The Sitdown: Bill Dal Cerro, defender of Italian-American history

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As told to Tina Sfondeles, Staff Reporter

A Fenton High School teacher by day and Italian-American history and culture aficionado the rest of the time, Bill Dal Cerro, a Chicago native, wants the world to know on Columbus Day (Monday) and beyond, that there are plenty of positive Italian role models out there. The president of the Italic Institute of America, which is based in New York, has made it his mission to remind the world that Italians aren’t just gangsters who eat well. And he’s revved up to stand up for his heritage during Italian-American Heritage Month.

I’m fourth-generation Italian. My great-grandfather originally came from the area around Lucca and got a job at the railroad in Chicago. That was a big employer of Italians at the time.

The West Side at Grand and Ogden, that was a huge Italian neighborhood. The more modern, the more assimilated Italians got.

The more you stay in America, the more you lose touch with your heritage. I’m kind of like the opposite of that. Like the famous phrase ‘What the grandparents want to forget, the grandchildren want to remember.’ That seems to be the phase I’m in right now, kind of recapturing what has been lost.

I began doing all these great interviews with Italian teachers, labor leaders, all these intelligent, articulate, very interesting people and we began to kind of compare that with watching what we watch on movie screens. They’re always negative. Either gangster-ism or buffoonery.

Why isn’t Hollywood making movies about these [positive] kinds of people? Why don’t you see them on the big screen?

I want to keep the Italian tradition alive and educate people.

There’s a movie coming out in December called “Unbroken,” about Louis Zamperini, the World War II hero and Olympic runner. This is going to be literally the first feature-length Hollywood movie that has a positive stereotype of an Italian-American in 40 years, since Al Pacino in “Serpico,” when he played the great heroic cop from New York.

Forty years without a positive portrayal in a mainstream movie. We’re kind of hoping this will break the drought, and change minds and attitudes.

It’s become an institutionalized stereotype.

Amadeo Giannini was the great American banker. This is the guy who founded Bank of America. He literally did for banking what Carnegie did for steel, what Rockefeller did for oil, but he’s never mentioned.

Some of these little things we see as American were started by great Italians who nobody knows about because of the movies. It’s very powerful. They just kind of sink into your soul, so to speak, and people say, “Wait a minute. He’s not wearing a pinky ring,” and he doesn’t talk like “How you doin?”

Giannini is a national figure. All Italian-Americans should rally around this guy the way ethnic groups have their heroes. The way Polish-Americans have Casimir Pulaski, and Dr. [Martin Luther] King Jr. for African-Americans. This should be our hero.

We should not be promoting Don Vito Corleone, who’s fictional.

A lot of Italians worked in the mining district in downstate Illinois, huge Italian population.

You have a suburb called Highwood, between Highland Park and Lake Bluff, really heavy Italian suburb, very small. But all those people started out working for the wealthy on the North Shore as maids, tailors, landscapers and ended up building homes and keeping them going for generations.

Chicago’s Little Italy is not as developed as, say, Boston, which has a huge Little Italy still. San Francisco too. Even though that’s great, they’re still kind of losing the flavor, so to speak, because a lot of the residents there have died off or their children have gone off and moved to the suburbs.

The Italians had a bocce club in Lakeview on Ashland. It was knocked down to build condos.

I had the kids write down perceptions of Italians and food came up a lot. It’s like saying African-Americans know how to sing and dance. They’re gifted musically. Italians are gifted in terms of culinary skills. But you can go beyond that. There have been great African-American reporters like Ida B. Wells. There have been great Italian-American businessmen like Giannini.

We’re just trying to expand the notion of what Italian-American is.

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