When Being Italian was a Crime

During World War II, some 10,000 Italian immigrants in America were displaced. Another 50,000 lived under curfew. Others spent months or years in internment camps.

The investigation seems to have yielded little more than assertions by various parties that my grandfather, whose name the agents had trouble spelling, admired Mussolini—as did many Italians at the time—and that he received several magazines and letters from Italy at the midtown hotel where he was living. Nonetheless, he was "considered suspicious" and his movements in and out of the country were closely monitored.

The case was closed some months later "in view of the fact that there is no indication of any subversive activity on the part of subject."

Then came the war. In February of 1942, an executive order declared all Italians, Germans, and Japanese in America to be "enemy aliens." Such aliens were required to keep the government apprised of their whereabouts at all times. In order to embark on a singing tour early in 1942, my grandfather had to sign his name 88 times to obtain the 22 permits that were necessary for him to make the trip. "Ezio Pinza's Tour Requires Much Ink," said the headline for a mildly sarcastic article about the permit process in a New York paper. "The Department of Justice has become an autograph collector of great power and range lately."

Metropolitan Opera basso Ezio Pinza, the author's grandfather, at sea in the ‘30s.He was classified as an "enemy alien" and interned for months in 1942.
Metropolitan Opera basso Ezio Pinza, the author's grandfather, at sea in the ‘30s.
He was classified as an "enemy alien" and interned for months in 1942.

It soon became apparent that the government's interest in my grandfather was no joke. Informants, whom my grandmother believes to have been jealous fellow singers eager to see his career derailed, stepped up once again. They told tales of his enthusiasm for the Italian war in Ethiopia, his support for the Italian Red Cross, his participation in the collection of gold rings for the Italian war effort in the '30s. According to the FBI files, several who spoke against him were women with whom he had been involved years earlier, when he had quite a reputation as a ladies' man. His case was reopened. Unbeknownst to him and my grandmother, the FBI was making plans for his arrest several weeks before they ever walked through the door into my family's home.

There is no indication that my grandfather ever truly cared about politics at all. Indeed, he seems to have had few interests outside his work and his family. He did love the country of his birth, and had served in the Italian armed forces in World War I; his name did appear on a list of pro-Fascists drawn up by an American anti-Mussolini leader. But the prominent anti-Fascist Carlo Tresca was firm in his statement that "Ezio Pinza never has shown himself to be, directly or indirectly, an agent of Fascism or of Mussolini."

But for the FBI, in that atmosphere of newborn wartime hysteria, the prospect of arresting a famous Italian was perhaps too tantalizing to pass up. They had some people who were willing to speak up against him. They had a situation in which the protections of the Constitution were essentially suspended. They didn't need anything else. He was lucky to be let out after only 11 weeks. True, he was "paroled" on the condition that he report weekly to "a reliable United States citizen"—his personal physician was deemed suitable. But he could go back to work, back to his family, back to the home the G-men had entered as if they owned it.

The proposed legislation can't change what happened to my grandfather, but it reminds us just how quickly a nation can trade fundamental liberties for a false sense of security. Even today, New York City is full of marginalized people who see their rights being trampled. Amadou Diallo is dead, and black men of all classes have reason to fear the police. During a raid on suspected Algerian terrorists in Brooklyn last year, neighbors of the Islamic men were terrified by the sudden and violent action of the authorities, and feared for their own safety.

What happened to the Japanese, the Italians, and the Germans in World War II may seem like a historical curiosity, but tell that to the African woman who spent years in INS custody fighting for political asylum. Tell that to the Cubans and Haitians who are penned up indefinitely in American detention camps.

A nation, like a family, has to tend to its memories. Forgetting has its price.

"We're not asking for money," says Calvelli. "We're asking for education. We're asking for that to make sure it doesn't happen again, to African Americans or Arab Americans or anyone else."

Web Extra: View selections from Ezio Pinza's FBI File
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