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Dominic Pulera's Italian American Success Story
by Francesco Isgrò
October 8, 2011 ~ On this Columbus Day weekend and Italian American Heritage Month, it is worth highlighting the contributions that Italian Americans have made to this country. Perhaps no book captures the stories, great and small, of Italians in America better than Dominic Pulera's, Green, White & Red: The Italian American Success Story. Pulera, whose father is Italian American, criss-crossed the countryto conduct research for his book, meeting with Italian Americans on both coasts and in-between. At an event sponsored by the Lido Civic Club of Washington D.C. earlier this year, Pulera said that "when the Lido Club was founded in 1929, the Italian immigrants and their descendants were beginning to assume their rightful place in the American mainstream culture."
By the 1960s and 1970s, Pulera said, most Italian Americans were achieving success as they defined it, by "working hard, playing by the rules, having strong families, contributing to their communities, embracing this country (the English language and our unifying national culture) while maintaining pride in their heritage, starting businesses, and, especially in the younger generations, going to college."
Over the years, Italian Americans assumed positions of increasing importance. For a time in late 2005 and early 2006, as Pulera pointed out, the top three positions in the Joint Chiefs of Staff were held by Italian Americans.
A key sticking point in the trajectory of success on the part of Italian Americans, Pulera pointed out, is stereotyping, especially in the area of organized crime. However, Pulera argued that stereotyping is fading for a number of reasons, including aggressive prosecution of criminals and the fact that "the pockets of poverty that served as recruiting areas for Italian mobsters have disappeared in Italian America."
More good news about Italian Americans today, Pulera continued, is that "the Italian-American influence in the U.S. is so pervasive, so all-encompassing, that the typical American does not even think of many Italian Americans as being 'Italian' at all. They are seen, appropriately so, as wholly, completely, and unequivocally American."
The question naturally arises, what then is the future of the Italian-American identity? Is it fading into history? With the passage of time and with widespread intermarriage, Pulera asked, will there be an Italian-American culture in 20 years?
The answer is hard to predict, of course, but the numbers suggest a response. "More and more Americans have some Italian ancestry while fewer and fewer Americans are fully Italian, having the strongest ties to Italian-American culture," said Pulera.
What Italian Americans must now do, he said, is "to capture the stories of our ancestors," those who have in some way witnessed the transformation of Italian Americans from immigrants who were the target of discrimination into respected and wholly integrated members of American society.
The Italian-American story, Pulera concluded, is a "quintessentially American narrative of faith, family, and work. It is a beautiful story. It is an inspiring story. It is an Italian story. It is an American story. And fundamentally, it is our story, one that belongs to each and every one of us."
In a recent interview, we asked Pulera to tell us about his favorite Italian American book. He responded: "American culture has been enriched by many fine Italian-American books, novels, memoirs, monographs, and other publications. Jerre Mangione's Mount Allegro is one of my favorite books. This classic memoir vividly describes the integration process for Americans of Italian descent during and after the period of mass immigration from Italy to the United States. Mount Allegro chronicles a vital part of U.S. immigration history; time and time again, my elderly respondents (those who grew up during the same era as Mangione) shared stories and anecdotes similar to those in his 1943 book."
My late Aunt Michelena is someone who continues to inspire me. Her drive, spirit, perseverance, and loving manner have taught me valuable lessons about life. Michelena was born in Calabria in 1910 and died in Wisconsin in 1995. She, her mother, Divina, and her brother, Sam, immigrated to the United States in the early 1920s to join my great-grandfather, Pasquale Puntillo, who was working in Wisconsin. Michelena helped raise her younger siblings--my grandmother Mary (born in 1924), my great-aunt Concetta (born in 1925), and my great-uncle Vincent (born in 1926). When my great-grandfather, Pasquale, died in 1932, the newly-married Michelena and her husband, Tony Parise, invited Divina, Mary, Concetta, and Vincent to live with them. The Depression years were difficult for them, as they were for so many Americans.
Things became better economically for the Parise and Puntillo families in the 1940s and beyond. Michelena and Tony and their relatives achieved the American Dream. They owned their own cars and homes and enjoyed the postwar prosperity. Michelena never had any significant schooling, to our knowledge, and she spent her career at a book-manufacturing company and, later, a hospital laundry. An optimist who stood 4'11" in her prime, Michelena achieved success as she defined it--and she was fiercely loyal to her family and community.
Michelena encountered many tragedies and much heartbreak during her life, but she maintained her optimistic outlook and never lost her fighting spirit. She survived breast cancer and an intestinal tumor to live to be 85. She outlived both her children, Joseph (who died of cancer at age 16) and Theresa (who died of a brain aneurysm in middle age). And she watched as her younger siblings died prematurely of various ailments: Mary (1924-1974), Concetta (1925-1972), and Vincent (1926-1964).
During the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s, my sister, Maria, and I had the privilege of spending time with our Aunt Mickey. Her unconditional love gave us strength, and her rich family stories helped us learn about our heritage. We have benefited from her sacrifices and, in essence, stand on her shoulders."