Mario, Italian Style: Learning the Uses of an Ethnic Past


The following is a reprint of an article that appeared in the May 3, 1988 edition of the Village Voice. Cuomo was then in the middle of his second term as governor of New York state. He died on January 1, 2015 at age 82.

Just before the 1984 Democratic Convention, I realized that Mario Cuomo would always have my father’s vote. On a Sunday morning at my parents’ home in New Jersey, I am sitting with my father, tuned into a stream of political talk shows, waiting expectantly for my mother to serve brunch. Gabe Pressman is interviewing Mario Cuomo, whose sometimes combative answers are sprinkled with humor and tales of his mother, Immaculata. Cuomo repeats a conversation with her about the keynote address he is soon to give: “Ma, there may be 40 to 50 million people who’ll be watching.” As Cuomo retells it, the old Italian woman responded cautiously, “Oh, marone, you better not make a mistake.”

Marone. The illiterate Southern Italian derivation of Madonna, a call to the Virgin Mary that was clearly a mark of the lower class. It was one of the many Italian words I was taught never to say outside the home, yet a governor known for his eloquence just announced it on TV. As the governor said marone, I watched my father’s eyes light up, his serious mouth form an uncharacteristically wide grin. Perhaps he was imagining his own mother giving him practical and limited advice as Immaculata gave hers to Mario. My reaction was sentimental, mixed with an inchoate pride — as the peasant word shifted from my private lexicon to a news show, it gained a legitimacy. And wanting to share my father’s memories, I conjured up a grandmother I had never met.

My father has resigned himself to the fact that Cuomo isn’t running, but he did delight in the governor’s dangling draft prospects. It must have pleased him that our most esteemed potential president is a man who is defined, and in many ways defines himself, by his “Italianness.” The rolling vowels in his name, the broad Southern Italian face, his lips too large, nose too fleshy for Anglo-Saxon stock. Cuomo quickly fills in the details: He’s the son of an immigrant who saw the blood ooze from his hard-working father’s feet. He’s the skilled orator, with the grace of an old ball player, sliding occasionally into peasant tongue.

Cuomo’s ethnic pride has always intrigued me — it is so unlike my own. Growing up in a middle-class suburb Short Hills, New Jersey, I chose to assimilate, embarrassed by my dark features and never-ending name (a junior high school teacher once asked me, “Do you speak English?”).

But this is the year of Bertolucci and Balducci’s — the governor couldn’t have found a better time to use his ethnicity as a political plus. The generations-old stereotypes of Southern Italian immigrants are beginning to diminish as Italian Americans enter the professional ranks. At the same time, il paese has achieved a new chicness; American consumer culture is fascinated with Northern Italian food and design. Enter Mario Cuomo, an intellectual Southern Italian comfortable enough with his own background to unabashedly say marone on TV, celebrated enough to become a pop-culture, Italian-American hero.

Yet much of Cuomo’s style — embracing the family tradition, championing the little guy, attempting to reverse ethnic stereotypes — is not new. More than two generations ago the leaders of East Harlem, then the largest Italian enclave in this country, sounded many of the same themes as they built a populist Italian-American political movement in New York.

I was just beginning to appreciate Italian-American culture when I stumbled onto the history of East Harlem politics, and its tradition of liberal leadership. Its progressive past has long been forgotten — not least by Mario Cuomo — because it doesn’t fit the stereotypic image of Italian Americans: people who wear glittery gold bedroom slippers and put plastic Madonnas on their lawns, Frank Sinatra and the rest of the Ginzo Gang.

The rightward tilt of Italian-Americans in the 1950s meant Cuomo never had an Italian political role model, and the East Harlem experience — the beginnings of an urban, progressive tradition — escaped him. Without positive images of Italian culture, he reacted to ethnic slurs, and found himself defending the social fabric of his close-knit family. As I learned more about the East Harlemites, I realized that Cuomo had come to terms with only part of his heritage — and their urban progressive values are sorely missing from his administration.

Leonard Covello, the principal of Benjamin Franklin High School, was East Harlem’s intellectual guru. Covello was the first to introduce Italian language courses in the city school system, and he taught generations of young men to take pride in their heritage and get politically involved in their community (his progressivism didn’t extend to young women). His most famous student, Vito Marcantonio, became the district’s congressman for 14 years. Marcantonio’s lifelong friend and mentor was another political outsider, the man he replaced in Congress, Fiorello La Gaurdia. Each inherited the Italian distrust of bureaucracy and the American desire for grass-roots reform; Abraham Lincoln was their political role model.

The Italian family was an image of strength to both Covello and Marcantonio. They rallied neighbors by appealing to a larger sense of family, expanding the loyalty of a close-knit group into a community ethos — collectively people could work, for example, to get better housing or more garbage pickups. (East Harlemites came to grass-roots politics slowly — the transplanted peasants weren’t used to having a government in their lives.) And family wasn’t limited to Italian immigrants. Cultural self-identity had to coexist with racial harmony: they created a hybrid that redefined the meaning of both family and community. Covello taught his students to understand from their own experiences the pain of racial bigotry felt by other ethnic groups; Marcantonio fought discrimination against Hispanics and blacks years before court-ordered integration. Italian, urban progressivism governed East Harlem.

But the East Harlemites’ positive vision of the Italian family didn’t survive. Instead, the prevailing perception became that Italians only want to take care of their own — a belief that gained academic legitimacy with the publication of Harvard sociologist Edward Banfield’s 1958 book, The Moral Basis of a Backward Society. Banfield held that Southern Italian peasants shared a common social trait, “amoral familism,” or the inability to serve anyone outside the immediate family. Nathan Glazer and Daniel Patrick Moynihan later applied the concept to Italian Americans. And Cuomo, though he was unaware of Banfield’s theory, has become the only contemporary Italian-American politician to directly challenge this cultural stigma with his frequent metaphor, “The Family of New York.”

When I learned about the relationship among Covello, Marcantonio, and La Guardia, I felt as though I had discovered a tiny gem in the history of my own ethnic group. Growing up, I was always embarrassed by the image of the cheek-pinching, deal-making Italian-American politician, and I saw Mario Cuomo as a welcome relief. Yet, in East Harlem, a neighborhood filled with coffee shops like Torroni e Biscotti, a visible reminder of il mezzogiorno [Italy south of Rome], there were prominent Italian politicians who wanted to insure, in Marcantonio’s own words, “the duty of government to provide for those who, through no fault of their own, have been unable to provide for themselves.”

But New York’s progressive, Democratic, Italian governor had never heard of Covello. He recognized Marcantonio’s contribution, but, “My father said he was Communiste,” Cuomo told me. “Socialiste, Communiste, what the heck is the difference, he came from an old Italian tradition. He was fighting for the little guys against the system.” (Marcantonio denied throughout his life that he was a Communist, though he did receive support from the party, like other politicians in the 1930s. But Marcantonio was so popular that nervous legislators gerrymandered his district and ended his career in 1948.)

As for Fiorello La Guardia, the roly-poly, firebrand Italian mayor, the more dignified Cuomo tells me the Little Flower had no influence on his life. La Guardia’s ebullience was his charm, and whether he was reading the funny papers over the radio to children or brewing illegal beer in his Congressional office to show the ridiculousness of Prohibition, he was always prepared to be the clown. Cuomo’s easy dismissal of La Guardia seemed odd. Proud paesani call the governor the “Italian’s Italian,” yet he has no tribute to pay to the country’s most famous Italian-American politician?

In fact, the governor doesn’t embrace this ethnic political past. His version of Italian-American history is nostalgic — he makes us feel good, or teaches us the immigrant lesson that hard work succeeds. My parents smile when Cuomo recreates the experience of his parents. He tells us the American dream can come true (it happened to him), embellishing the mezzogiorno history with delightful pastiche.

Cuomo’s choice of ethnic motifs is like the postmodern architect’s use of classical design to decorate a modern building — it’s a playful twist, an accent, like Philip Johnson’s Chippendale cleft and oversized Florentine arches that spruce up the AT&T building. The postmod architect jumbles together enough classical allusions and materials to recall an earlier time, but often it’s without a full appreciation of the historical context. The experience is illusory — after a quick glance, you’re still left at 55th and Madison next to an imposing, modernist slab.

Mario Cuomo is an intriguing politician, and a nearly irresistible presidential candidate, because he can evoke an ethnic, communal tradition without being part of a Rat Pack. Words like marone embellish his speech like an ionic column on a high rise. But the governor plucks his ethnic self-pride out of a much larger matrix, the complicated, uniquely Italian-American progressivism of Covello, Marcantonio, and La Guardia. If Cuomo talks like a liberal, he often acts like a conservative, favoring a large tax cut instead of using the revenues for badly needed social programs.

The visionary politics of Vito Marcantonio were dismissed in the 1940s as radical — he was virtually alone in advocating the use of federal power to give blacks civil rights. Fiorello La Guardia tackled city corruption, built the first public housing in this country, and instituted a free milk program. No Cuomo achievement is as substantive. If Mario Cuomo’s greatest strength is being Italian, his weakness is that he’s not Italian enough.

“Were you always an Italian?” Mario Cuomo asks me as I talked about East Harlem’s political past. To him, “being” Italian means understanding and appreciating the mezzogiorno culture; and likewise, disclaiming it means denying your roots. We are sitting in the ceremonial governor’s office, a large, rarely used room in Albany restored to its ornate 19th century splendor. His feet are on the highly polished mahogany desk, and he’s leaning a little too far back to look entirely comfortable.

I shook my head no. “I know all about ethnic self-hate,” Cuomo responds as he gets up to walk into his real working office. As a child he dreaded his parents’ school visits because his teachers would discover that Andrea and Immaculata couldn’t speak English. “I didn’t speak English until very late,” says Cuomo. He even missed school when he was five or six years old, he recalls, because of the language barrier: “If you look at my school record, I was absent for 38 days. I never had any of the childhood diseases, I was home because I couldn’t speak the language.”

Cuomo’s ethnic ambivalence was similar to that of most immigrants’ children — he was the outsider, unable to share the common experiences of his peers. “They were all Irish,” Cuomo says, describing his isolation at St. John’s Prep. “There were no Italian Americans. There was nobody who shared my culture…And I felt very, very remote. I can’t say I had any resentment — maybe a kind of sadness, confusion, discomfort. I didn’t belong there, these were not my people. They don’t talk my language; they don’t eat the food I eat; they go on vacation with their parents…”

Cuomo still remembers one incident that solidified his childhood feelings of insecurity, hostility, and resentment. For the governor it was embodied by the “very WASPish” Richard Dearing. The boy took Cuomo to his “very WASPish” home, complete with luxuries like a finished basement. When it came time for the very WASPish family to eat, Cuomo remembers the boy’s parents saying, “Tell your friend he has to go now.” It was a common line to get kids to dinner, but Cuomo says the tone was distinct. “It was like they were saying, God forbid you let him come to the table. And I never got over it. I felt shunned. Well, it didn’t leave me with a tic, but it gave me a permanent recollection.”

Cuomo says that he neither denied his heritage nor wanted to assimilate: “While I was embarrassed about my mother and father not fitting in, I never had the feeling that this was something I had to change. I never did, I never have. I love to talk with my hands. I love telling stories about the old ways and old times.”

I wondered, though, about more subtle forms of ethnic self-hate: how Cuomo had dealt with images like the loud, emotional Italian, and whether he ever feels he overcompensates. I was struck by the contrast between Cuomo’s cultural pride and his statement that New York’s first Italian mayor had no influence on his life. La Guardia’s boisterousness has become an unflattering image for Italians — it’s usually associated with the ethnic buffoon. The governor’s heroes, like Sir Thomas More and Abraham Lincoln, tend to be much more cerebral. When Cuomo spoke about La Guardia (known for his shticks) he brought up Ed Koch (also known for his shticks). He compared La Guardia’s “nexus with the people” to Koch’s talks with “the guys in Queens in a language they understand.”

Italian-American immigrants, like Cuomo’s Neapolitan parents, faced discrimination in both their new country and native land. To Northern Italians, the extreme poverty of the South is incomprehensible — the morally and socially inferior peasants inhabit a hot, arid plain, a region, wrote Carlo Levi, where even Christ forgot to stop. Northerners pejoratively named Southerners the terroni, which literally means “of the land.”

In the United States, his parents settled in an ethnically mixed Jamaica, Queens neighborhood. When Cuomo shares their immigrant experience, his storyteller’s voice has a trace of indignation, a rediscovery of the stigmatic wounds on his father’s feet. Cuomo described his deceased father to a Donahue audience this fall: “[He] worked 24 hours a day, he was never educated, he worked with his hands, he bled from the bottom of his feet.”

Cuomo’s ethnic pride is personal, family-oriented, something he has discovered on his own. In his diaries, Cuomo surrounds himself with his culture. He delights the senses, describing the salty, aromatic food Italians savor: the four-foot provolone hanging in his father’s store, the Genoa salami, prosciutto, and bread. (He touches most readers’ taste buds with his descriptions — this once-peasant food is now a high-priced specialty shop import.)

Almost as often as he speaks of “Mama and Poppa,” Cuomo talks about the discrimination he experienced after graduating from St. John’s Law School. Though tied for first in his class, because of his ethnicity he was unable to get a job at a Wall Street firm. The law school dean suggested he change his name. He recently told a Cleveland audience, “Can you imagine me as Mark Conrad? Just take a look at me, can you imagine me walking in and saying, ‘Hi, I’m Mark Conrad’?” As Cuomo recounts the story for me his voice is awkwardly formal, showing the absurdity of adopting an Anglo-American model. “I play tennis. I play golf,” he says, extending his wood-tight arm in a make-believe handshake. No one would buy it, says Cuomo, who quickly adds that he had the audience “in stitches.”

Cuomo has discovered that his ethnic identity not only works for him personally, but it plays in Peoria — national audiences are listening. No longer is he just retelling Immaculata’s sayings, Cuomo has broadened the dialogue to include the common immigrant struggle. I asked him about using Southern Italian dialect, and he replied, “I do it instinctively.” When a staffer asked why, during a speech at Wake Forest University, he chose to talk emphatically with his hands and tell Italian stories, Cuomo answered: “Because this is North Carolina. This is the heart of the South. This is where Bob Novak says Italians can’t make it. This is the place where they say they’ve never heard of a Mario. And did you see what happened at the end of my speech? I got a standing ovation. I did better at Wake Forest than I did at Tulane, and at Tulane I did better than I ever have done up north.”

“The things I say to them,” Cuomo adds, “they will appreciate whether I say it to a Scandinavian or an Italian.”

The governor’s New York family doesn’t know its East Harlem ancestor because Italian Americans have been labeled as distrustful of outsiders, uninterested in affairs outside their home. At worst, “family” is a euphemism for the Mafia, an ethnic stereotype even the governor can’t escape: unsubstantiated rumors about his father-in-law created guilt-by-association ties to the mob. Amoral familism may be the more dangerous stereotype, however, because its racism is insidious. It has buried memories of East Harlem’s progressive past and followed Italian-Americans into the social isolation of the suburbs; Cuomo had to discover a germ of ethnic pride on his own.

Edward Banfield’s concept of amoral familism developed during nine months in a Southern Italian village, where he didn’t speak the language and his Northern Italian-American wife interpreted. The sociologist said that extreme village poverty helped create a society where, “…no one will further the interest of the group or community except as it is to his private advantage to do so.” He adds, “It is not too much to say that most people of Montegrano [a fictional name] have no morality except, perhaps, that which requires service to the family.”

Professors Nathan Glazer and Daniel Patrick Moynihan brought Banfield’s sociologese to the New World in their 1963 book, Beyond the Melting Pot — Italian Americans are also amoral familists: “The content of this moral code remained basically the same among Italian immigrants to America. One should not trust strangers, and may advance one’s interest at the cost of strangers…the contemporary American ethic values self-advancement, whereas the Italian variant still values family advancement. Thus, even in the case of Italian gangsters or racketeers, there is a surprising degree of family stability and concern with children, brothers, sisters, and other relatives.”

Today, amoral familism has become so ingrained in the public consciousness that people don’t recognize its blatant racism. Newsday‘s William Sexton wrote in 1984 that the problems in the Cuomo administration were “ethnic problems” like “distrust of outsiders.”

“The qualities that endear Mario Cuomo to so many of us — the loyalty to family, the determination to be in command, the distrust of outsiders, the overriding self-confidence — they are they very factors weakening his administration,” Sexton wrote. “These are the ethnic qualities, and there are sociologists (among them most notably our own Pat Moynihan) who will tell you that they are the hallmarks of Italian family life, indeed the reason why Italian-American neighborhoods are so happily cohesive when the communal life of others seems to be falling apart…In short — by this theory — it is no accident that Mario Cuomo was only the first Italian-American to win New York’s governorship, more than half a century after Irish-Americans sent Al Smith to Albany.”

Is this management style a peculiarly Italian character trait? And a character trait that explains why Italians didn’t hold high elective office for 50 years? Even successful Italian-American politicians were discounted by Glazer and Moynihan. They don’t consider La Guardia a truly Italian politician because his background was bourgeois (35 years earlier, Walter Lippman thought La Guardia quite Italian, commenting that his “sorry showing” of a mayoral campaign revealed “the real gap which lies between the Italian and the Anglo-American political tradition”). They make a passing reference to the East Harlemites as a “sort of Italian-American intelligentsia” [italics mine]. The “ideal” community role model, according to Glazer and Moynihan, is Frank Sinatra.

Cuomo counters Sexton’s stereotype that Italians make good neighbors but not good governors by embracing the image of the communal Italian family. Using the slogan “The Family of New York,” Cuomo suggests that with himself as governor, the bleakness of the city can be transformed by the warmth of the state. He first employed the theme in a 1981 speech called “A New Family Kind of Politics.”

The scene Cuomo described was Immaculata’s Southern Italian village in Tramonti. Her family lived in a house with no heat and dirt floors. They discovered, Cuomo wrote, a “strength, consolation, and survival in the sharing of benefits and burdens.” The governor says he never adopted this metaphor to address negative stereotypes about the Italian family — it just seemed a natural image for him to use.

When I pointed out the connection among Banfield, Moynihan, and Sexton, Cuomo realized that an attack on his administration had roots in a much broader sociological observation, and he responded with new enthusiasm. “Ah hah,” he said, as if he were a detective discovering evidence that was used against him. “Who, Moynihan said that? You’re going to write that? That’s something. Wooo…”

The image of family took on new significance, almost as if it were a reaffirmation of his ethnic self-identity. Thinking quickly and talking rapidly, Cuomo started applying the metaphor to the entire planet. With his newly global ideas, the concept of New York as family seemed modest indeed.

“Let’s, let’s, let’s go back to my idea about family,” he says, like a lecturing professor. “I believe it works universally, internationally, that we must have a new family kind of politics internationally. I believe we must deal with the Soviets, we must deal with the Red Chinese…I say the nation should think of itself as a family, I say every region should think of itself as related to every other region that the problems of the oil states are now the problems of the Northeast…As we get stronger and wiser the idea of family will be reflected in the nation. If I were president I would be talking about a new family kind of politics for the nation.”

Cuomo is facing down amoral familism, extending his vision of family internationally, telling us what he’d do if he were president. He says he’d use the metaphor only until it was pushed to the idea of “family first and family only. At that point you would become isolationists,” he says, stressing the word. “So the idea of my nuclear family is a good, moral, intelligent idea. The idea that there is only my nuclear family is a stupid idea. So for the idea to make sense it has to be extrapolated, extended until you get to the whole universe…and as soon as you break it off it becomes amoral…”

The governor called his secretary to get a copy of the original family speech. Peering through half-glasses, he scanned the text, muttering to himself through certain passages and reading others empathically. The speech’s theme — that interest groups within the state must abandon their “turf instincts” and work together — is essentially an argument against amoral familism. At first I politely sat and watched Cuomo rediscover the roots of his family speech; soon I began to fidget, and casually tried to interrupt, looking at the clock and realizing that my time was nearing its end, but it was like trying to stop him sliding into home — the governor just kept on reading.

“As I became educated, I came home with strange ideas and strange ways. My father would listen and whether he agreed or not, he’d always say the same thing. People had different ways of pushing their wagons…[But] he was always insistent on one point. And that was when major problems and occasional crises occurred, everyone was required to pull together. That’s what being a family meant and that’s what we were. Now I marvel at the powerful relevance of all those simple lessons our parents taught us…the necessity for self-imposed austerity, the willingness to sublimate personal opinion and to defer for the good of the whole, to the good of the family.”

The governor hopes the family speech will be seen as a hallmark of his administration. Yet there are many contradictions in his newly defined global argument — the assumption, for example, that diverse culture and governments share our common interests — that reflect the loosely articulated viewpoint of someone who has formed these ideas on his own. Cuomo uses the image of family because it personally works for him, it stems from an isolated, ethnic self-pride. He is talking about his family, his mother’s experience. And Cuomo recognizes its universal appeal — he has even expanded it to the point of saying that Tawana Brawley was his daughter.

There’s another problem in using the Italian family as a model of society. It promotes a tightly knit patriarchal unit with well-defined roles: powerful father, subservient mother. If the metaphor were taken literally, it would leave women con i bambini, solely serving the household.

The East Harlem progressives defined family as a large unit that included aunts, uncles, godparents, cousins. Neighbors were also family — in this community each person could play an integral role. “To Banfield, morality by definition is public, it’s the Lockean tradition,” says Robert Orsi, author of The Madonna of 115th Street, a study of Italian-American immigrants who settled in East Harlem.

“But for Italians,” he adds, “morality is private, defined by the family. As Locke conceived of society as groups of individuals coming together, Italian Americans addressed individuals as a family unit, and that family was extensive.” While women didn’t have positions of power, this definition precludes a more restrictive patriarchal model. Since family meant loyalty, Marcantonio used it as a political strategy. He faithfully served the community, who in turn, continually reelected him.

Cuomo has caught the rhythm. Reading from his original speech, he mutters the words “turf” and “piece of the pie,” as if these were key ideas that couldn’t be forgotten. “This is amazing,” says the governor with new modesty. “I forgot all this…this is terrific, this is a great speech.”

For generations, the Catholic Church in New York gave little encouragement to Italian Americans struggling for ethnic self-identity. Italian-American immigrants, like those of East Harlem’s Our Lady of Mount Camel parish, were relegated to the back of the Church — literally having to sit behind the Irish, who ran the institution. This battle has long been a sore point for both ethnic groups. The Irish, who were well-trained in their faith, couldn’t understand the Italians’ loose sense of worship and mystical devotion to saints.

And unlike the Irish, who were faithful servants of the pope, Italian immigrations came from an anticlerical tradition: In Italy, the peasants distrusted the wealthy, land-owning Church that had little compassion for the poor. They were also cynical about corrupt village priests. When the peasants came to the U.S., they had to learn an American version of their Catholic faith. Irish priests were sent into Italian communities to inculcate a Catholicism much more puritanical than its Southern Italian counterpart.

The governor rekindled the old fight when he answered John Cardinal O’Connor’s charge that a Catholic “of good conscience” couldn’t vote for a politician who favored abortion. In his speech at Notre Dame, an Italian layman challenged an Irish archbishop’s interpretation of faith. It was an encounter, historian Richard Varbero argues, that made Cuomo “the first Italian to have shed the role of ethnicity and have gotten even with history.” It was the first time that a contemporary Italian-American politician intellectually challenged the Irish Catholic hierarchy. Generations later, an Italian American had finally replaced peasant mysticism with a well-defined theology: Cuomo was telling O’Connor that other points of view could coexist in the Church.

Cuomo seemed pleased, just for an instant, that the speech was interpreted as a historical challenge, but he says he never thought of himself an Italian American addressing Irish domination of the Church. “You have to remember how this started,” says the governor, recounting how he sat with his wife and son as the archbishop was asked on television if Cuomo could be excommunicated for his views. For a moment O’Connor didn’t answer and Cuomo was infuriated. “He called me the next day, but I said, ‘The damage is done, you’re calling me and only I hear you. You said that on television and the world heard you.'”

If he hadn’t gone to Notre Dame, Cuomo adds, the cardinal would still be telling Catholics how to vote. And, Cuomo says, in his competitive ballplayer style, no one else was ready to answer O’Connor’s proclamation: “You didn’t see my friend Pat [Moynihan] answer it, you didn’t see Hugh Carey jump up, or Bruce Babbitt, who thanked me for it, he wasn’t answering it from Arizona.”

“But I didn’t see myself as an Italian, I didn’t see myself as anything. What do you think of yourself when they slap you in the face and you decide to put your hands up. Were you defending Italians? No, you’re doing it for yourself.”

Anticlericalism gave Italian Americans like Covello and Marcantonio a unique political position, a culturally built-in irreverence to authority. These men were more distanced from Catholicism, however, than Cuomo. Covello became a Methodist, though he faithfully wore a crucifix and carried a rosary. (Despite Marcantonio’s religious devotion, he was denied a Catholic burial by Cardinal Spellman for being a Communist — a decision that infuriated the Italian-American community.)

Cuomo’s contretemps with the cardinal reveals a similar irrecerence, but the governor denies that he is anticlerical. He says, however, that he grew up hearing anticlerical stories: “I never met anybody from a village like my mother’s who didn’t have a story to tell you about a priest who had a wife, or a girlfriend, or who stole money.” Although the governor’s cultural identity has been strongly influenced by his family, Cuomo distances himself from their anticlerical attitudes. “I didn’t inherit anything at all from my parents in terms of religion. The Catholic religion is terribly intellectual…My interest in the religion developed from reading.”

The struggle for ethnic self-identity that Covello perceived in the 1920s persists today. Many second and third generation children are isolated and distanced from the mezzogiorno culture. Subtle, and not so subtle, forms of racism persist: There’s a trendy Manhattan eating spot that advertised, “An authentic Italian restaurant where no one’s been shot — Yet.”

“John Lindsay never understood it, he never understood it,” Cuomo told me. “He invited me to the mansion to see The Godfather with Matilda. He was trying to get me to join his administration. I said, ‘How can you invite me to see The Godfather?…This is the guy who kills people, murders them, plucks their eyes out, drugs them and he’s treated as a great guy, the whole community loves him. What are you saying with this movie?'” Cuomo recalls that Lindsay replied, ‘Oh, it’s only a movie, you’re too sensitive.'”

On a pop culture plane, a romantic comedy like Moonstruck lets the audience delight in a Brooklyn Italian-American Cher who falls in love with sexy brute Nicolas Cage. The constants remain: Italian Americans are fun-loving but unsophisticated, handsome but stupid. As Jules Feiffer said in a review of the movie for National Public Radio: “These are the most engaging characters in a comedy I’ve seen since Broadcast News…they’re not intelligent in the way the characters on Broadcast News are. But there is a sweetness to them.”

The search for material wealth has been superseded by a desire for social acceptability and status. That’s why the governor’s use of a dialect is surprising to me, because it’s unadulterated peasant talk. Unlike Yiddish, which is taught in universities, dialect is not considered a “real” part of the Italian language. And as Italian Americans are striving to be taken seriously as intellectuals, these words make us a bit uneasy, they mark us as uneducated. Despite recent gains, those who “make it” are the exceptions — rare enough to earn a New York Times Magazine cover story a few years back about the ethnic group coming into its own.

“I think when people know that you’ve been governor,” says Cuomo about his use of the dialect, “that you’ve been a law professor, that you wrote a book once, that you write speeches…Once they see that you’re capable of speaking English, then you can fool around with dialect.”

Cuomo recognizes the struggle for intellectual respect — and he plays with it, using his hands and saying the words WASPs sniff at. But it is a rhetoric that only goes so far. Last October, Cuomo used Italian Heritage and Culture Month to celebrate ethnicity. He gave a speech urging Italians to take pride in their ancestry, reminding them that they face far less obstacles than blacks, Hispanics, or women. So if someone calls you a “wop,” the governor says, think about how it hurts to call someone a “nigger.” “That’s progressivism,” Cuomo tells me — to take pride in one’s ethnicity, and use this sense of self to understand other cultures.

This is Cuomo at his best: the governor who gives the past immediacy, who makes people proud of their heritage while insisting that ethnic self-pride must comingle with respect for other races to produce a “wonderful mosaic.” It’s what Michael Dukakis fails to accomplish each time he somberly gives a my-parents-came-through-Ellis-Island speech, or flatly repeats his father’s Greek wisdom. But that’s not the East Harlemites’ version of urban progressivism. Creating affirmative action programs, maintaining a forceful, consistent advocacy for tolerance in a racially divided city, redefining our social service system to fit the “Family of New York” ideal — that’s progressivism.

The governor could structure a system where poor mothers don’t have to sneak their husbands into welfare hotels in order to be eligible for the government allowance; he could develop a policy enabling a welfare mother to earn a college degree and get child care so she can achieve financial security; and he could implement adequate prenatal care programs and create decent counseling services for the families of abusive, mentally ill, and drug-addicted parents so poor children can discover the compassionate family of New York.

Grass-roots supporters of the governor, like tenant advocates, say it took years just to get a meeting with Cuomo about housing problems. Mental health advocates spent the first half of the administration fighting to restore the drastic staff losses in state institutions. Even Cuomo’s best-intentioned programs, like housing the homeless, get tied up in bureaucracy and take years to get off the ground.

Cuomo likens his politics, as did Marcantonio and La Guardia, to Abraham Lincoln’s — he calls it pragmatic progressivism. “It really is kind of nonideological…it is not pure, traditional Democratic politics, it is not pure Republican politics whatever that is, it is more pragmatic, it is progressive. It has starting points like our mission is to help people, and the more they need the more committed we are to them.”

Cuomo prefers to be a mediator. The East Harlem progressives captured the public’s imagination by poking, challenging, confronting the established power structure. They solved problems by combining what they knew best, the antiauthoritarian strand of mezzogiorno culture with grass-roots American political traditions.

Nearly all American politicians position themselves as outsiders, and Cuomo is no different — he still wants to be asked in. Cuomo never forgot Richard Dearing’s WASP family telling him to leave their house. This dynamic was at the center of Cuomo’s flirtation with the presidency.

“Have you seen The Shoes of the Fisherman?” Cuomo asked during our discussion of Catholicism’s influence on him. As soon as I shook my head no, he was on the phone to personal aide and film buff Tonio Burgos to get me the videotape. “Promise me you’re going to see this now,” the governor said as he hung up. He wanted me to watch the film because one character espoused the philosophy of Teilhard de Chardin, a French Jesuit whose existential writings strongly affected Cuomo.

But for me, the most telling scene came when dozens of cardinals draped in red, their feet sliding to the hum of a Gregorian chant, solemnly entered the Sistine Chapel to choose a new pope. Outside in St. Peter’s Square the crowd waits expectantly, but seven times the wet straw burns, streaming black smoke from the chimney. By the seventh ballot the cardinals are exasperated with the drone of “insufficient for election,” and one stands up to name his surprise candidate: the humble Kiril Cardinal Likota (played by Anthony Quinn). The prelate was doing the unthinkable — he was drafting a pope.

Quinn’s strong face quivers, “Thank you, Eminence. But, I cannot consent to it.” A chorus of cardinals chant, “I too proclaim him.” Quinn paces back and forth, “No, please, please, wait.” By then it’s too late, the momentum won’t stop. Quinn is asked to accept. Finally, he answers yes, adding, “And may God have mercy on me.”

The promise of a Cuomo candidacy holds an intrinsically American romance — boy grows up and becomes president of the United States. It’s a dream that has power even when parroted by a passionless manager like Mike Dukakis. Postmodern ethnicity is an equal match for the glitter of Hollywood.

“We are all ethnics, in one sense, perhaps,” writes anthropology professor Michael M. J. Fischer, “but only some feel ethnicity as a compelling force, only some have an ear for the music of its revelations.” Cuomo hears this music — the boy who stayed home from school because he couldn’t speak English is now a spellbinding rhetorician playing with peasant language — and he can show us the emotional power of the ethnic past. East Harlem progressivism, the flowering of a populist, intellectual, and communal Italian tradition in New York, is a natural companion to the governor’s own mezzogiorno roots. It is a past awaiting his discovery.