I’m concluding a Coursera course entitled "Latino Popular Culture for the Clueless." The instructors, Frederick Luis Aldama and Paloma Martinez-Cruz, are from Ohio State University and they're really fantastic. Aldama has written over a dozen books, many of them in the collection of the library where I work.
To sensitize us to ways that Latinos are stereotyped in the media, the instructors have us doing assignments about stereotypes of our own ethnic background. The last assignment was a “hypertype” -- in other words, a super souped-up stereotype. We had a choice of submitting an image, a poem, or a sound file. So I put together clips of stereotypical Italian songs. Ironically, some of them are sung by Italian-American singers, like Louis Prima and Joe Dolce (who emigrated to Australia). We had to write an essay too, talking about how the elements of the hypertype express our identity and also our “otherness” with respect to the dominant culture.
I also learned about the website soundcloud.com, where you can upload sound files and also search and download others.
While I've learned a lot about Latino pop culture, this course has really been an opportunity for me to spend time reflecting on my own feelings and relationship to my own Italian-American culture ...reflections that I've avoided for quite a while, as some of the experiences are painful. There are Italian-American writers whose works I've also bypassed for the same reason. However I now feel ready to approach them without fear.
Track 1 - Tarantella - traditional
Track 2 - Where Do You Work-a, John? sung by Louis Prima
Track 3 - Shaddup-a You Face - Sung by Joe Dolce
Track 4 - That's Amore - Sung by Dean Martin
Track 5 - C'e la luna mezz 'u mar - Sung by Jimmy
Track 6 - Theme from film The Godfather - composer: Nino Rota
Track 7 - La Bohème, Act 2 Finale - composer: Giacomo Puccini
The Italian immigrants that came to America at the end of the nineteenth century originated principally from the regions of Abruzzo, Molise, Campagna, Basilicata, Apulia, and Calabria, located in central and southern Italy, as well as Sicily. My maternal great-grandmother came from the town of La Fara San Martino, a town in Abruzzo known for the De Cecco pasta factory. My father's family came from this region as well.
This hit parade is an expression of that is often a love-hate relationship with my Italian heritage. The hit parade starts, of course, with a traditional tarantella. Track 2 (with echos of the tarantella in its introduction) and Track 3 hold a great sense of identity for me, as they remind me of my great-aunts and uncles who spoke English with a strong Abruzzese accent. I have my doubts about the affections of Tin Pan Alley composer Harry Warren who wrote “Where Do You Work-a, John?” And the scolding Italian mamma is --well-- something I know too well. So I sort of feel that it exposes family secrets to the greater public. However, when sung by Louis Prima and Lou Monte, songs like these strike me as inside jokes. Children of immigrants, these performers felt secure enough in their American identity that they could laugh affectionately both at and with their elders.
On the other hand, I feel the “otherness” in the memory of the menial jobs Italian immigrants held when they came to this country, and I think of Latinos currently supporting themselves and their families at low-wage jobs. My grandmother and her sisters and brothers worked in the garment factories of Philadelphia. They did piece work, and my grandmother told me how she would limit her trips to the bathroom so as not to miss the next shirt coming down the assembly line. While I have fond memories of their accented English, I also know that it is a stereotype evoking lack of education and a lower socioeconomic status. Dr. Aldama reminds us that Latinos do not all come from Mexico or Puerto Rico, but from other countries of Central and South America as well. Many Americans also do not realize that Italians who have emigrated more recently come from the northern regions and have a very different accent when speaking English.
“That’s Amore” (Track 4) evokes the Italy of romance and the stereotype of the great Italian lovers, like the Latin lovers mentioned in one of last week’s videos. Dean Martin, of course, projected this stereotype, as did Rudolph Valentino, Rossano Brazzi, and Marcello Mastroianni. By the way, take a moment to savor the mandolin and the tambourines –the stereotypical Italian instruments-- in “That’s Amore.” “C’è la luna mezz ‘u mare” (Track 5) is sung in Sicilian dialect. I found many interpretations on the Internet, but I liked this one the best, although I have no idea who the singer “Jimmy” is. This song is sung in one of the early scenes of the film The Godfather and is associated with Italian weddings, although few people know that it is full of double entendres. My grandmother, who learned to understand many Italian dialects while working in the garment factory, told me that “it was fun” when this song came out. The lyrics are a conversation between a mother and daughter. The moon is full and shimmering on the surface of the sea (c’e la luna mezz ‘u mare), and the girl is feeling romantic. She tells her mother she wants to get married and her mother starts to tick off various suitors... commenting on the sexual appetite of each. The reality is that the Italian immigrant milieu of my grandmother’s time was very strict and sex was not a subject of polite conversation. This song was fun because everyone got the double meanings and could share a knowing laugh.
Track 6, the theme from The Godfather. This is the most difficult song for me to discuss. I abhor the stereotype of the Italian as Mafioso, an image similar –perhaps—to the bandido, as described by Dr. Martinez-Cruz. I have seen only the first film of the Godfather trilogy. While I must acknowledge Coppola’s cinematic talents, I am appalled that there are Italian-Americans who find the Mafia a source of pride. I have not bought into the dynasty of Mafioso products spawned by the Coppola series, nor have I watched a single episode of the TV series The Sopranos. (OK, end of rant.)
Giacomo Puccini hailed from Torre del Lago in Tuscany, not my family’s place of origin. However, my first exposure to Italian opera was through 78-rpm Victrola recordings that belonged to my grandfather, and it was love from the first scratchy earful. Since La Bohème is my favorite work, I thought I’d bring this love-hate hit parade to a close with the rousing Act II finale.
I'm grateful for the insights I've acquired in this course. Learning the meaning behind the Dia de los Muertes and the Quinceañera celebrations has helped me understand and appreciate the lived experience of Latinos/as.
Grazie for listening and reading!
"C’è la luna mezz ‘u mare.” (Traditional). Sung by Jimmy. mp3
Dolce, Joe. “Shaddup-a You Face.” mp3
“Harry Warren.” Wikipedia. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Harry_Warren
“Napoletana Tarantella.” (Traditional). mp3 http://www.sicilianculture.com/folklore/tarantella.htm
Puccini, Giacomo. Act II, Finale. La Bohème. Thomas Schippers, Conductor. Opera d’Oro, OPD-1143.
1969, reissued 1998. CD
Rota, Nino. Theme from The Godfather, 1972. mp3
Warren, Harry. Lyrics by Jack Brooks. “That’s Amore.” Sung by Dean Martin. mp3
Downloaded from Amazon
__________. “Where Do You Work-a, John?” Sung by Louis Prima. The Wildest 75. mp3 downloaded