BLOG: On the transnational uses of oral history archives: The Bronx Italian American History Initiative by Kathleen LaPenta

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On the transnational uses of oral history archives: The Bronx Italian American History Initiative 

Kathleen La Penta (Fordham University)


Dr. Jacqueline Reich and I are the co-principal investigators for The Bronx Italian American History Initiative (BIAHI, for short), an oral history project founded in 2016 and based at Fordham University in the Bronx. As scholars of modern Italian Studies and as practitioners of oral histories, our work converges ideas of cultural exchange that inhere in transnational approaches to modern Italy and in interpretations of oral histories. The transnational turn in Italian Cultural Studies urges scholars to think across disciplinary, geopolitical and mono ethno-linguistic borders and to examine modern Italian cultural outputs from within the frameworks of global systems and human mobilities. Seminal work by Luisa Passerini and Alessandro Portelli in oral history has similarly shifted the focus from content to processes, or rather, from what narrators say to how they say it, and has thus laid the groundwork for studying how meaning-making unfolds in the encounters that oral history interviews bring about. This post focuses on how the BIAHI contributes to a broadening of the field of Italian Studies through our open-access, searchable database of oral histories and through our interdisciplinary work that examines the intergenerational transmission, production and circulation of Italian culture in communities of the diaspora. I aim to highlight the potential ways in which oral histories and the interviews in the BIAHI archive constitute exceptional resources for scholars and teachers of Transnational Italian Studies.

The archive of the Bronx Italian American History Initiative, available at Fordham University’s Digital Collections, houses 37 video oral history interviews, which Dr. Reich and I conducted between 2017 and 2019 with Italian and Italian American residents of the Bronx.

Graciously shared by narrators and expertly archived by Fordham’s library staff, these life stories bear witness to legacies of Italian migration in late generation Americans. They constitute a valuable source for studying subjective experiences of ethnicity and affective attachments to spaces and places, especially those associated with departure points in Italy and initial arrival points in the U.S. Additionally, they demonstrate potential sites of transnational connections between peninsular and islander diasporic communities dispersed throughout the world.

For example, Carl Calò, who was born in East Harlem and who grew up in the Edenwald projects of the northeast Bronx, recalls with great emotion a trip “back” to Sicily, crossing the Straits of Messina on his way to Agrigento while thinking, “This is where my grandparents were from, this is where they started.” Calò shares a photo taken on this trip overlooking the Valley of the Temples in the direction of the town of Naro, where his ancestors were from. The image of the hill shows, from afar, the statue of San Calogero, the Patron Saint of Naro. While Calò did not visit Naro during this most recent trip, in the course of the interview he remarks several times on the emotion of being in close proximity with his family’s point of origin. Frank Tinari also recalls his “return” trip to the Abruzzese town of Guardiagrele, where he met the archivist and was able to trace his ancestral heritage in a place to which his father, having come to the Bronx from Guardiagrele as a peasant boy, had sworn never to return. Calò and Tinari’s stories are just two of many that enact a recovery of loss which spans several generations, and that concomitantly signal the commodification of Italy as a space for luxury consumption, in which children and grandchildren return as tourists to places and spaces that their ancestors left out of economic despair.

By complicating binaries of departures/arrivals – inside/outside that situate “authentic” Italian culture exclusively within the confines of the modern Italian nation state, the interviews provide an additional resource for studies that aim to capture the complex realities of global mobilities. The interviews complicate an assimilationist logic that might otherwise circumscribe as static processes of integration and loss onto Italian American and, more broadly, Italian diasporic histories, showing how migratory movements often result in states of perennial mobility and inherited feelings of displacement. As scholars have shown, individuals or families may often spend extended periods of time in different places but do not ever settle in any one location. The collection houses several stories that indicate multiple passages across the Atlantic as well as stories of unintended permanence brought on by unexpected events, and the interviews therefore highlight the uncertainties and “incompleteness” that accompany migration experiences. In addition, stories of moving “up and out” of urban spaces follow a trajectory from Manhattan, to the Bronx to the burbs, and thus allow scholars to trace continuities in migratory movements. These stories also manifest the upward economic and social prosperity that was facilitated by a widening of and increased acceptance into dominant, U.S. colonial settler “white” culture. In Carl Calò and in Catherine Cesa’s stories, the families move from the Lower East Side, to East Harlem, to the Bronx and then out to Long Island in otherwise disparate trajectories that begin, for Calò, near Agrigento and, for Cesa, in Parma. Furthermore, in noting different regional languages, cultural practices and identities, the interviews reveal the heterogeneity of “Italians” in migrant/diasporic spaces that are often outwardly constructed as homogenous centers and ongoing sources of an Italian mono-culture. The interviews about the Belmont neighborhood shared by Catherine Cesa, from Parma, and Theodora Farrell, from Carrara, work against mono-nationalistic narratives about the self-titled “Little Italy of the Bronx.”

In addition to deconstructing the master narrative of Italian mono-nationalism, our work also engages the archive of our sister project, Bronx African American History Project (BAAHP, for short), which houses over 300 interviews and has been running since 2002. Studying these oral histories emphasizes the dynamics of inter-ethnic, transcultural exchange that are often at play in our study of networks of cultural institutions that shaped and sustained neighborhood change in the Bronx in the twentieth century. In the BAAHP collection, Sylvia Carr’s interview describes the same neighborhood in which Carl Calò grew up from an African American point of view, while Regina Hartfield’s story bears witness to the experience of growing up in Belmont in the 1960’s, a time in which racial violence against Black Americans was devastating urban communities. Encounters between the oral histories of both archives present rich sites of cultural, racial, ethnic and transnational exchange, and we have drawn on them as resources in teaching and in mentoring student research, which we regularly feature on our social media feeds through Facebook and Instagram. In aiming to cultivate, through scholarship and teaching a deeper awareness of racial and power dynamics, we draw on the differently raced perspectives of the BAAHP archive to invite complexity while examining the processes through which individuals remember and reconstruct their life histories in contexts of race and inter-ethnic relations.


Interviews cited

Carr, Sylvia. Interview with the Bronx African American History Project. BAAHP Digital   

   Archive at Fordham University.

Hartfield, Regina. Interview with the Bronx African American History Project. BAAHP Digital

   Archive at Fordham University.

Calò, Carl, Frank Calò and Salvatore Civitello. Interview with the Bronx Italian American  

   History Initiative. BIAHI Digital Archive at Fordham University.

Cesa, Catherine. Interview with the Bronx Italian American History Initiative. BIAHI Digital

   Archive at Fordham University.

Farrell, Theodora. Interview with the Bronx Italian American History Initiative. BIAHI Digital  

   Archive at Fordham University.

Tinari, Frank. Interview with the Bronx Italian American History Initiative. BIAHI Digital

   Archive at Fordham University.