Italian Heritage Month and What we are Not
October is Italian Heritage Month. A time to celebrate what our heritage means and all the contributions we have made to our great Nation.
We’re lucky. We’ve all heard the saying “there are only two types of people; Italians and people who wish they were Italian.” People who do not share our heritage feel they have a pretty good idea of who we are. However, I would like to kick off this special month highlighting who we are not.
We are not:
- Mobsters depicted in movies like The Godfather or television shows like The Sopranos.
- Fist-pumping guidos depicted in ridiculous shows like Jersey Shore.
- We’re not stupid individuals that can’t properly pronounce “youths.”
- We are not hysterical, screaming women who break dishes.
- And we are certainly. Not. Turtles.
Who are Italian-Americans?
We are a proud people with strong ties to our heritage. We learned to love our country and become Americans with a capital “A.” We gave up our names, our language, and endured discrimination, racial slurs, and violence.
When you think of Italian-Americans, I want you to think of John Basilone. One of 10 children, he dropped out of school to enlist in the Army. After his tour in the Philippines, he reenlisted in the Marines… twice. On the first day of the invasion of Iwo Jima, he was serving as a machine gun section leader on Red Beach II. With his unit pinned down, Basilone made his way around the side of the Japanese positions until he was directly on top of the blockhouse. He then attacked with grenades and demolitions, single-handedly destroying the entire strong point and its defending garrison. He continued to fight alongside service members until the very end. It is believed he was killed by a burst of small arms fire. Basilone was posthumously awarded the Marine Corps’ second-highest decoration for valor, the Navy Cross, for extraordinary heroism during the battle of Iwo Jima.
I also want you to think of Private Joseph Ralph Rotunda Jr., the first soldier from Newark’s Italian-American community to die in World War II. Private Rotunda was killed by a land mine while serving with Cannon Company, 168th Infantry, in Tunisia, Northern Africa, as part of the first invasion forces. He had only been overseas three months. A letter to the family from Secretary of War Henry L. Stimson, informed the family that their son was posthumously awarded the Purple Heart. A plaque and recreational area in Newark was dedicated in his honor in 1966. The dedication stands a testament to his sacrifice, as well as the sacrifices of the countless Italian immigrants and Americans of Italian decent that fought on behalf of their new homeland.
Finally, I want you to think of the great Concetta Rosa Maria Franconero. You may know her as Connie Francis. This favorite daughter of my beloved hometown of Belleville attended Arts High in Newark before transferring to Belleville High School, where she graduated salutatorian of her class in 1955. At the suggestion of Arthur Godfrey, she changed to the “easier to pronounce” famous name the world knows. Concetta’s had many top songs we all know and love. I am particularly fond of Where the Boys Are and her rendition of Mama. She also acted in several movies during her young career. In the late 1960s, Concetta went to Vietnam to sing for the troops. Through the years, she has performed charity work for organizations such as UNICEF, the USO and CARE.
So I hope you will come on this journey with me for the month of October and learn more than what you see on the surface.