further information go to http://www.NJItalianHeritage.org

What’s the story of the Italian emigration to New Jersey?

Italians make up the largest single ethnic group in New Jersey. Most migrated from Southern Italy. There were jobs in factories in our major NJ cities and in the 1890’s we were experiencing the American Industrial revolution. A surprising statistic though, a majority of workers didn’t go into the garment trades or construction of churches and public buildings; no, they found their way to Atlantic County where they worked the farms. By the 1930s, Italian agrarian colonies were present in Vineland, Hammonton, and Woolwich. In each area where Italians were present, smaller regional communities existed, with “paesani” from one area or village would settle together for social or economic security. I must admit the above insight was taken directly from one of our “Curriculum lessons” on Immigration. I did so unashamedly in hopes it will make our readers eager to read more lessons on our website!

What was the eventual outcome of the fate of Italians in New Jersey?

I am proud to say in every walk of life, in every industry and profession, we as Italians/Italian Americans have flourished and prospered to the highest levels of leadership and community involvement. We have and continue to be a productive people, still advancing while giving back to our communities. We are cognizant of the struggles that our parents endured and what they have bestowed on us, faith, hope and charity and remembering a sprinkling of hard work goes a long way!   

Oftentimes the Italians in New Jersey have been targeted with stereotypes and discrimination. Has the Commission addressed this problem?

We face an uphill battle counteracting the stereotypical depictions of Italians by Hollywood/HBO, because in doing so, it generates huge profits denigrating Italians under the guise of “entertainment.” No other ethnicity tolerates this defamation. And of course, as a group, we generally have the attitude we don’t want to make waves! It is inspiring though to see organizations such as the “Italian American One Voice Coalition” fight against such bigotry and offenses.

The Commission works with teachers (Italian Heritage Curriculum) and other leading organizations to support positive representations of Italian and Italian Americans, their achievements and contributions. The Commission's primary focus is on educating and inspiring the next generation. We also encourage our community to support our local newspapers, The Italian Tribune and The Italian Voice with articles and letters to the editor giving compliments or criticism where deserved.

What if we ask you what are the historical places and people that as well as your local newspapers better represent Italy in New Jersey?

As for representation of Italy in our community, the Italian Tribune has been exceptional beyond all expectations. They have published topics in series, i.e., the Italian auto industry, UNESCO Historical sites in Italy, Famous Italian Women who made a difference, Italian government, describing in detail places to visit in Italy, columns on Italian grammar, comedy, citizenship, current events, etc.  Also, the Italian Voice can be found at Italian organization meetings and events followed by the most accurate coverage of the activities. We as commissioners have come to rely on the “Voice” to publicize views, opinions, and organization changes and publishing articles along with partnering in our Italian Communities of NJ.

If you were to search the web for “historical people and places” of New Jersey you will be quite busy reading about a population of Italians (close to 2 million out of 8 million total). You probably would start with all of the cities that have a “Little Italy” section and work your way through the many parks, monuments and roadways named in honor of Italians. From my hometown area of the “First Ward” in Newark to the southern counties and towns, passing the many churches and statues erected by the hands of Italians and all, celebrating feast days along the way! There are 49 towns in NJ with a population of more than 25% of the population having Italian Heritage.

Now if you wanted to list and name the countless people who represented our culture and heritage with the dignity we have come to expect, well another web search would list pages and pages describing Italians and Italian Americans who are prominent in every walk of life.  

There’s literally dozens of Italian Festivals in New Jersey. Which is the one you feel more attached to?

We have many festivals throughout our area. Some sponsored by the Church or an Italian organization that attracts people from town to town. I have enjoyed many over the years and I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the biggest Italian celebration in New Jersey facilitated by Cav. John Scarpati. His Mercer County Italian-American Festival Association produces a magnificent multi-day feast celebrating Christopher Columbus and our Italian heritage and culture.

Another multi-day celebration-recognizing Columbus is the Seaside Heights Columbus Day Parade sponsored by the many Italian organizations of Ocean County and Chairman, Michael Blandina’s Columbus Day Parade Committee. And this is just to name a few.

A few years ago the Italian Government repositioned their Consulate locations in your area. What can Italy do to be more present or assist in New Jersey?

The Italian government has Consular Correspondents in New Jersey assisting in our needs and providing interactions with Italy. Our previous Chair Gilda Rorro Baldassari and Commissioner Mario Marano were correspondents. I reside in the area administered by the Philadelphia Consulate. The Honorable Pier Forlano, Consul General of Italy in Philadelphia is always available and aiding our efforts representing Italy. And likewise in our northern area of the state administered by The Honorable Francesco Genuardi, Consul General. 

One topic of discussion that frequently arises with our constituents is Italian Dual Citizenship. We are familiar with the process and the inner workings of qualifying. What is perplexing is knowing the situation in Italy, both politically and economically and yet the “red” tape allowing Italian Americans seeking the link with our Italian Heritage is made to be incredibly difficult. We aren’t seeking benefits of any kind but offer benefits that other groups seeking citizenship could not possibly offer. We are Italy’s children seeking to wear the “Purple Stripe”. 

With Columbus Day approaching there seems to be a divide. What was a reverent celebration seems now to become an openly adverse criticisms. Why is this happening?

We have scholars on both sides of the Columbus issue. The criticism of Columbus is attributed to what I say is a movement of like-minded groups who are attacking our Italian Culture and Heritage and using modern day standards applied to what they think the Fifteenth century should have been!  Couple this thinking with inaccuracies, myths, details written many years after an occurrence and general misconceptions about Christopher Columbus and you have a undertaking to discredit and remove the once revered image of a great man. 

During any discussion the other side will never attribute the inconceivable accomplishments of the Navigator of the Seas! Some school systems and a few politicians are caving in to the side of ignorance. They want to revise history and remove statutes and the name of Columbus. We, as Italian Americans will continue to join all Americans and observe a “National American Holiday” celebrating Columbus! We will continue the struggle to educate and support all efforts to preserve what Cristopher Columbus has always been celebrated for, an Italian explorer, navigator, colonist who completed four voyages across the Atlantic Ocean spreading Catholism and a symbol of Italian heritage and accomplishment.

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