Put away your prejudices, preconceptions and stereotypes. Le Donne Briganti are coming! Made up of women from all walks of Montreal life – lawyers, restaurateurs, conference centre directors and publishing house owners, to name but a few, Le Donne have made it their mission to speak and act out as one against what they feel is the malicious stereotyping of Italians.
While this sort of stereotyping has been going on for as long as Italian immigration to North America, the last straw came during the recent municipal election in Montreal. Adopting the name from the title of Leo Samà’s play Donne di briganti, about the role women played during the unification of Italy amid the backdrop of brigandage as a way of fighting injustice, the group decided that enough was enough.
“In the wake of reports and focus on the Italian community by the media during the campaign,” says Enza Martuccelli, Director of Community Relations at the Quebec Jewish Congress, “we asked ourselves: ‘Where is our community? Why isn’t someone defending the rights of regular, hard- working Italians – in the face of innuendo and vague, veiled references to possible underworld and criminal elements?’ It was easy to blame the Italian community because we lacked a real voice, a single voice.
“One of the strengths of the Jewish community where I work is that – whatever the internal struggles, whatever the disagreements, and there are many and there are politics in this community as well – it speaks with a single voice on issues such as discrimination, racism, stereotypes.”
While Le Donne Briganti don’t boast of being “that single voice,” they do hope to bring a fresh voice and perspective to the table. Part of that change in perspective includes a new look at how Italian women are perceived and a renewed emphasis on educational initiatives as a way to pro- mote the “story” of the Italian diaspora.
“In Canada and diasporic communities around the world, our children are not being taught about their heritage,” says Martuccelli. “Promoting the teaching of history, the teaching of who our heroes are is lacking in the Italian community. And so we wind up with heroes who are mobsters. There was a headline in The Gazette following the funeral [of Nick Rizzuto] that said: ‘He Was a Beautiful Guy.’
“There are so many deserving of that headline. And yet everyone focuses on that – or the stereotypes: the folkloric, the mamma, the eating, the family, the fashion. You see Italians come out in droves for the World Cup if we win. And we’re everywhere and we’re everyone’s darling. But do we have a voice on policy issues? Where does the Italian community stand on immigration? Why aren’t we out there in the public forums?”
According to Director of the Gerber Conference Centre Carmella Mignacca, who has worked with the Jewish com- munity in Montreal for a decade, the key difference between that community and the Italian is involvement. She also sees an organization like Le Donne Briganti being the facilitator in bringing people together, in providing education programs and in allowing people to voice their opinions.
“We say ‘Donne Briganti’ because I would like to see us honour famous Italian women who affected history, the struggles of our ancestors, and our parents when they came here,” Mignacca says.
“I’d like it if we could show our children that they are who they are today because of what we’ve done, how we’ve in one generation reached a level that is definitely to be admired.”
While the organizational structure for Le Donne Briganti is still being designed (at present consisting of a seven-woman board), they know one thing for sure: they are not interested in the kind of structure found in traditional Italian organizations.
“One of the problems in Italian volunteer organizations is that there’s a concept of a volunteer as being subordinate to the leadership,” says Martuccelli. “One of the things that we have here [in the Quebec Jewish Congress] is that the volunteer’s word is gold. I, as a professional, have to defer at all times to volunteers.
“There’s also the fact Italian Canadian leadership does not speak for the Italian community. There’s a concentration in St. Leonard, but what about Kirkland and LaSalle and NDG? And also different constituencies of Italians. The people in the groups are doing a good job … God bless them … but we really would like to be a new, fresh and positive voice.”
For Giovanna Giancaspro, owner of La Molisana restaurant, becoming involved with Le Donne Briganti is a way to expand her already extensive activism. That activism has included running for political office in the last municipal election, organizing a petition among local businesses to protest parking meters, and generally being a thorn in the side of what she feels is a fiscally irresponsible City Hall. She, too, finds that being Italian can raise issues that it shouldn’t.
“I was running as an independent candidate in the Ahuntsic area,” she says, “and there were even rumours saying: ‘Ah, it’s all mafia … part of Zampino.’ I’m an activist for everybody against the city and as soon as I speak out … well, it’s because she’s Italian.
“Italian cafés are being targeted and no one’s going to find out why they’re being targeted. Everyone’s saying: ‘It’s all a mafia thing.’ There were some targeted in my area. My uncle goes there; my aunt goes there for coffee; I go there. There are no drugs, no gam- bling. Nothing. My father at 91 goes there. It gives him something to do.”
According to Martuccelli, the constant stereotyping of Italians has consequences that go far beyond a few newspaper headlines. Those who think it’s nothing but a joke to be taken with a grain of salt and a laugh or two are in for a rude awakening.
“The Federal government is doing due diligence on all the contracts it issues,” she says, “and I bet that if your name ends in ‘a’ or ‘o’ or ‘i’ you’ll get much closer scrutiny. If you apply as a Jewish organization, you have instant credibility; if you apply as an Italian organization, you’re suspect. It’s immediately about money laundering.
“Someone has to take the lead and say: ‘Okay, that’s enough. Now, there will be someone who’ll issue the press release and say that’s not right.’ People can laugh it off, but eventually the message will be heard.”
Aside from monitoring the media, having editorial board meetings, issuing press releases and statements against stereotyping and racism, and meeting with other women’s groups, Le Donne Briganti see the mentoring of newer communities as one of their most important tasks.
“More recent immigrants,” says Martuccelli, “especially Muslim women, have a terrible time. Some have been spat at on the street. If you see pictures of the first wave of Italian immigrants, they looked Middle Eastern. And so there’s a process of transformation and integration that we’ve undergone.
“We can offer insight into that process and participate in debates on reasonable accommodation. I think we owe it to Canada and to Montreal to do that because, as we’ve managed to pre- serve our culture, we have to be a block against this anti-immigration wave that is sweeping the world.”
Le Donne Briganti’s events for 2010 include an International Women’s Day Brunch, on March 7, with major women’s groups in Montreal. For more information on Le Donne Briganti and their activities please contact Enza Martuccelli at 514-364-0884.
Michael Mirolla is the author of the novel Berlin.