Used, as we are, to study the impact that the American consumer society had on we Italians here in Italy, it is interesting to understand how it influenced our compatriots who had emigrated there in America, and whether and how they have in turn played a role in it.
To do so, we are meeting Prof. Simone Cinotto, author of a very interesting book that analyzes and explains with great care and expertise this theme: another of the many different features to be analyzed, as we always do, about the relationship between Italy and the United States.
Professor Cinotto, your latest book is called "Making Italian America: Consumer Culture and the Production of Ethnic Identities". Please, tell us something about it
Within the study of the experience of Italian emigrants to the United States, many have been successfully dealt with the issues of their approach to the world of work, their communities, the discrimination that they lived, the religious dimension of their family, but very little has been said about their experiences as consumers. It is something that I found rather very important, because the identity of ethnic minorities is also reconstructed through the products they consume, which reflect their lifestyle.
The culture and life of these Italian Americans, although relatively poor and with a low level of education and therefore with little money to spend, has influenced the market itself, as for fashion, or in the movies. It is true that many Italians, through the encounter with the American market, slowly assimilated and were integrated, to indulge in the consumption of products unthinkable for them back in Italy; however, at the same time, they never lost their Italian identity. Indeed, sometimes they even acquired a greater awareness and attachment to their motherland. While Americans thought that spaghetti were the most typical food that every Italian was accustomed to consume, many of these Italians emigrants learned only in New York how to eat and where to find pasta, through a system of consignment from Italy, of course created specifically for them; because in Italy, outside of Naples and Abruzzo, pasta as an industrial product was a very rare food at that time. There were industries in Italy, created just for making pasta, tomatoes and oil to be exported to these Italians abroad: a real and profitable market segment.
In their communities, the idea of expressing their Italian identity above all through consumption of Italian products spread widely, sponsored through radio programs purely dedicated to Italian culture. Consumerism was then one of the processes by which the Italians in America were building their identity.
We have also given great importance to the "transnational process", this continuous circulation between Italy and the United States not only of capital and goods, but also of images and narration: in time this process has been more or less intense, but it has always been present.
The history of consumerism in the XX century, seen in the transatlantic scenery between Europe and the United States, has always placed great emphasis on the export from the United States of productive models of marketing and public relations, until more recently, with the idea of the supermarket and then the fast food. So, basically a process from west to east: Italy and Europe were "Americanized", especially during the Cold War, also in terms of anti-communist strategy, to impose American consumerism. The book tells instead the story of consumerism in the opposite direction, and gives an idea of how it is also true that the Italians have "Italianized" America.
Has the release of your book in Italy already been scheduled, in Italian language?
Unfortunately no, at the moment it has not yet been scheduled, but I would gladly estimate proposals.
We ask you a couple of examples relevant to describe the influence that American society played in the process of integration and change of the Italian and Italian American communities in the twentieth century, and also the other way round, as mentioned before. What are the most important examples of this contamination?
One approach would be the one about fashion. The first chapter of the book talks about the Italian women emigrated to America "producing clothes Prêt-à-Porter "- a purely American invention on clothes made on a mass scale with very low cost compared to traditional tailoring, which could then be purchased by a multitude of people. The Italian American women did not benefit from this innovation just because they found a way to use and show their great manual skills, or because it brought them a a job with an income; but also because it allowed them to change their appearance, also contributing to create a defined ethnic identity.
Another chapter talks about men's clothing: the Italian haute couture - many Italian immigrants were tailors – found in the United States its first "official showcase" as makers of quality and luxury products that not everyone could afford. It was the introduction to the great success of the great Italian designers that arrived when, thanks to a great marketing strategy of the Italian industry, the products of the Italian fashion system will enter the great American distribution, just as we have seen before for pasta, oil and tomatoes.
Surely the American society has therefore influenced the Italian American community, by inculcating the idea of consumerism in the minds of the Italians who back in Italy had no disposable income, and therefore did not even know this approach: starting from the simple running water, which was a novelty for immigrants from Southern Italy. Many of the social ideals that immigrants had were those of a classic peasant: their starting point was the idea of earning, consume very little and send the rest of the money to their family in Italy. But slowly, as the years passed and their integration increased, their identity turned to be a mix of American and Italian elements. For example, they kept alive the social desire to become home owners, which is typically Italian, while for example the Jewish immigrants continued to rent the houses where they lived, investing in other.
In the 70s-80s of the XX century, even the cuisine takes a full review of the imagination of Italy as a place of good taste, and of course this will be a benefit both for Italian Americans and for the entire Italian system. It was New York, in particular, the place where all these processes advanced more: a continuous interaction between Italy and the United States.
Some of the companies founded by the Italian Americans have been very successful, but few, or maybe none of them, have particularly taken advantage from, or openly marketed of, being - somehow - Italian: maybe not "Made in Italy", but "Made in America by an Italian". Am I wrong? What do you think?
This relationship has been historically complicated. In the part of the book devoted to food, we examine these aspects. Consider the debate on the so-called indications of origin, about which the European Union is very upset, trying to combat the falsification of the original products, especially in recent years when the food is now conceived as a synonym for culture: but this is actually not recent, it is very old for the Italian American system, which already existed in the early years of the twentieth century. Fascism greatly exports from Italy to America: but in the same moment - for example - the Italian Americans who produced tomato in California were putting on their labels the Italian peasant in a field with a handkerchief on his head, and took advantage of their Italian character to sell a product made in the United States, with great scorn of the Italian producers, who paid huge taxes to export their original Italian product in America. We are not just talking about tomato: at the time on the American shelves you could find products like "Garibaldi tuna" or "Dante Alighieri anchovies", all made in the US by Italian Americans who were clearly the forerunners of what today is called "Italian sounding" .
In many other respects, however, there was an interaction, a collaboration between Italians and Italian Americans. Think of Lidia Bastianich, who - among other things – came to America as a refugee from Istria. She began working in an Italian American restaurant, and only after she decided to search for the Italian culinary culture (and she had a completely different profile from that of the typical southern Italian immigrant male), recovering a wealth of gastronomic heritage and reinventing the Italian kitchen in America, restoring its right dimension.
It means something, that the food sector is the only one which comes to mind. Right?
A real business was built on "being Italian": the entrepreneur per se, how many times he was going back and forth from Italy, how much the Italian culture and way of life could be read through Maybe there isn't the big example of the great Italian American company that clearly took advantage of its being Italian, using it as a definitive marketing tool: but there are several minor examples that did it.
In the after war the American consumer culture entered slowly but steadily into the homes and habits of the Italians here in the peninsula, making happy millions of Italians. Was this powerful influence perceived by the Italian Americans? And what role did they have, if they had one, in the diffusion of this contents and this lifestyle?
After the war, when Italy is poised between the Atlantic camp, democratic and capitalist, and communism, Italian Americans act with a massive campaign, sending letters and money to their relatives in Italy to explain them how positive is the world of consumerism in America, that they too could aspire to, choosing democracy. This gesture is intended to show all the patriotism of the Italian Americans: the younger generations highly appreciate consumerism and they see its positive aspects, and they absolutely want the same to be available for those who live in their country of origin.
So this alleged offensive of colonizing consumerism, that some in Italy described as if America had aggressively invaded Italy, was not perceived this way by the Italian Americans?
No, not at all. The (Italian) American dream, either to be able to buy a house or a car, was the point of making all the efforts that immigrants had done, winning the discrimination that pictured them as different and unable to integrate. Many Italian Americans have preferred to enjoy this prosperity that America gave them, and in doing so they never imagined that the offer to export this model in Italy could be perceived as something wrong.
About consumerism and American models approach, we're very intrigued by the story of Mike Bongiorno. While in Italy the benefits of the consumer society and its actual main media instrument, television, were literally embodied by an Italian American, it seems that in the United States almost no one knew of him, and neither does now. In your opinion, what is the reason for this?
I could not give a specific reason, maybe there just isn't one. Mike Bongiorno has personified in an extraordinary way the concept of the exportation of the American model in Italy: he took the American television format, with its unique American style and language, and has been able to adapt it to a very different country like Italy was at that time, not only following its big changes, but somehow influencing them. It is true, it's very strange that he was not known by Italian Americans: because they could, if properly informed of this phenomenon, found in him an example and a character from whom certainly feel well represented.
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