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Italian-American Contributions Highlighted At Campus Conference

Published: November 1, 2016

The 49th Annual Italian American Studies Association (IASA) Conference and a dinner celebrating the 15-year anniversary of the George L. Graziadio Center for Italian Studies will be held at CSULB from Nov. 3-5. This year, the conference is titled “Recorded, Reported, Projected, and Pixelated: Italian Americans in Mass Media.”

The conference and celebration will begin on Thursday, Nov. 3, at 6:30 p.m. in the Karl Anatol Center, with a cocktail reception sponsored by Fordham University Press, followed by a keynote address by author Louisa Ermelino (7-8 p.m.), and a dinner sponsored by Graziadio donor Mark Cangiano (8-10 p.m.). Ermelino will give a talk titled “From Sinatra to Gaga: Seventy Years of Italian Americans Center Stage and Behind the Scenes in Art, Music, Theater, Literature and Sports.” Ermelino has written a trilogy of novels set in Greenwich Village, showcasing the power and influence of women within the Italian-American community. As a journalist, she has worked at People, Time International, and InStyle magazines. She is the Vice President and Reviews Director at Publishers Weekly, and her most recent book is a collection of stories titled Malafemmena from Sarabande Books.

A second keynote address will be given by Pasquale Verdicchio, a professor from UC San Diego. His talk is titled “Italian Americans Represented: The Pleasure of Pixels and the Wisdom of Images” and will take place in the Anatol Center on Friday, Nov. 4, at 6:30 p.m. Verdicchio is a founding member of the Association of Italian Canadian Writers and his translations from Italian to English, and his own poetry, have been published by presses in Canada, the United States and Italy. His most recent publications include This Nothing’s Place, winner of the 2010 Bressani Prize for Poetry, and a translation of Andrea Zanzotto’s Fosfeni (2010).

A number of CSULB faculty and students will be presenting at the conference. Clorinda Donato, Graziadio Chair of Italian Studies and professor of French and Italian in the Department of Romance, German, Russian Languages and Literatures (RGRLL), will present on panels that will discuss the role of Italian American Studies in the American university curriculum. She will also chair a session featuring CSULB English professor Stephen Cooper, the most renowned scholar of Italian-American writer John Fante, and author of Full of Life: A Biography of John Fante. In that same panel a recent CSULB graduate, Megan Meylor, will present the paper “‘Sad Flower in the Sand’: The Figure of Camilla Lopez and Los Angeles’ Mexican Past in John Fante’s Ask the Dust.” Meylor prepared her paper under the guidance of professors Sara Schrank and Cooper. The John Fante session will be held on Saturday, Nov. 5, at 2:30 p.m. in LA 2-105.

Italian Americans share a rich performative and musical tradition, with roots in the Italian homeland. While people fittingly associate opera with Italy and many well-known Italian-American opera singers, Italian-American contributions to other musical genres are less known. On Friday, Nov. 4, CSULB Italian professor Enrico Vettore will give a paper titled “The Italian American Contribution to the Art of Jazz Guitar: Joe Pass and Pat Martino.” This paper will be presented at 8:30 a.m. in LA2-105.

“There were a lot of Italian Americans in Louisiana,” said Donato. “Many Italian-American and African-American musicians collaborated on sounds that, today, we identify as having come out of African-American culture, like Dixieland. The wealth of America is all of these different immigrant groups who came here and became American, but at the same time tried to retain their ethnic identities. Keeping these things alive is extremely important.”

In addition to celebrating their contributions to American culture, the conference will also examine the portrayal of Italian Americans in social media. On Saturday, Nov. 5, at 9 a.m. in LA2-106, Giacomo Sproccati, a graduate student and teaching assistant in RGRLL, will present “Shaping Cultural Identity Through New Media: The Italy-U.S. Case.”

“The media has such a big influence on perceptions of people,” said Donato. “How is your ethnic group portrayed? Is it an accurate portrayal? Is that how you want to be identified and depicted? The variety of media today has added a number of nuances to media portrayals.”

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One of the most notorious media views of Italian Americans has been the construction of the Mafia gangster. Glamorized by famous novels and movies like “The Godfather” series, the image of the Mafia men and their women has become an Italian-American stereotype, although recent examples of Mafia families, like those in the HBO series “The Sopranos,” have opened viewers’ eyes to other facets of the culture.

“’The Sopranos’ showed a gangster culture in evolution. It made viewers rethink their preconceived notions about Mafia culture and the ways in which it affects our views of the Italian Americans as an ethnic group,” said Donato.

The conference isn’t just focused on the portrayal of Italian Americans in new media, however, but also examines historical media. Silvia Stefania, a graduate student and teaching assistant in RGRLL, will speak about Ukrainian American film director Edward Dmytryk’s 1949 film, “Give Us This Day,” based on what is perhaps the most celebrated Italian American novel, Pietro Di Donato’s Christ in Concrete. Her talk, scheduled for Friday, Nov. 4, at 11:30 a.m. in LA2-105 will show how different ethnic groups in America borrowed and blended each other’s stories to represent the immigrant experience in America.

Italian Americans faced a great deal of discrimination when they came to the United States and their experience is comparable to what happens as new groups wage the fight for social justice and equality in the United States today. CSULB’s George L. Graziadio Center for Italian Studies teaches classes that examine the Italian-American experience in a comparative ethnic light.

“By drawing parallels between Italian-American immigrants from the early 1900s and today’s immigrants from Latin America and Asia,” said Donato, “similarities and differences in those experiences and the need to adapt but retain cultural identity find a forum for discussion.”

Stefania and Sproccati are both presenting papers that developed from their coursework in Italian-American Studies at CSULB.

“Dr. Vettore and I are proud of the fact that our students are finding a professional outlet for their scholarship at this conference,” Donato said. “It has been a pleasure to collaborate with Italian American Studies Association President Alan Gravano and his officers. It is a privilege to bring this conference to Southern California where we may showcase the work of local scholars, including Luisa Del Giudice, who will offer a tour of the Watts Towers on Sunday, Nov. 6.” The Watts Towers, built by Italian immigrant Samuele Rodia over a period of 33 years (1921-54), are currently under consideration by the United Nations as a World Heritage Site.

For additional information on the conference, e-mail Graziadio assistant, Manuel Romero, or Donato.