In October of 1989, President George H.W. Bush issued the first-ever proclamation in recognition of Italian American Heritage and Culture Month. From that point forward, October would be a month to celebrate the enumerable contributions and accomplishments of Americans of Italian descent. This specific month of the year was selected as it coincides with the observance of Columbus Day, a federal holiday many Italian Americans see as an opportunity to celebrate their heritage.
However, major corporations, government agencies, and even the President of the United States do not usually celebrate accordingly. Every year, these institutions inevitably inundate the American public with official statements in recognition of a variety of heritage months, including Black History Month, Asian American Pacific Islander Heritage Month, National Hispanic Heritage Month, and National Native American Heritage Month, to name a few. Yet, Italian American Heritage Month never seems to make the cut.
Let’s use Hulu as a case study to examine this phenomenon:
Each year, Hulu takes the time to honor certain ethnic groups via social media, but their efforts to acknowledge the culture being celebrated do not stop there. Using Hispanic Heritage Month as an example, the platform took the time to aggregate content that features Hispanic actors, stories, and language into an easily accessible location on their service for users to enjoy. In the past, the streaming giant also held a two-day concert in Los Angeles and conducted informational interviews with Latinx creators to highlight the unique perspectives of this community as part of their “Acentos Bienvenidos’ campaign.
Another ethnic group the company has deemed worthy of celebration is Asian Americans. Not only did Hulu declare that Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month should be celebrated all year long in 2019, but they also donated at least $177,900 to API non-profits last year alone, in addition to creating a lengthy thread on Twitter detailing all the movies, shows, and icons that people can watch to honor their roots.
Hulu clearly goes out of its way to support these communities when the designated month comes each year. However, they choose to not do the same for Italian Americans in October. But why?
In the current media landscape where the idea of representation has become such a focal point, I would think that telling authentic stories about Italian and Italian American culture would be a priority for streaming services, given the utter lack of positive portrayals that exist in films and television as well as the overwhelming number of negative portrayals that perpetuate harmful stereotypes. Unfortunately, this is not the case.
In a study conducted by the Italic Studies Institute between 1996 to 2001, it was found that 846 out of 1220 movies observed had negatively portrayed Americans of Italian ancestry, with nearly 300 of those films featuring Italians as criminals.
This trend has undoubtedly influenced the opinions that people harbor about Italians. Ben Lawson, the chair of the Italian Studies and Film Studies Departments at Purdue University, conducted a survey to explore the effects of mafia movies and television shows on the image of Italian Americans. For the survey question that asked respondents to “Name three things that come to mind when thinking of Italian-Americans,” those with Italian-American ethnicity replied with answers like: “good food, intelligent, charming, easy to get along with, good-looking, and cultured,” while some of the most popular answers among the non-Italian-Americans respondents included: “Mafia, greedy, sneaky, violence, whacking, guns,” and even the ethnic slur “Dago.” This accentuates the need for major corporations to recognize the achievements and impacts of Italians on American culture.
This current state of affairs could make some wonder: Have Italian Americans not contributed enough to this country to warrant the same level of effort and commitment to uplifting our culture?
In the early part of our nation’s history, Italian immigrants were often relegated to the least-desirable, lowest-paying jobs in society that required manual labor. As a consequence, Italians contributed significantly to the infrastructure of America, playing a key role in the construction of streets, railroads, subways, bridges, and skyscrapers that still capture the eyes of citizens and visitors to this country alike. Western Culture itself was brought to the Americas by an Italian navigator when Christopher Columbus landed in the West Indies in 1492. He represents the first immigrant to the New World and personifies the American Dream that many Italians became obsessed with pursuing in the 1800s and 1900s as they searched for opportunities to improve their lives. If that somehow isn’t enough, another Italian named Filippo Mazzei is credited with inspiring the phrase “All men are created equal” from the Declaration of Independence. America itself was even named after an Italian explorer named Amerigo Vespucci. It is impossible to discuss the foundations upon which the United States was built without paying homage to the influence of great Italians along the way.
Have Italian Americans not sacrificed enough to receive the same treatment as other ethnic groups?
As the largest ethnic group in the US armed forces during World War Two, anywhere between 750,000 to 1.5 million brave souls were willing to put their lives on the line for a country that had simultaneously declared them “enemy aliens.” This resulted in a variety of restrictions for as many as 600,000 individuals of Italian descent that spanned anywhere from curfews, the seizure of property, and even their relocation to interment camps in some cases. Italians were also lynched at the second highest rate of any other ethnic group in America. Yet, in some way, the injustices tolerated by our ancestors do not culminate in nearly the same level of support and appreciation that other groups receive.
As October comes to a close, keep a close eye on your favorite brands to see how they choose to celebrate Italian American Heritage Month, or if they follow suit with the vast majority of other large companies that choose to ignore the contributions of Italians altogether. Be intentional with the brands you choose to support, as the only way this trend will change is if Italian Americans make it clear that we too deserve a seat at the table.
All cultures deserve to be celebrated and have their stories told. Major corporations shouldn’t pick and choose which ethnicities are worthy of celebration, as it acts to undermine the whole purpose of heritage months in the first place.