Since 2010, Dr. Simonini has been Assistant Professor of Italian at Youngstown State University (YSU). She is a frequent writer and conference presenter on Italian American Studies. Recently, she assumed the position of editor of the journal Italian Americana, whose most recent issue will be published by YSU.
LG: It’s a real pleasure to hear from someone like yourself, who not only teaches Italian at the University, but who also studies and publishes about the experience of Italian Americans. To begin, I think our readers would like to learn something of your background.
CS: I’m Italian American on both sides of my family. I grew up in Providence, RI. My last name, Simonini, is Tuscan. My dad is very proud of his Tuscan roots. His family was among the first 12 families from Italy to settle in Providence. That part of my family came very early, around the 1870s. They stayed in an area that became Providence’s Little Italy, Federal Hill. My maternal side came from the Lazio, Abruzzo, and Campania regions in central and southern Italy—areas where 80% of Italian Americans trace their roots.
LG: What was the magnet that drew Italians to your hometown?
CS: It was mills and industries; primarily textiles, machine tools, and jewelry. In addition to doing piecework, more skilled Italian immigrants worked designing costume jewelry (a few of my relatives amongst them). The workshops of Brown and Sharpe, tool builders, drew many immigrants to Providence. Newcomers to Rhode Island didn’t come through Ellis Island. The French passenger line, the Fabre Line, stopped in Genoa, Naples, Marseille, and then Portugal and the Azores before arriving at the Port of Boston. So Italians arrived in Providence right alongside Portuguese immigrants.
LG: What are some of your impressions of our local Italian American community?
CS: It’s been great for me to get to know this community. As someone from the Northeast, I didn’t know there was such a strong Italian American presence in Ohio. I was amazed when I was given a tour of the YSU campus. There were so many Italian names attached to buildings and programs! Italians have had such an important role in creating Youngstown. This was new to me. Even in Italian American studies the focus is so skewed toward NYC and large urban centers. These smaller places not on either coast get overlooked. That’s why I’m excited to be in Youngstown. It’s the reason I chose to reprint in Italian Americana Doctors Pallante and DeBlasio’s article on the distinct history of this region’s Italian heritage.
LG: What is the Italian Language program like at YSU?
CS: It’s small and vibrant. In the State System of Ohio, ours is one of only two Italian programs offering a major in the language. Our existence is important since most of the teachers of Italian in this area came through YSU. We train teachers, but we also do a lot with culture and literature. I started a fully accredited study abroad program, a four-week immersion experience. It begins this May in Northern Italy and continues to Cefalù in Sicily. It’s all in Italian, very intensive, and includes many excursions.
LG: You’ve recently taught American Studies at YSU.
CS: I’m trying to start a minor in Italian American Studies. In an experimental course in U.S. cultural studies, I presented the Italian American experience as a metaphor for understanding migration and immigration in the U.S. Scratch the surface and every one of us, except Native Americans, has an immigration or migration story in our history. There were 40 students in that class, an amazing cross-section of all different backgrounds. My assignments had them research their own immigration story, an eye opener for many of them. African Americans have an internal migration story from the same period when Italians were arriving and both groups left an impoverished agricultural society. Asian American, Puerto Rican and other students in the class made important connections, too. It went well. I hope to teach it again. The other course I taught was Italian American Literature.
LG: Your work is a great resource for our community.
CS: Thank you. With the many positive responses I’ve gotten from these two courses, I’d like to create a Center for Italian American Studies, right here in Youngstown. We have the Center for Judaic and Holocaust Studies at YSU, which can be a model for what can be done. As a plus, the journal that I edit, Italian Americana: Cultural and Historical Review, will be published semiannually here at YSU.
LG: Congratulations on your new position as editor of Italian Americana. How old is the publication? What is its history?
CS: It’s the oldest academic journal dedicated to the Italian experience in North America. Richard Gambino, author of “Blood of My Blood,” was one of the founders. The journal began in the early 1970s at an important period of U.S. history. Let me explain. For Italians, we’ve had two waves of immigration. The first ended with the Johnson-Reed Act of 1924 that virtually closed immigration to Italians and others. In the face of much hostility, the first group of arrivals, mostly coming from Southern Italy, focused on assimilating and wanting to be accepted and brought into the fold of mainstream America.
LG: This was certainly true in the Greater Mahoning Valley.
CS: The Second World War was a turning point. Millions of men were needed in the war effort. So the political climate changed dramatically from one of hostility to immigrants to one of acceptance. The discrimination that was so pronounced in the 1920s and 1930s just didn’t fit the nation’s goal of building unity and mobilizing for the war effort. Italian Americans enlisted in really large numbers, proud to serve the adopted country of their parents.
LG: The WWII experience led Italian Americans to feel successfully assimilated. I can remember the 1950s term “the melting pot.”
CS: Yes, coming out of WWII, the Italian American community of that generation was assimilationist. Then into the 1960s and 1970s, there was another shift, one that led to a change of attitudes within the Italian American community and the birth of studies and publications focused on our history and culture.
LG: Please elaborate.
CS: It happened this way. The U.S. Civil Rights Movement’s emphasis on ethnic pride and heritage influenced Italian Americans to reassess their own identity. This coincided with the arrival of immigrants from Latin America and other parts of the world who demonstrated that it was possible to be a U.S. citizen and, at the same time, preserve a sense of one’s own cultural legacy. “Yes, we want to be Americans, but that doesn’t mean we have to renounce what we’re all about. Look at all the politicization and ethnic pride coming out of the Civil Rights movement. Let’s take a look at the Italian American experience in a meaningful, critical, and scholarly way.” Italian Americana was created to fulfill that need. On university campuses there began to be initiatives for the study of race, gender and ethnicity. It makes a big difference if your history is part of the curriculum. It engenders a lot of respect.
LG: What topics does Italian Americana cover?
CS: We publish historical studies, memoir, fiction, poetry, music, visual arts, film, people exploring the culture; anything that has to do with the Italian American experience. We have a very well regarded staff at the journal that is keen to find new talent. So the publication, which goes all over the U.S. and to 11 countries, is a resource for upcoming writers and poets. Italian Americana is a forum where you can get your first break in publishing.
LG: Can you let us in on some of the articles that will appear in the next issue of Italian Americana?
CS: The August issue will have book reviews, a memoir, a creative non-fiction piece, poetry, and the personal stories of instructors who have introduced Italian American Studies into the curriculum. It will have scholarly pieces, but also articles for a general readership.
LG: How can our readers subscribe?
CS: To request or renew a subscription, please forward a $20 check payable to Youngstown State University to Prof. Carla A. Simonini: Department of Foreign Languages and Literatures, Youngstown State University, One University Plaza, Youngstown, OH 44555
LG: Thank you so much. I really enjoyed learning about your work in our community.
CS: You’re welcome. I’m delighted to have chosen to teach in Youngstown.