The history of a people who have influenced our nation for over 100 years is brought to life in the new PBS documentary, The Italian Americans.
When John Maggio set out to create The Italian Americans, he didn’t know much about his own ancestry. The fourth-generation North Buffalo native says his parents told him the family was Sicilian, but he didn’t know much about how their history had developed into his present.
“Family was very important to us,” said Maggio. "And the family that was alive was very present to us, and very warm and loving. But I didn’t know much about the people who had come before them.”
In making the film, and delving into the history of Italian Americans, Maggio also set out to investigate his own family’s background.
“I certainly did, for me, I mean, learning that my great grandfather had come in 1896 and then later my great grandmother on my father’s side had come a couple of years later fit with a kind of pattern of migration that is unique to Italian Americans. They came to this country to make money, but they wanted to initially maybe raise their families back in Italy,” Maggio said.
Along with some personal enlightenment, what came out of that investigation became Maggio’s goal for the film – a hope that, like him, others would look at it and see something about themselves and their families.
What makes the documentary pertinent today is that the debates that raged at the turn of the century when European immigrants were coming to American shores, mirror the arguments going on now. Maggio links the struggles his ancestors faced to those of the Mexican and Latino immigrant community.
“They now occupy the lowest rung of society in this country, but there’s a lot of them,” said Maggio. “They want the opportunities our forbearers had, that our immigrant ancestors had when they came to this country. Their kids now are in our schools. They speak a different language. They send money back to their family that’s still in Mexico. It’s incredible, really, how it informs the debate today.”
When President Barack Obama introduced new reforms on immigration last November, a part of his speech resonated with Maggio.
“Scripture tells us that we shall not oppress a stranger. For we know the heart of a stranger. We were strangers once, too. My fellow Americans, we are and always will be a nation of immigrants. We were strangers once, too,” said Obama.
Maggio says it summed up what he was trying to get across with the film, and he hopes his work will help shape and color the conversation about the way we treat immigrants. It’s why he makes historical films, he says, because history is always relevant to today.
Maggio looks back on his Buffalo upbringing fondly, but now he does so with a better understanding of his family’s place in the larger scheme of immigration and history. After presentations of his film around the country, Maggio has been finding that Italian Americans want to get up and tell their story. When the film makes its debut in Buffalo at the North Park Theatre this Saturday, mere blocks from where Maggio grew up, he hopes the same thing will happen again.
“And that’s really the special part, is hearing from people and hearing their story and how they fit in to what we’ve discovered,” Maggio said.
The Italian Americans makes its national debut tonight at 9 p.m. on WNED TV.
It will be shown at a special PBS event at the Northpark Theatre on February 21, at 11:30, followed by a live question and answer session with John Maggio. For more information, visit www.northparktheare.org.