At 25th West 43rd Street in Mahattan, there’s an institute that spreads authentic Italian-American culture all over New York.
The Calandra Italian American Institute of the Queens College-CUNY was founded in 1979 by a group of activists whose goal was to correct the imbalances in the way Italian-Americans were being treated in higher education. Over the years, the Calandra developed and reached much wider goals. The Institute carries out research activities and organizes events that are free and open to the public. It also publishes a semi-annual academic journal, the Italian-American Review, and has a staff made up of seventeen employees and four consultants.
It produces TV programs that are available on CUNY TV and YouTube, that focus on topics related to Italian-American culture, while its library hosts several collections of academic books and journals about the Italian diaspora.
Anthony Tamburri, Distinguished Professor of European Languages and Literatures, is the Dean of Calandra, and the one telling us about its history. He was born in 1949 in Stamford, Connecticut, studied in California at Berkeley University and in Florence. He taught at Purdue University and Florida Atlantic University, and moved to New York in 2006. He likes to define himself as a “Yankee Fan”.
“Our mission is to promote and study the culture of Italians in America. The institute started with a report, written in 1978, which highlighted the mistreatment of professors of Italian origin and their difficulties in getting promoted. In those years the rate of Italian-Americans who didn’t finish university was extremely high. They ranked third in this category, after African-Americans and Latinx, with 22% of them not graduating. Now we are at around 7%, a world of difference.”
Tamburri speaks about Italian-American literature like an open book: “It began, written in the Italian language, in 1885, yet scholars want to see Italian literature as a product confined to Italy, ignoring whatever happens outside of it. Here in the United States, we have always had Italian speaking writers, who went unrecognized in both Italy and the US. This trend has changed a little bit during the last couple of years, and experts are starting to discuss Italian language literature produced overseas.”
Speaking of the snobbery, he insisted that, “There has been this stereotypical idea of Italians in America as being ignorant, rude, small-time Mafia. You can see it in the movie ‘My name is Tanino’, directed in 2002 by Paolo Virzì.”
Despite some cultural barriers, at Calandra they continue to work incessantly. It was the case during the pandemic as well, when they moved online. It wasn’t anything new for them, since they had been live streaming some events since 2012. Covid did not blind-side them, but allowed them to increase their initiatives and the size of the public they could reach.
“Calandra is also, after all, a research institute,” said Tamburri, “We want the public to be able to understand the hard work that goes behind every single project. Too many times we see in the community the creation of narratives that have no foundation in history. An example of this is the statue of Christopher Columbus in Columbus Circle. That is undoubtedly an Italian-American symbol, but it isn’t the result of the 1891 lynching (when in New Orleans an enraged crowd lynched 11 Italian immigrants), which is what many people say. Why is it important to correct them? It’s crucial, because you need to learn accurate historical facts. I think Columbus is still a questionable figure. I don’t have any problems with statues, as long as we understand and study their origin.”
These are the themes on which Calandra aims to focus, while restarting full-time activities now that the pandemic is fading. There are a few different initiatives being planned in order to spread Italian-American culture; they include new publications and scholarly events. There is a lot to learn and even more to discover.
“I wish symbols pushed Italian-Americans to study more carefully the history of the United States,” said Tamburri, “as well as their own migratory history. We all need to ask ourselves ‘why are we here?’ We could understand many things about ourselves and, maybe, even about others.”