Between 1820 and 2004, some 5.5 million Italians immigrated to the United States, making Italian Americans the fourth largest European ethnic group in the country. Today, young people are again leaving Italy in search of opportunities in other lands. As a country of historic – and contemporary -- emigration, Italy is the perfect focal point for discussions of mobility and relocation.
On Monday, February 8, 2015, documentary filmmakers John Maggio and Cristian Piazza joined filmmaker-photographer Michele Petruzziello in “Italians in America: Recent Documentaries and Photographs,” a program presented by The Theresa and Lawrence R. Inserra Chair in Italian and Italian American Studies at Montclair State University with the co-sponsorship of UNICO National, the largest Italian-American association in the United States.
A Dynamic Discussion
“It was a truly beautiful occasion to bring together Italian and Italian American artists to talk about Italian American history and culture in such a dynamic and innovative way to a large audience of students and community members,” says Inserra Chair in Italian and American Studies and Italian professor Dr. Teresa Fiore, who introduced the event.
Emmy Award-winning filmmaker John Maggio wrote and directed the critically acclaimed PBS documentary series The Italian Americans. The 2015 four-hour documentary charts the evolution of Italian American “outsider” immigrants to prominent business, political and cultural leader. He discussed the making of his landmark series as a work with a critical take that counterbalances more nostalgic views. At the same time, it echoes immigrant stories of the past and present.
Cristian Piazza is the founder of the production company, City People Films. His 2015 feature documentary Waiting tells the story of three Italian immigrants in New York City. He shared stories about the interviews included in his film from his own unique perspective as an Italian descendant who immigrated to New York after being raised in Venezuela and Italy.
Michele Petruzziello’s passion for stories of Italian immigration inspired the photographs in “Good Bye My Love,” an award-winning photo exhibit. He noted how the look in the eyes of the immigrants in the historical photos displayed at Ellis Island inspired him to take pictures of contemporary immigrants. They share the same desire for a better life, and sometimes just for a job. Today, as he pointed out, they often relocate alone and may be even more nostalgic than past immigrants.
A spirited conversation moderated by Fiore about Italians in America was complemented by screenings of excerpts from the speakers’ works and selected pieces from by Petruzziello’s photo exhibit, “Good Bye My Love.” Fiore recalls, “It was gratifying to see that our presenters not only shared so many points of convergence on this complex subject but also offered a view of the full arc of Italian mobilities.”
These documentaries and photographs capture ways the contemporary immigration experiences echoes the past. Powerful personal expressions, they speak eloquently to Italian immigrations to the U.S. – and beyond.
A Fresh Perspective on Italian Emigration to the U.S.
“I was very pleased to have been able to attend a program featuring such prominent filmmakers, especially John Maggio, and to hear about decisions he made in selecting materials for The Italian Americans,” says UNICO member Kristine Massari. “I was also happy to view the works of Michele Petruzziello and Cristian Piazza, who are engaged in exploring topics that reflect Italian emigration to the U.S. from new perspectives.”
According to Massari, the discussion provided a unique look at the artistic inspiration, personal experiences and creative process that shaped each of the presenters’ work.
Past UNICO President Joe Agresti applauded the program. “I believe it made very clear to the entire group the impact the immigration of Italians has had on our country,” he says.
An Inclusive Event
“UNICO is an Italian American Service Organization with a long and extensive history of supporting academic advancement of and for Italian Americans,” explains Dr. Marie R. Badaracco-Apolito, President of Montclair’s UNICO Chapter, who attended the event. “It welcomes the opportunity to support the Inserra Chair programs like this. There is much continuing work to be done in this significant area of American history.”
Thanks to the efforts of the Inserra Chair, with the support of UNICO, “Italians in America” was a success. “An event like this is a unique opportunity to bring generations together,” notes Fiore. “The room was full of Italian Americans of all ages who were eager to hear a story from the past that reverberates in the present -- and interestingly resembles the story of immigrants of any era.”