OLD VALUES, NEW IDENTITIES

From nativist reactions to the earliest Italian immigrants to last week's broadcast of “The Sopranos”, Americans have long had fixed ideas about Italian American identity. Today, one need look no further than the television to gather stereotypes about the community: generations of earthy Italians gather around the table in food commercials even as Italian low-lifes murder one another in mob films.

In fact, the complex realities of Italian American identity contradict such familiar stereotypes. If the Italians of New York still contend with the bitter memory of the murder of Yusef Hawkins in Bensonhurst, they also work as dedicated educators following the example of Leonard Covello, former principal of Benjamin Franklin High School in East Harlem, recalling the time when their grandparents were considered an inferior race. The other side of "Mafia" movies is the real-life story of a cop, Lt. Giuseppe Petrosino, assassinated as he investigated organized crime. Clichès about Italian families are questioned by Robert Ferro's haunting novels about growing up gay and Italian American.

No figure has better served as a lighting rod for the community's contradictions than has Christopher Columbus. A century ago, Columbus unified the Italians of New York, but in 1992 he was a contentious figure, celebrated by some ethnic groups, disclaimed by others. Italians of New York continue to march in his honor each Columbus Day, marking their earliest history in America while facing questions about their future. Like other ethnic groups, Italian Americans still seek their rightful place in our common society, even as they celebrate their own unique heritage.