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Simone Cinotto (guest ed.), Italian American History and Consumer Culture, Spec. Issue of Voices in Italian Americana

Special issue of VIA.Voices in Italian Americana,21.1 (Spring 2010)

The essays in this special issue of via(Voices in Italian Americana), edited by Simone Cinotto, make a significant contribution to the recent scholarly interest in consumption patterns among immigrant groups, provide a needed transnational history of consumer culture, and offer a powerful new lens through which to analyze the history of Italian immigrants and the formation of a transnational Italian American identity in North America. The essays focus on three distinct aspects of the study of Italian American consumer history: drawing from Pierre Bourdieu, de Michel Certau, Arjun Appadurai as well as Werner Sollors and Kosaku Yoshino, Cinotto provides the theoretical ethno-cultural framework underlying the study of transnational Italian American taste and the creation of Italian American identities through consumer culture; Elizabeth Zanoni, Stefano Luconi, and Bruno Ramirez present three intriguing historical analyses of identity formation through consumer culture among Italians in North America; and Courtney Ritter and Isotta Enrici focus on how the recent efforts to re-brand two quintessential Italian products – the suit and the Barilla pasta –, reinvent Italian identity for a contemporary American audience. Cinotto’s interview with Ennio Ranaboldo, ceo of Lavazza United States, nicely caps the essays, extending the scope of the issue into the present.

In his introduction, Cinotto makes a strong case for the study of Italian American consumer culture. He argues that the study of Italian Americans’ patterns of consumption gives more agency to working class consumers; explains some of the idiosyncrasies of their social mobility, such as their reluctance to invest in their children’s education in favor of investing in family and community ties; and challenges Herbert Gans’ and Richard Alba’s definition of ethnicities by redefining them «as adaptive, flexible, and evolving strategies to specific socioeconomic, political, and cultural contexts, which may include, but not be limited to, the discourse on a shared historical ancestry» (p. 24).

Zanoni’s and Luconi’s essays provide an excellent analysis of how Italians and Italian Americans created transnational communities of consumption through transatlantic networks of producers, sellers, and consumers. Within this larger framework, Zanoni gives the subject vitality by using imagination as the linchpin of Italian American’s transnational consumer habits. As her article insightfully shows, considering imagination as central to the formation of consumer practices «reveals how the experience of mass migration shaped the way people interacted with commodities and the ethnic, gender, and class meanings merchants and migrants affixed to them» (p. 46). Luconi’s article shows that Italian Americans’ consumer patterns challenged the prevailing national purchasing trends among other minorities and questions Liz Cohen’s argument that the Great Depression marked the end of ethnic businesses and paved the way to the Americanization of ethnic enclaves’ consumer habits. According to Luconi, despite the efforts of department stores to lure them as customers, Italian Americans continued to buy consumer goods from Italian American retailers throughout the 1930s. It was the war and early post-war period that ushered in the assimilation of Italian immigrants and their offspring.

Focusing on Italians in Montreal after 1965, Bruno Ramirez analyzes how, through the long-lasting TV program Teledomenica, Italian-language television helped new immigrants to bridge physical distance and isolation and linked two emotional universes separated by geography and the reality of migration (p. 94). Significantly, unlike Zanoni and Luconi, Ramirez acknowledges that this cultural consumption of Italy and the creation of a transnational Italian identity were ultimately possible only because the immigrant experience afforded them the economic means to participate in networks of consumption from which they were excluded in Italy. The new migrants, in fact, could buy things that allowed them to cultivate their ties with and memories of Italy.

Focusing on the recent past, Courtney Ritter and Isotta Enrici explore the implications of the Italian government and Italian businesses’ branding of Italian products in the United States. Courtney Ritter argues that in the 1980s and 1990s the Italian Trade Commission created a new image of Italian culture and products for upper-class Anglo Americans that came exclusively from Northern Italy at the expense of Southern Italian and Italian American identity. Ritter also argues that this promotion of a Northern Italian identity attracted support among upper-middle class Italian Americans because it allowed them to show their upward mobility and to establish a more palatable Italian identity. This is certainly a valuable point, but one that perhaps should be further complicated, especially in light of Cinotto’s discussion of the persistence of stereotypes against Italian Americans, even when they advance socially and wear expensive Italian suits.

Finally, Isotta Enrici uses television ads from 1995 to 2009 to illustrate how Barilla has been «able to build a premium brand through the commodifying medium par excellence, television, by investing in a long-term communication strategy and creating a user-friendly guideto an Italian way of living» (p. 119). The ads celebrate pasta as the quintessence of Italianness and make the Italian lifestyle chic. Enrici successfully demonstrates that today «buying Barilla pasta has come to mean the same thing as wearing an Armani suit, with the difference that the former is cheaper and easier to share» (p. 127). However, the author could take this a step further by referencing how this marketing campaign affected the Italian American community, their consuming patterns, and their identity.

These are outstanding essays, yet it is not clear how unique the Italian American experience was in comparison with other immigrant or minority groups and, if unique, what factors contributed to making Italian Americans such crucial players in the invention of a transnational Italian identity. One might speculate that Italian Americans’ unique migration patterns and the interference of the Italian government in their eating practices and fashion taste because of the power of the Made in Italy might in part explain why their consumer habits differed from those of other immigrant groups. Moreover, in some of the articles, Italian American consumers still remain passive actors who responded to branding campaigns coming from Italy. Through their purchasing patterns, Italian Americans have actively contributed to reinvent and re-imagine the Italy they left behind, and their choices as consumers ultimately influenced what has come to be known as «typically Italian». A transnational study of this cross-fertilization might add yet another layer of complexity to the story the authors effectively explore in this issue.

Despite these minor details, these essays greatly advance the fields of migration studies, consumerism studies, and transnational studies, and they raise questions that could further advance and bring together these three fields. Scholars and students interested in these fields will benefit tremendously from the stories and analysis presented in these essays and will gain a more nuanced understanding of the connections between consumer culture and identity formation within a transnational and diasporic framework. In ethnic studies, cultural studies, and immigration/migration courses, this special issue of via will be particularly useful to compare and contrast ethnic consumer habits and immigrants’ efforts to create and maintain a transnational identity through consumption. More importantly, these essays offer a great starting point to begin to understand more broadly how minorities in the United States -from Asian Americans to Latinos/Latinas and African Americans -have historically used their choices as consumers to resist mainstream American businesses’ marketing efforts to mold their taste.

 

Maddalena Marinari (American University)

 

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