View From Lodi, CA: We're Italians—Enjoy Us While You Can
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In keeping with America's national obsession of celebrating multiculturalism and diversity, I have taken it upon myself to promote Italian-American awareness during October, the month officially designated as Italian-American Heritage Month.

This may be a last-gasp effort to restore Italian-Americans to their deserving place in the chronicles of U.S. history.

Italian-Americans have a hard time getting respect. Say "Italian" to the next ten people you talk to and they'll respond: "Tony Soprano" or " pizza."

Few will say: "Thirty-three Italians died in Iraq, the third highest number of casualties behind the U.S. and the U.K."

Comics like to go for laughs at Italians' expense by making fun of Mafia-speak and accents. Yet in my lifetime I have never known an Italian-American who didn't speak perfect English.

Ten years ago, I tried to give Italian image a boost in a column I wrote for The Record (Stockton, CA.) titled "National Italian Awareness Month: Observe It or Else."

I listed nine Italians who represent the best of our culture. They were Leonardo Da Vinci, Michelangelo, Saint Francis of Assisi, Dante Alighieri, A. P. Giannini, Joe DiMaggio. Marcello Mastroianni/Claudia Cardinale, Guiseppe Verdi and Arturo Toscanni.

And I jokingly added that since Sammy "The Bull" Gravano had approved my list, it was therefore worth taking it seriously.

My column generated a mild interest in Italian heritage. Readers wanted to know: What about Frank Sinatra? Christopher Columbus? Frank Capra? Vince Lombardi? Alfred E. Smith, the first Italian presidential candidate (Alfred Emanuele Ferrara)?, Mother Frances Cabrini? Sofia Scicolone, tragically and unmellifluously renamed Sophia Loren?  

But now, a decade later, I realize we're still fighting for recognition.

I'll be frank: I'm concerned that Italians are slipping off the radar screen. Soon you'll need a field guide to recognize us.

According to the 2000 U.S. Census, we number only 16 million in the U.S. and a mere 1.5 million in California.

The Bronx, the first stop in America made by my immigrant ancestors, is more than half Hispanic with a healthy dose of Asians added: Korean, Chinese, Japanese and Indians.

"Little Italy", the home of Manhattan's largest and longest festival— Feast of San Gennaro—is giving way to cheap electronics outlets and generic mini-marts.

The annual cannoli-eating contest will probably survive. But the clock ticks on.

On the opposite coast, California's two most famous "Little Italies" in San Francisco's North Beach section and in San Diego fight to keep Italian tradition alive.

In a totally unacceptable development that is unfortunately out of my hands, nearly thirty years have passed since an Italian was Pope. From 1523 to 1978, the papacy was the exclusive domain of Italians.

But in 1978, the papacy passed to a Polish interloper, Karol Józef Wojtya, and then again in 2005 to the German Joseph Ratzinger.

For nearly five centuries Italians controlled Rome. But recently it has been in the hands of Eastern Europeans. Some consider this the ultimate insult to Italians.

Italians are even disappearing in Italy. The 2006 CIA World Factbook reports that the population growth rate in Italy is a mere .04 percent with only an average of 1.3 children born to each family.

The largest contributor to Italy's tiny population increase is immigration from South Asia and North Africa.

One day Catholicism may play second fiddle in Italy to Islam. Between 700,000 and one million Muslims live in Italy making Islam the second largest religion in a country of 57 million. [A Rising Tide of Muslims in Italy Puts Pressure on Italian Culture, by Sophie Aries, The Christian Science Monitor, November 10, 2003]

With Muslim birthrates nearly four  times as high as that of Italian's, it will not take long, on the geological time scale, for Italians to completely vanish.

The sands of time may be running out on Italians. Enjoy us while you can.

Joe Guzzardi [email him], an instructor in English at the Lodi Adult School, has been writing a weekly column since 1988. It currently appears in the Lodi News-Sentinel.

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