by Tommi Avicolli Mecca

Tommi Avicolli Mecca

Tommi Avicolli Mecca
San Francisco, California, US
July 25
I am a writer, performer and activist, editor of Smash the Church, Smash the State: the early years of gay liberation (City Lights), and co-editor of Avanti Popolo: Italian-American Writers Sail Beyond Columbus and Hey Paesan: Writings by Italian American Lesbians and Gay Men. To view my creative stuff:


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MARCH 11, 2012 4:24PM

Santorum: the new Mussolini

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Republican presidential-hopeful Rick Santorum is unfortunately what many people these days expect Italian/Americans to be. Ultra conservative. Maybe not as nutty conservative as he is, but definitely leaning to the right of the political spectrum. It’s funny because Italian/Americans didn’t always used to be associated with Tea Party-type values.  


Santorum’s family didn’t used to be, either. In fact, his famiglia in Italia has been hard-core Communist for generations. Consider the humble coal miner grandfather that Santorum talks so much about. Pietro Santorum was a Communist who only lived in the U.S. long enough to escape the clutches of Italy’s premiere fascist, Benito Mussolini, someone his grandson’s politics are more in line with. 


A relative of Santorum recently told the Italian weekly newspaper Oggi: “He (Santorum’s grandfather) was anti-fascist to the extreme, and the political climate in 1925 was stifling so he left for America.”


Pietro Santorum must have felt right at home in the America of a century ago. At that time, many Italian and Sicilian immigrants were involved with the labor strikes that were happening throughout the country. They were communists, anarchists and socialists. They saw the discrimination they suffered ("No Italian Need Apply" notices in shop windows, lynchings in the South, etc.) as part of the injustices many groups were experiencing. They were anti-church and anti-capitalism. They believed in a world in which workers would receive a fair pay, work five days a week instead of seven, and not be forced to labor in a sweat shop when they were children.


Some of those sovversivi (subversives), as they were called, were still teens. When Camella Teoli was 14 years old, she testified before Congress about the terrible conditions she endured in a textile mill in Massachusetts. Her scalp was literally cut off when her hair got caught in a machine she operated. Her testimony helped workers at the mills earn a 5% raise.


Two years after Santorum’s grandfather arrived, two Italian anarchists, Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti, were executed for a murder that they probably didn’t commit. During their trial, the judge referred to them as “dagos,” a derogatory term for Italians. Though someone else eventually confessed to the killing, the men were still executed in 1927.


Santorum’s grandfather would have been around when Vito Marcantonio, a Republican turned American Labor Party member, was first elected to Congress, representing a district that included East Harlem, then a heavily Puerto Rican and Italian neighborhood. Marcantonio, who spoke both Italian and Spanish, formed a coalition between Italians and Puerto Ricans.


Marcantonio spoke out for civil rights legislation at a time when it wasn’t popular. He fought for anti-lynching laws, and spoke out against the House Un-American Activities Committee and American imperialism. 


So how did Italian Americans go from working-class heroes to right-wing nut jobs? That’s a longer discussion for another time. Suffice it to say that the price of assimilation into the American “Dream” is always a loss of one’s identity.


For Italian Americans, it’s been a loss of an identity that served us well 100 years ago. Our fight with labor and for human rights put us on the right side of history.


With Santorum and his ilk, we merely look like the crazy wops we were always made out to be.



Check out my contribution to the City Lights blog. I will be a regular contributor there.  


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Toritto, I read the piece when you put it up, I'm glad that at least two of us know our's so sad what happened to our paesans, maybe there will be a revival of interest in Italian American radicalism someday...
Maybe it came about from trying too hard to assimilate; each generation reacting to the strife that they witnessed their parents being subjected to. Keep telling the history.
It's about time someone told it like it is.