Maria Laurino has been concerned with stereotypes for years. Once, when writing for the New York Times, she had the temerity to ask Sopranos' creator David Chase if he ever thought about writing a character like Tony Soprano that wasn't in the Mafia.
"If you look at films, it's either ‘The Don' or 'The Dimwit,’ the Mafia stereotype or the John Travolta-type—and I think both of those things have haunted us for decades," Laurino says.
The forthcoming PBSseries The Italian Americans: A History, along with the writer’s companion book, could help finally put those stale ghosts to rest, however. Both take a fresh look at some very un-Tony-like Italian-American figures, and how they managed to positively impact American society while continuing to embrace their deeply held Italian heritage.
One of those formidable figures, former New York State Governor Mario Cuomo, represents a particularly fascinating personality for Laurino, partly because of the way the man was able to take family-centric values that the rest of the nation often misinterpreted as “clannishness,” and retooled them into a winning political philosophy that cast the entire state as one big family.
“Mario Cuomo has always been an intriguing figure to me because he was one of the first Southern Italian politicians to also think about these issues,” says Laurino, who is a part-time assistant to New York Governor (and Mario’s son) Andrew Cuomo. “He took the notion of the Italian-American family and put a positive spin on it.”
As a middle manager in the Allied Chemical Company, Laurino’s own father was possibly the furthest thing from the rough and tumble “Tony Soprano” stereotype. The Laurino family grew up placidly in a “WASPy” suburb in New Jersey. Still, none of that could spare young Maria, who teaches creative nonfiction at New York University, from running headlong into the baggage that started with the “Black Hand” and ended with organized crime in America.
“I went to Georgetown University, and I remember friends of mine seeing an Italian-American with money and thinking, ‘Mafia.’ That kind of stuff lasted far longer then it should have,” she says.
Of course, as Laurino discovered during her research, Italian-Americans have had far more to overcome than the cartoonish gangster images perpetuated by Hollywood writers. In addition to real cultural divides like the one that cast a distrustful eye on compulsory education outside the home, Italian emigres to America also had to contend with the fallout from Sacco and Vanzetti in the ‘20s, and Benito Mussolini later in the ‘40s.
Anarchists, fascists, mobsters—Laurino found that despite the positive influence of powerhouses like Florence Scala and Fiorello La Guardia, hard-working Italian-American families have had to struggle against negative branding for a very long time.
“Italian-Americans were put in that tumult of history in such a profound way—especially because of the war,” Laurino says. “How could this not shape you, or how you think about yourself? Culturally, you feel the baggage of the past for many years. It takes many generations to overcome that.”
Given enough time, however, even the ghosts of godfathers and guidos past will lose their ability to influence the present.
Although stigmatized as a youth because of her Italian-American heritage, Laurino says that negative stereotypes have no power over her own 17-year-old boy.
“For him, it's just a joke,” Laurino says. “His life was not affected by it. But you look at someone like Mario Cuomo, and his generation was affected by it. My son's generation is not. I think that these stereotypes are going to dissipate, because it's just too far away.”
Indeed, after enduring so much stigma, Laurino believes that Italian-Americans are finally in “a good place.
“It's a time where we're really coming into our own,” the author says. “A friend of mine says this is a turning point in how Italian-Americans are perceived in the United States. That's what I'm hoping the reaction to the book and the documentary will be. And I hope Italian-Americans can understand themselves better.”
In finding the universal in the personal, Laurino also hopes that other ethnic groups fighting to overcome blanket mischaracterizations, while also balancing their desire to be “American” with the pull of cultural roots, can learn something from the Italian-American experience.
“I think that all immigrants go through that,” she says. “Every kid wants to fit in, but when you get older, you want to distinguish yourself. And culture becomes an extremely important source of identity.”
Joe Maniscalco is a writer living in New York