Navigation – Plan du site

Migration and material culture: legacy, ethnicity, hybridity

Interview conducted by Sophie Duhem
Migration et culture matérielle : héritage, ethnicité, hybridité
Laura E. Ruberto et Joseph Sciorra
p. 125-129


Cet entretien conjoint avec Laura E. Ruberto (Berkeley City College) et Joseph Sciorra (Queens College) présente l’approche culturelle des migrations en s’intéressant aux migrations italiennes aux États-Unis de la fin du xixe siècle au xxie siècle. Tous deux explorent la culture matérielle et les diverses formes d’expression culturelle en considérant les dynamiques sociales et historiques des pratiques esthétiques. Attentifs à la dimension transnationale comme aux processus d’hybridité, Laura E. Ruberto et Joseph Sciorra montrent combien se révèlent et se recomposent identité et ethnicité.

Haut de page

Texte intégral

Professors Laura E. Ruberto and Joseph Sciorra, you have recently published a two-volume anthology, New Italian Migrations to the United States (University of Illinois Press, 2017) that looks at Italian migration to the United States from 1945 to the present day. The books are interdisciplinary and cover a wide range of subjects, from the transnational relationship between Italy and the United States concerning the political sphere to the cultural expressivity of immigrant artists. What prompted you to undertake this editorial project?

As scholars who had long been working within Italian American studies we were motivated by what we saw as a lacuna in the field. We come from different disciplinary backgrounds—cultural studies (Ruberto) and folklife studies (Sciorra)—with a shared overlap in our work within Italian American studies. For years we had noticed that the migration scholarship we were both steeped in and contributing to rarely addressed the continual immigration of Italians to the United States, especially the political and cultural impact of the past seventy years of that movement of people, objects, and ideas.

Our two volumes make explicit the connections between different periods of Italian migration and recognize the need to speak more cohesively about Italian movement to the United States and for that matter elsewhere as well. In this way, we reconfigure the master narrative that maintains that Italian migration to the United States began in the late nineteenth century and ended more or less by the 1920s.

The contributors to both volumes examine specific cases in order to highlight various aspects of this seventy-year time period. The essays in Volume 1 offer studies of diplomatic relations, voting patterns, immigration laws, and the impact on local communities in different areas of the country. Volume 2 considers instead how said immigration might be understood through cultural expressivity, community engagement, artistic productions, consumerism, and media representations. Together the anthologies ask us to rethink how continual migration impacts changing notions of Italian ethnicity in the United States across a multitude of intersegmental notions of identity—racial, class, gendered, and other.

Recent research offers interesting potential for addressing migration from the point of view of social history, culture, or identity. From what methodological or intellectual perspective do each of you approach this vast subject? What are you interested in highlighting precisely?

In both our collaborative and respective scholarship we are interested in concepts of transnationalism and diaspora approached from an interdisciplinary perspective.

For example, one of our central concerns in New Italian Migrations to the United States is how our reperiodization of Italian migration to the United States illuminates cultural manifestations over the past seventy years. In our own research for the anthologies as well as our contributors’ work we note the way this continual migration effectively “rebooted,” as we say in our introduction to Volume 2, Italian American cultural life in local, national, and transnational arenas and, importantly, by extension, U.S. culture at large. Our respective essays in New Italian Migrations to the United States, Volume 2 each take a look at this transnational relationship in media production in the post–World War II era: Sciorra discusses broadcasted messages of familial longing and intimacy in a New York-Rome produced radio program, and Ruberto looks at Hollywood’s use of Italian actors to create new filmic images of Italian American women.

If we speak beyond our volumes, our respective research–Sciorra works mainly on religious practices and popular music, whereas Ruberto mainly focuses on cinema and visual culture—is invested in teasing out hybrid notions of Italian ethnicity and highlighting the transnational role in the construction of ethnic identities. Meanwhile, our other collaborative work has been on material culture specifically, looking at the production of meaning from the point of creation, display, and interpretation. For instance, this work has included unpacking the multiple ways that representations of Christopher Columbus and other historical or public figures have been shaped into physical objects meant to represent Italian immigrants or otherwise symbolically link Italian Americans to specific histories.

We see material culture as extremely useful for speaking about Italian migration and ethnicity because of the ways it can help scholars tell untold stories, especially of everyday experiences but also of constantly emerging identities of newer hybrid identities and practices. The personal or mass-produced items immigrants bring along or leave behind illuminate so much about their own experience as well as that of the greater communities they are a part of. In addition, even generations after migration, ethnically keyed objects equally assert meaning through their design, their form, and their use to inform beliefs, reflect values, and underscore the histories of a community. Thus a material culture approach allows scholars to recognize how complex meanings and notions develop when objects move between different “regimes of value,” as Arjun Appadurai notes.

Thinking about Italy and culture raises the issue of artistic legacy and by extension identity, within Italy and its diasporas. We are thinking of the sometimes overwhelming power (some would say, burden) of such cultural productions and expressions found within different historical periods and styles, from the high Renaissance paintings and sculpture to post–World War II cinema and more current exportable Italian Style/Made in Italy consumable goods. How have these valued works impacted the various forms of cultural productions among Italian Americans?

Your question concerning the esteemed cultural productions associated with Italy and in turn promoted by various individuals, business, and government entities (e.g., the various Istituti di Cultura Italiana) and their relationship to Italian America, as well as the larger Italian diasporic cultural identities is an intriguing one that prompts us to consider two lines of thought.

First, we are reminded of the actual work of Italian American craftspeople and artists that represents a varied and rich cultural heritage. Italian migration has always gone hand in hand with the exporting of Italian craft and artistry. Italian migrants and their descendants have historically been involved with a wide range of artistic productions, from studio-trained painters to journeymen tile setters, from domestically taught needle workers to the bricolage work of presepio (crèche) builders, as well as a whole host of other less-easily defined creative traditions and innovations.

This spectrum of forms, styles, materials, and visual references are often hybrid creations combining folk, artisanal, and elite elements due to the historical conditions in Italy and subsequently in the United States. For example, the specialized artisans known as paratori—such as Boston’s Emilio Matarazzo (1900–1964)—working in the first half of the twentieth century erected free-standing, multi-storied, albeit impermanent, chapels out of balloon framing and molded papier-mâché façades for Catholic street feste (feasts) that stylistically referenced Baroque churches with their arcuated niches, Corinthian columns, volutes, and pediments. The production, aesthetics, and use of these ephemeral structures combined folk and elite into a perfectly artistic synthesis and reveal how classical and Renaissance architectural styles are often the source for Italian American vernacular building traditions. In addition, we must keep in mind that individuals often found themselves adapting to new labor markets by shifting in and out of skilled craft industries. This movement is probably most evident in the shift from Italian peasant women using embroidery to create their trousseaux in the domestic sphere to Italian immigrant women adapting those same skills as proletariat workers in the industrial fashion industry in a place like New York City.

Second, the issue of burden regarding elite art that you suggest in your question is a significant one, especially in the ways that certain artistic traditions are privileged as ethnic identifiers over others among Italian American communities. Historically it was the Italian ethnic prominenti who used those Italian men much celebrated within Western civilization (e.g., Dante, Michelangelo) at strategic times and ways to support a dominant national agenda that aligned Italian immigrants with, for example, the “discovery of America,” in the case of the development of numerous Columbus statues and monuments throughout the country. Over the course of the last century and into this one, the relationship between self-proclaimed ethnic spokespeople, Italian ethnicity, and artistic traditions has been further complicated by transnational shifts in culture and society with, on the one hand, the civil rights era in the United States—which influenced the so-called white ethnic revival movement, where Italian Americans (and other white ethnics) were accepted as part of dominant society—and, on the other hand, the importation of a certain notion of Italian style, related to high fashion, food, and other kinds of consumer culture and that arrived hand-in-hand in the United States with new waves of Italian migrants in the post–World War II era. Thus, we see a need to be mindful of our use and understanding of these notions of cultural and national identity as they get exported and recreated by Italian immigrants and their descendants. Understanding the cultural politics of those who position themselves as leaders speaking on behalf of the group is critical for any discussion of aesthetic practices and identity.

What are the objects of material culture that testify to a strongly marked Italian identity?

One of the themes we have explored is in fact how material culture is used to heighten a sense of Italian American ethnic identity in privileged spaces such as museums. We recognize the power of material culture, the ways objects are used to create meaning and collective memory in a whole variety of places. However, the power of objects resonates profoundly in museums, given that, as we have said in our article “Migrant Objects: Interpreting Italian American Material Culture and Museums” (Altreitalie 56, 2018): “Museums and their exhibits are ideologically infused social constructs and cultural practices imbued with their own aesthetic and political references. The conditions under which objects are collected, displayed, and narrated (or not) become particularly meaningful for those museums organized around identity or specific cultural heritages” (p. 134).

Our work shows that material culture is adopted in museums mainly in the name of a specific version of Italian American history, an uncomplicated linear narrative of immigrant struggle and achievement, one that focuses on male labor, gendered domesticity, and the celebration of an ethnic-specific ingenuity. Meanwhile, such a narrative diminishes a number of other stories, especially around differentiated socio-economic experiences, the development of white privilege, or women’s experiences inside and outside the home. Again and again such public spaces of historical reclamation, importantly also often recognized as educational, teaching spaces (even though they are to a large degree uninformed by recent scholarly works), consistently recreate the image of Italian American exceptionalism across a U.S. landscape.

More specifically to respond to your question, there is no single object that marks the varied Italian American identities. For example, an everyday object like a ravioli cutter gets marked in ways that create narratives around domesticity, gendered labor, and familial politics. Whereas other objects, say, a Brioni suit, get associated with elite notions of white ethnicity, consumerism, and a global sense of Italian style that becomes separate from working-class ethnicity. Even though such items could also be used to tell alternative stories.

What remains of the legacy and collective memory of various skilled artisans and workers, e.g., bricklayers, painters, carvers, needle workers? Is that history recognized in any way today?

The situation in the United States today is quite varied depending on region, not to mention whose perspective is being considered. Nevertheless, there are occasions or spaces where a set of artistic practices as well as a continued sense of community experience gets played out in very public and tangible ways. We are thinking for instance of the continued practices around St. Joseph’s Day domestic altars, especially among Sicilian Americans in such disparate locations as California, Louisiana, New York, and Texas. These votive assemblages consist of multi-tiered structures that bring together objects such as an embroidered cloth, Catholic statuary, flowers, figurative breads, and an array of holiday dishes into an artistic sacred space that have been conceived, arranged, and curated overwhelmingly by women. In each case, unique manifestations have developed while certain underlying similarities might be identified, especially around aesthetic sensibilities (the concept of lavoro ben fatto, or work done well) or religious beliefs (as centered on the family and the larger community).

Another way to consider such a question is around the legacy of certain crafts, such as needlework and in particular, embroidery, which is no longer practiced to the same degree as it was among turn-of-the-twentieth-century immigrant women. On the other hand, contemporary Italian American studio-trained visual artists such as B. Amore, Jennifer Cecere, and Lisa Venditelli are referencing and recontextualizing aspects of this legacy (e.g., patterns, stiches) in their artwork. This reclamation is a creative way to recall and highlight the past artistry of working-class immigrant women.

It is important to note that the historical work of stonemasons, carpenters, and other skilled tradespeople—from an anonymous tombstone carver to the Piccirilli Brothers’ majestic Lincoln Monument in Washington, D.C.—can be found all over the country. The issue, then, is a question of documentation and ongoing research to reclaim these narratives. One example of such work is the life experiences and labor practices of Sabato Rodia, a skilled manual laborer who worked all over the United States in building trades but whose legacy is that of his unique creation, The Watts Towers in Los Angeles, built single-handedly over a thirty-three-year period. This space was long considered the work of a “naïf” or “eccentric,” who was often thought to be a man from Latin America. Instead, Rodia was born in Serino (Avellino province, Campania) and emigrated to the United States at age fourteen in 1888. That his experiences as a working-class Italian immigrant has been brought to light by a number of scholars in a 2014 publication edited by Luisa Del Giudice (to which we have contributed articles) is a significant addition to our understanding of Italian migrant creativity and changing notions of Italian American identity. This reclamation work is an important model for better understanding and retrieving such legacies of artisanal work in various media.

Haut de page

Pour citer cet article

Référence papier

Laura E. Ruberto et Joseph Sciorra, « Migration and material culture: legacy, ethnicity, hybridity », Diasporas, 32 | 2018, 125-129.

Référence électronique

Laura E. Ruberto et Joseph Sciorra, « Migration and material culture: legacy, ethnicity, hybridity », Diasporas [En ligne], 32 | 2018, mis en ligne le 28 mai 2019, consulté le 20 janvier 2020. URL : ; DOI : 10.4000/diasporas.2475

Haut de page


Laura E. Ruberto

Laura E. Ruberto is a Humanities professor at Berkeley City College and teaches courses in film and cultural studies. She has been a Fulbright Faculty Scholar to Italy and received support from the National Endowment for the Humanities. She has authored Gramsci, Migration, and the Representation of Women’s Work in Italy and the U.S. (Lexington, 2007) as well as journal articles and book chapters. Her edited/co-edited works include: New Italian Migrations to the United States. Vol. 1: Politics and History since 1945 and Vol. 2: Art and Culture since 1945 (University of Illinois Press, 2017), “Italian Americans and Television” (Italian American Review, special issue, 2016), Italian Neorealism and Global Cinema (Wayne State University Press, 2007), and Bakhtin and the Nation (Bucknell University Press, 1999). She is an editor for Fordham University Press’s series Critical Studies in Italian America.

Joseph Sciorra

Joseph Sciorra is Director of Academic and Cultural Programs at Queens College’s John D. Calandra Italian American Institute. He was the editor (2011-2016) of the social science and cultural studies journal Italian American Review and of Italian Folk: Vernacular Culture in Italian-American Lives (Fordham University Press, 2010), and co-editor of Embroidered Stories: Interpreting Women’s Domestic Needlework from the Italian Diaspora (University Press of Mississippi, 2014), Neapolitan Postcards: The Canzone Napoletana as Transnational Subject (Rowman & Littlefield, 2016), and New Italian Migrations to the United States. Vol. 1: Politics and History since 1945 and Vol. 2: Art and Culture since 1945 (University of Illinois Press, 2017). Sciorra is the author of Built with Faith: Italian American Imagination and Catholic Material Culture in New York City (University of Tennessee Press, 2015).

Haut de page

Droits d’auteur

Licence Creative Commons
Diasporas – Circulations, migrations, histoire est mis à disposition selon les termes de la licence Creative Commons Attribution - Pas d'Utilisation Commerciale - Pas de Modification 4.0 International.

Haut de page
  • Logo Presses universitaires du Midi
  • Logo Framespa
  • Logo CNRS - Institut des sciences humaines et sociales
  • Logo DOAJ - Directory of Open Access Journals
  • OpenEdition Journals