Fred Gardaphe, a professor of Italian-American studies and English at Queens College, spoke at the Italian Heritage Dinner on Thursday, Oct. 22.
Torch: Tell me a little about your background.
Gardaphe: I grew up in an Italian community in Chicago called Melrose Park, one of the largest Italian communities in Chicago and it was a working class neighborhood. I played football and I got into a Catholic prep school called Fenwick. A turning point in my life was in 1979 when I went on my first trip to Italy. I became what I call a born again Italian. I learned to speak the language. I went to the land where my parents came from. I found my purpose. I found my connection to my past and it gave me my future. I went to the University of Chicago and I was not allowed to do a dissertation on Italian-American writers. They didn’t think it was important enough. Eventually I went to the University of Illinois and finished my Ph.D., which was my study of Italian-American writers that became a book. It got published by Duke University Press and it won an outstanding book award in 1993. That was the beginning of my career.
Torch: Can you briefly describe Italian-American studies?
Gardaphe: Italian-American studies looks at the experiences and impact of Italian-Americans and Italian immigrants to the United States. The Italian immigrants have been here since the beginning of the country. In history, it wasn’t really taught except maybe a little about Columbus. So I look at the whole immigrant experience from the early pioneers all the way up through contemporary Italian-Americans. The program is totally interdisciplinary. We look at sociology, the arts and anthropology.
Torch: Why did this field interest you?
Gardaphe: First of all, I am Italian-American. As I was studying throughout school, I kept running into blank walls about Italian-Americans. There was nothing. I was studying Jewish-American, Asian-American, Irish-American, African-American but where were the Italian-Americans? I was brought to Stony Brook in 1998. The purpose was to create an undergraduate program in Italian-American studies. It still is the largest program in Italian -American studies in the United States.
Torch: You said returning to Italy helped you find your purpose. Do you feel like you find your purpose through your heritage?
Gardaphe: I spent a lot of my years trying to get away from it to become American. I didn’t see the importance of it until I went to Italy and I met my family. I learned the reason why my grandparents came and it was just the whole experience of coming to terms with what I have not paid attention to.
Torch: Is this what your speech is about?
Gardaphe: It’s called “Italian-Americans and Success.” We’re celebrating the success of Italian-American students tonight. I want everybody to know the history of what Italians had to do so that these kids could have this education. In a way, I want to give them their past. It’s never been given to them in an institutional setting. If they studied Italian in high school, they might get some of it there. But they don’t get it in their history classes. America is great because I don’t have to eat Italian food every night. You didn’t get that kind of diversity in Italy. I didn’t get that kind of diversity in my little neighborhood in Chicago. I went away to school and started meeting people of other cultures and then I started understanding my own culture better. By understanding my own culture better, I began to understand other people’s connections.
Torch: How do you feel about your accomplishments?
Gardaphe: It seems like no matter what you accomplish, it’s never enough. I really won’t be happy until [the] Italian-American experience is part of [the] American Studies experiences. When you study American Studies, you learn about Italian-Americans. This program is a way of introducing people to what Italian-Americans have contributed to the United States and to its culture and history.