Sunday, January 16, 2011

Orsi - The Madonna of 115th Street

Orsi, Robert A. The Madonna of 115th Street: Faith and Community in Italian Harlem, 1880 - 1950. New Haven ; London: Yale University Press, 2002.

Orsi explores the community of Italian Harlem through an analysis of the devotion to the Madonna of 115th street. Besides religion, he covers family (particularly gender roles), first and second generation immigration issues, the decline of the community, and much more.

"The domus of Mount Carmel drew its meaning from and found support in its identification with the domus; the domus drew its meaning from and found its support in its identification with the domus of Mount Carmel." (171) After describing the way the festa of the Madonna would have looked, Orsi strays from the Madonna to describe life in the neighborhood before tying them back together in the large penultimate chapter, "The Meanings of the Devotion to the Madonna of 115th Street." The domus is the southern Italian emphasis on family, and the Italian immigrants claimed their identity in the new world through this emphasis, demanding rispetto (respect) to the family above all else. Thus the Madonna (and the Catholic faith in general) symbolized and mirrored the expected behavior of all Italians.

Other interesting tidbits
  • Orsi's introduction reflects on his initial attempt at absolute objectivity in pursuing oral history, followed by his realization that he could allow himself to connect with the community on a personal level without damaging his work.
  • The final crisis the community faced was the exodus of Italian-Americans from Harlem sparked by their improving economics. Actually, Italian-Americans retain some resentment to the Puerto Ricans who they believe forced them out of their community, while it was their own departure that opened room for the transition from Italian Harlem to Spanish Harlem.
  • In 1903 Pope Leo XIII elevated the Madonna from shrine to sanctuary, something that only happened in the United States 3 times before 1954. This was partially motivated by his desire to protect his fellow Italians from the anti-Italian attitudes of American Catholics. This one of many facets of the tension between Irish and Italians in New York (and elsewhere). Another is the fact that Irish tended to be the bosses of Italian laborers.
  • Italians mythologized the mafia as defenders of the domus outside the household in the cruel streets of New York, "forgetting" their cruelty and violence.
Orsi mainly draws from oral history and documents from the community. But he also supplements this with cultural works, such as novels, that came out of the community, using them as colorful examples that highlighted certain aspects of the reality of the community.

How does this fit into my reading list?
Social stems from culture. Culture is changed by change (I know what I said). Orsi sees the social dynamics of the community (the way the community functioned, from how marriages occurred to the jobs it pursued) stemming from its culture, which was created out of the desire of immigrants to retain a connection to Italy combined with the reality that they were very far from Italy indeed.

This book didn't blow me away as much as I expected it to. Perhaps I was not invested enough in the material, because the work itself is a spectacular piece of history. Personally, like many books, I think it could have been trimmed down (less examples, less repetition of certain points). But the brilliance of the book lies in the way Orsi starts with a specific aspect of a historical community and spirals out from that to discuss all aspects of that community's history. I also like the delicate way Orsi discusses religion, arguing that the Italians' sense of the control Saints had over their lives was not so much fatalism as their own humility and respect of the reality of the world as they understood it.

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