Since 1989, Italian American Heritage and Culture Month celebrates the influence of Italian immigrants and their descendants on the culture of the United States of America, along with their accomplishments. The tributes are held in October, in conjunction with Columbus or Indigenous Peoples Day—originally celebrated on October 12, now on the second Monday of October. Italian Americans’ influence can be traced in virtually every aspect of culture—even to every community with a history of Italian immigration to the US. Music and entertainment are, however, two fields in which this influence is particularly noticeable.
The influence of Italian Americans in the music industry
The first wave of Italian immigrants—from the 1880s to the 1920s—brought with it a rich musical heritage that helped define the US music industry. If asked to name an Italian American past or present musician or singer, no one in the US would have a hard time. Frank Sinatra, Frank Zappa, Madonna, Lady Gaga, Jon Bon Jovi, Ariana Grande … there are plenty of notable picks. And, maybe even more remarkable, Italian Americans have left their mark on basically every music genre, from jazz, rock, and pop to the blues, and many others. Since the 1940s and 1950s, Italian American music has been a steady part of the US mainstream culture. The #1 Italian American singer in terms of achievements and impact is still, undoubtedly, Frank Sinatra, a.k.a. “The Voice.” The Sinatras’ history perfectly embodies the spirit of Italian Americans immigration at the beginning of the twentieth century: the arrival to Ellis Island, the misadventures of the first years in the Nuovo Mondo, all the harshness and troubles, and, finally, the worldwide success of Frank, who come to personify the American Dream itself.
How Italian Americans shaped American entertainment
Just by browsing family names, we can see that Italian Americans and Hollywood seem to be inextricably connected. And that is indeed the case. When the film industry was taking its first steps, millions of Italians immigrated to America. First Italian immigrants and later, Italian Americans, played a central role in the birth and development of Hollywood, at first mostly as masons, designers, artists, musicians, and tailors. On screen, unfortunately, Italians and Italian Americans were almost exclusively portrayed in a negative way, always tied to mob, crime, and stereotypes that probably need no further explanations. Things are somewhat different today, although stereotyping still exsists.
Among the most acclaimed Italian American directors we find Frank Capra, Francis Ford Coppola (few movies have influenced popular culture as significantly as his The Godfather), Martin Scorsese, Quentin Tarantino, and Sofia Coppola. Listing Italian American actors could take even longer, but Robert De Niro, Al Pacino, Sylvester Stallone, John Travolta, Leonardo DiCaprio, and Danny DeVito are surely worth a mention.
What’s next for Italian Americans in the movie industry?
Although the impact of Italian immigrants and their descendants can be found in virtually every field, from education to science (Enrico Fermi, Anthony Fauci), politics (Nancy Pelosi), and food (Giada De Laurentiis, Lidia Bastianich), their footprint on American music and entertainment has been significant from the very early years. The next challenge could be to further change the way Italian Americans are still portrayed in movies and mass media in general. Young Italian American artists seem more than ready and are well equipped to carry this forward. In the meanwhile, take advantage of Italian American Heritage and Culture Month to watch a movie or listen to a song from some well- or less well–known Italian Americans. Buon divertimento!
By Claudia Quesito