The Madonna of 115th street

festa 1

Source (image undated).

Having struggled with the dense theoretical terminology of ritual studies so ably surveyed by Catherine Bell, it’s a great pleasure to read the classic 1985 ethnography

  • Robert Orsi, The Madonna of 115th Street: faith and community in Italian Harlem, 1880-1950.

This study of “religion in the streets” describes the annual festa of the Madonna of Mount Carmel on East 115th Street in New York, celebrated by poor immigrants from south Italy and their American-born or –raised children. [1]

Orsi cover

By the time that Orsi was visiting the neighbourhood the heyday of the festa was long past. Besides his own interviews, he consults copious written sources, notably Leonard Covello’s interviews from the late 1920s, as well as parish bulletins—in which women’s requests for graces were prominent—and novels.

This introductory sentence may seem simple, but it’s crucial:

It is the central assumption of this history that the celebration cannot be understood apart from an understanding of the people who took part in it.

Orsi constantly notes social and religious change. On procession, men and women were segregated until at least the 1940s. “As soon as economic capacity matched social aspiration, which allowed Italians to send their children to school, the entire grammar school of Our Lady of Mount Carmel marched in the procession by grade.” Before the community was powerful enough to make arrangements, the procession had to stop for passing trolley cars. But as the neighbourhood shrank, so did the procession.

He shows the disparaging stance of the official church towards “popular religion” (cf. De Martino on taranta in south Italy; and elsewhere, such as in China!), and the attempt to transform it into a vision of respectable American Catholicism, like its Irish or Polish adherents.

The immigrants made no distinction between “sacred” and “profane” elements of the festa: all had an integrated meaning. However, they did constantly distinguish religion and church. The festa was

the occasion on which the Italians of Harlem revealed to themselves and to others who they were, introduced their children to their most fundamental perceptions of reality, and attempted to deal with the many tensions and crises that arose because they were immigrants in a strange land and because of the particular nature of their deepest values.

The landscape of urban popular religion is also important, “a world of parks, stoops, alleyways, hallways, fire escapes, storefronts, traffic, police, courtyards, street crime, and street play”…

Chapter 1 gives a vivid description that will remind fieldworkers of popular festivals in many parts of the world; for me it recalls in some detail the “red and fiery” (see e.g. Chau, Religion in China, chapter 3) atmosphere of Chinese temple fairs. The convivial atmosphere of the festa lasted throughout the week surrounding the main day on 16th July. Pilgrims were hosted from out of town, apartments and streets cleaned, food prepared. Amidst a wealth of decorations American flags and the Italian tricolour were displayed. Orsi evokes processions, vows, graces, healing, people offering bundles of clothing; booths selling religious items, including wax replicas of afflicted human organs, statuettes of infants (for doll effigies, cf. The Houshan Daoists, under “Houshan since the 1980s”), and charms.

Orsi 9On procession the statue of the Madonna was carried on a float, with a guard of honour, fireworks, and incense, touring the parish (China again..). A powerful metaphor for submission was the carrying of heavy candles on procession. The boundaries of the community were defined both by the procession and by the smells and tastes of the festa, with feasting at home and on the streets.

At the rear of the procession, and into the church, came penitents—some barefoot, some crawling. The faithful sang south Italian religious chants; bands played Italian and American music; concerts were held in local parks; men gambled. At first the festa was led by merchants and businessmen; from the 1920s it was directed by the local elite of lawyers, politicians, and so on. Irish police kept the peace.

Orsi soon undermines the rosy image of this beguiling preliminary sketch. Chapter 2 describes the history of Italian immigration to Harlem. The small early communities in the 1870s kept expanding as arrivals fleeing hardship in Basilicata and Calabria added to the ethnic mix in East Harlem, experiencing a new kind of hardship. By the 1920s much of the neighbourhood was dominated by Italians. Conflict with the Irish population was particularly fierce.

Emigration was a family strategy for survival. With kinship networks strong, people’s main loyalty was to the family. They would send regular remittances back to south Italy. If early arrivals (mainly men) felt conflicted attitudes towards the homeland, the second and third generations continued to learn about the bonds with their culture, not least through Leonard Covello’s educational work from the 1920s. Household shrines were standard.

There was continuity, but within the context of disruption—“men separated from their wives and children, men and women separated from their parents and grandparents”. They felt the gulf between their aspirations and the harsh reality of life in Harlem. “Guilt that they were not doing enough, pressure to work harder and faster, and fear that they would be unsuccessful haunted the early arrivals”. They were anxious that family structures and norms would be eroded, and that they would become unrecognisable to their kin back home.

Their hunger for work made them vulnerable to exploitation. Apart from their household duties, women also worked in poorly paid jobs (giobba, job!). Boarding in substandard, densely-packed housing, the community suffered from poor health; infant mortality remained high until the 1930s. Crime and juvenile delinquency were common, with racketeers and gangs. The press seized on such problems. All this was far from the earthly paradise the migrants had imagined before setting out from Italy.

Here’s Helen Levitt’s silent film on street life in East Harlem in 1948:

Tensions within the community were partly based on regional origins, with particular rivalry between Neapolitans and Sicilians. Though Covello made a partial list of sixty-four regional societies in 1934, by then extreme regional loyalties were giving way to neighbourhood consciousness, led by the club, “part social club, part political organisation, and part athletic association”. At the same time, the residents were attached to their Harlem enclave, the sense of solidarity, its sounds, smells, and tastes—a feeling that, as often, was enhanced by nostalgia. Even during the Depression, when the community was hit hard, they cared for each other. Gradually many became Americans “by attrition”.

Chapter 3 describes the origins of the devotion to Mount Carmel in Italian Harlem. The Madonna shared the poverty of her worshippers, and her changing fortunes were closely linked to theirs. The faithful sought her aid for sickness, and during the Depression; for soldiers going off to fight in World War Two, and for children to do well in school.

In 1881 immigrants from Polla in Salerno formed a mutual aid society in the name of the Madonna, amongst whose major functions was to provide support for proper funeral ritual—partly a reflection of their sense of insecurity in the new environment. The first festa the society organised was held in 1882. At first these festas were intimate assemblies held in courtyards or small dwellings; they were lay-organised, with no priestly supervision. The immigrants knelt before a small printed picture of the Madonna, said the rosary, chanted the Magnificat, and enjoyed a communal meal. A priest appeared at the festa in 1883, leading Mass and joining in the procession; but he soon disappeared from the story.

Already by 1884 the festa was described as a great popular celebration. The community now had a statue of the Madonna, sent from her home at Polla. That year too, the Pallotine fathers arrived in the community, with a priest presiding over a little chapel in 111th Street; and the community built a church on 115th Street, which now became the official sponsor of the festa. As Orsi notes,

For the entire history of the devotion, this celebration of a woman, in which women were the central participants, was presided over by a public male authority.

In the early years the devotees of the Madonna had to worship in the basement of the church. But as the festa became more visible on the streets, more well-heeled visitors from other neighbourhoods came to gawp (cf. Mahler’s 1909 visit to the Lower East Side). Irish and other American Catholics took a dim view of the “pagan” popular devotion on display, which they found devoid of any understanding of “the great truths of religion”.

Orsi 5

After a series of complex debates with the Vatican, the statue of the Madonna was crowned in 1904, her golden decoration provided by donations of gold from immigrant families—rings, brooches, family heirlooms. In 1922 the interior of the church was renovated, and the following year the Madonna statue was enthroned on the main altar. The bell tower, completed in 1927, was rich in meaning for the community, who again gave generously for its construction. By now the church and the devotion belonged to the entire community of Italian Harlem, not to any particular neighbourhood or region of Italy.

The twenty-fifth anniversary of the coronation of the Madonna on 16th July 1929 was celebrated in great style, with the statue carried out onto the streets. By now the church was a major emblem of the community. If the Masses conducted by its priests were still not the focus of worship, families were now commonly holding their rites of passage there.

During World War Two women turned to the Madonna to protect their menfolk on distant battlefields, making vows that were still being kept until the 1960s. The troops also went into battle wearing scapulars bearing the image of the Madonna around their necks (again under The Houshan Daoists, cf. stories of Houtu rescuing soldiers in the Korean and Vietnam wars).

After Italy’s surrender to the allies in 1944, in a remarkable gesture of reconciliation towards former enemies of the USA, a service was held for five hundred Italian “ex-prisoners of war” who were held at an army base just outside New York. The church bell announced the end of the war; Madonna processions celebrated the peace.

By the 1950s the church took precedence over the popular cult. The community spirit of parish clubs and schools now fostered patriotism and anti-Communism. As former residents moved out to the boroughs, Italian Harlem was changing rapidly too, it was becoming Spanish Harlem. The power of the Madonna waned, and a new sense of loss emerged. By 1953,

the meaning of the festa was interior, controlled, a matter of the heart and not the street. The people have come out not to march and eat and cry in the hot streets, but to go to church.

Italian and English reports of the festa after 1947 seem to describe different events, the former stressing orderliness, the latter noting passion and fervour.

In Chapter 4 Orsi studies the domus-centred society of Italian Harlem, where the family was the “source of meaning and morals”. Even in recalling their homeland, they hardly knew an Italian nation (if they were aware of it at all, it was as an oppressor)—only the domus of their paese, with its discipline, loyalty, and mutual support. They contrasted this with American family values. Parents were anxious when their children married outside the community. The deep religiosity of the people was largely untrammelled by priests; as the priesthood seemed to compete with the domus, anticlericalism was a major theme. Individuals were seen in relation to the domus.

In the apartment building, doors were always open to neighbouring families. Christmas and baptisms were celebrations shared by the whole building. Rispetto was expected, both within and between families.

So far, this seems to play to the usual romantic clichés; but the chapter goes on to muddy the picture considerably. Rispetto was a “dark and complex” theme, implying “both love and fear, intimacy and distance”; the culture demanded obedience. The public nature of life and the policing of values could also be intimidating. When rispetto was violated, vergogna (shame) ensued.

Funerals came to acquire changing meanings. In the early period, they prompted painful reflections on whether emigration had been a wise decision; later, the community sought to reassure itself about the lasting strength of its values. As to the sacred shrines that adorned family apartments, “the home was not sacred because these figures were there, but, rather, these figures were there because the home was sacred”. But “loyalty to the domus could at times take on a real ferocity”. This was shown not only in hostility with Puerto Rican and black communities, but internally too: their rage was often turned inward.

Orsi warns against drawing a simple conclusion that the domus limited the ambitions of the Italian community: once they acquired skills in the labour market, they moved up the ladder. Later in the book he observes that dreams of “making America” were not incompatible with traditional modesty.

Chapter 5 continues to explore the way in which the family cracked under the very nature of Italian American life. Immigration was a traumatic experience; throughout its history, the domus was perceived as being in danger in American society.

Efforts to maintain the domus in all its authoritarian purity at the centre of the culture were driven by this dread of its imminent collapse. But the domus did not collapse, nor did it ever seem close to doing so in Italian Harlem; so we must consider whether the persistent sense of its fragility was not the expression of deep conflict within and ambivalence toward the domus itself. […]

The domus in Italian Harlem was the scene of bitter conflict and profound struggle.

Though not for public display, this was evident in the generational conflict between the Italian-born generations and their Italian American children, who mostly “seemed to exist in subtle and quiet alienation from each other”. Within the hierarchy of the domus, rivalries obtained, with father and oldest brother exercising particular power and competing. Other members of the family subtly undermined such authority. For younger men, taking part in sports was a significant outlet that also gave rise to conflict in the family.

The sexual life of young people was a minefield, with dating and courting closely policed by the “detective agency” of the extended family. Dates were a source of dread for both men and women; young women were expected to marry the first man they dated.

Orsi unpacks the Mafia myth. For many Italians, gangsters were romantic figures, helping to keep the community safe, protecting the virtue of its women: “willing to put their considerable cruelty at the service of the domus”, they enforced its values.

Everyone in the community knew that local mobsters spent most of their time in Italian Harlem extorting Italian merchants and running numbers games that took money away from the community. The mobsters were never presented as banditti who took from the rich and gave to Italian Harlem. […] Why did the domus need to be surrounded and the Madonna rescued by violent and cruel men? Why did the community make heroes out of these mobsters, if only in the tales they told, when they knew full well the reality of their crimes? Why did anger and violence assume such central places in the fantasies of Italian Harlem? And what was the threat to the domus that could be repelled only by such extreme measures? […] Symbols of aggression and repression, the mythical mafiosi embodied the complexity of feeling and anxiety which the people of Italian Harlem bore toward the domus.

He devotes several fine sections to the lives of women and the subtle ways in which they resisted the submission demanded of them. His unobtrusive feminism is one of the great strengths of the book.

Until the clergy at the church put a stop to it in the 1920s, it was a common occurrence at the annual festa for members of a family to drag one of the central women of their household down the aisle of the church. As they went along, the woman stuck her tongue out so that it touched the stones of the church floor, licking them as she was borne toward the Madonna. This disturbing ritual, which was deplored by visitors to the church in the early years of this century, clearly poses certain explicit questions about the role of women in the culture and in the family. Why was a woman dragged in this way by her family up to the figure of a divine and powerful woman? What was being expressed here of the inner life of the community? What were the community—and the women—learning as they observed this scene? To answer these questions, we must study the lives of women in the community, the nature of family life, relations between men and women, and attitudes toward the sacred woman on the altar on 115th Street.

Publicly the family was a theatrical display of patriarchy, but in private it was a matriarchy, albeit one exercised in subterranean ways. Married women were the guardians of traditional mores. Some older women were respected healers (cf. Chinese mediums), having brought from south Italy their skills in the rituals of protection from the evil eye. This also revealed the tension between the old world and the new. Where the mechanical techniques of American doctors could offer no hope of a cure, Italian female healers were summoned, whose stress was on the whole communal environment. Women also played a major role at funerals, bearing the public burden of mourning.

Modest behaviour was expected of young unmarried women. They were both “volcanoes ready to erupt and lambs wandering in a world of wolves”. Their upbringing was “fraught with anxiety and dread”.

Young women were summoned to a dangerous dance by their men. The latter made their advances—and then watched to see if they would be resisted as they wanted and expected to be. […] One false move would bring disaster down on them. […] Who had the real power here—the women who had to uphold the standards of the domus or the men who put them to the test?

Many men insisted that their wives should not learn English. In this stifling environment, rebellion was rare, and young women had to find more subtle ways of asserting their independence. Gradually, as women became better educated than men, one way in which they could loosen their bonds was through employment. They began finding clerical work—progress that was also resisted by the seniors of the family.

Women did appear in public, but street life was male-dominated. The religious experience of women was complex. Taking part in the devotion, besides confirming their roles in the community, they could also articulate their anxieties to the Madonna. Tensions between the women of the family was defused by the devotion.

In Chapter 6 Orsi gives sketches towards an inner history of immigration. Despite the importance of memory in shaping identity,

The distance of the immigrants from their lives in Italy, their complex feelings toward their homeland, and their hopes for a new beginning for themselves and especially for their children made them unwilling or unable to share their memories with their American-born or –raised children.

This was compounded by the generational tensions within the family.

Having sought to escape from the poverty of the homeland, immigrants found themselves ensnared in a different kind of poverty. Apart from their own sense of alienation, they also had to reckon with American xenophobia. As Covello recalled, “We were becoming Americans by learning how to be ashamed of our parents”.

This sets the scene for a return to the festa in Chapter 7. In the early period, when immigrants were mostly single men, “participation in the cult assuaged their complicated guilt”, their devotion to the Madonna (“mamma’s house”) representing their fidelity to “a moral and cultural system signified and dominated by women”. As they were joined by women from the homeland, they sought peace, protection, and pardon in the cult. The presence of the Madonna in East Harlem gave divine and maternal sanction to the immigrants’ decision to leave south Italy.

The procession itself was a kind of enactment of their journey. The 1928 souvenir journal described “the long and fatiguing journeys [viaggi]” to the shrine, trips that involved “enormous expense” for the devout. People stressed that the faithful came from “all over” for the annual celebration, stressing long trips that involved crossing water. As Italian Harlem dispersed after World War Two, “a new emphasis was placed on the journeys back to the shrine undertaken by those who had moved out of the community”. The festa was a return not only to their paese but to their mother.

Slowly the community developed a kind of pan-Italian patriotism. Mussolini was popular in East Harlem, “not as a Fascist but as a symbol of the forceful presence they were still groping for”. While the festa remained mainly a demonstration of continuity with the community’s south Italian roots, regional distinctions were already breaking down by 1928.

Orsi stresses the centrality of eating at the festa, again recalling the domus. “Food was symbol and sanction and sacrament, integrating the home, the streets, and the sacred”. The cult celebrated the whole texture of Italian humanity, so very different from the closed world of Protestant America.

People also beseeched the Madonna to heal domestic conflicts, minor maladies, nervous breakdowns, and other crises. Some stories reflect “a concern for the manifold threats of an urban environment, and all implicitly depict mothers and fathers distracted by a multitude of worries and anxieties”. After World War Two, upwardly-mobile Italians who had recently moved out might pray for the husband’s business or a daughter’s success in school. Often such prayers were answered. Healing stories

were the sacred, cathartic theatre of Italian Harlem: the community could derive a deep redemptive satisfaction from the threatened demise of the domus while looking forward to to the satisfaction’s of the domus’ final triumph.

The street was “a theatre of extremes, […] a carnival alternately beckoning and frightening. The devotion to Mount Carmel responded to this tension: it was the annual blessing and reclamation of the streets”.

The devotion, the church, and the monthly parish bulletins also helped to define and legitimate the local power structure.

At a time when Italian doctors, lawyers, and merchants were not welcomed into the American elite, they claimed an authority for themselves by advertising in the bulletin—as did politicians. American laws were judged by the values of the domus. With popular political campaigns, Fiorello LaGuardia, and then his protégé Vito Marcantonio (a former student of Covello), enacted progressive social legislation for better housing, as well as for full employment and safer working conditions.

Orsi 76

Orsi looks in more detail at the world of work, “hard wage labour at gruelling jobs under the supervision of other ethnic groups”. Men worked as rag-pickers, junk and bottle collectors, bootblacks, newsboys, beer sellers, candy makers, sign makers, barbers, pushcart vendors, dock workers, construction workers; women worked making artificial flowers at home and dressmakers in factories. They suffered worse than other groups from periods of unemployment. Their bosses sought to control any signs of socialist leanings. The festa, with its stress on reciprocal relations, energy and enthusiasm, offered a different vision from wage alienation. It was also a time when the faithful sought cures for workplace accidents and related traumas.

Religious sacrifice allows men and women to believe that they have some control over their destinies even when they fear that they are otherwise bound by severe economic and social constraints. […] In this way, religious experience becomes a realm of relative freedom in the midst of lives ruled by necessity.

The question arises, however, whether this religious behaviour is not, or does not become, masochistic, a desperate infliction of punishment on the self in a frustrated rage against the perception of powerlessness.

Again Orsi suggests that the devotion encouraged people to repress their rage against the domus by turning it inward. The two possibilities of sacrifice, entrapment and resolution, can hardly be separated.

And again Orsi interrogates the role of women. While men were in nominal control of the devotion, women were the central figures in its life. Yet at the same time that it offered them consolation, it reaffirmed those aspects of the culture which oppressed them: the source of their comfort was also the source of their entrapment. As one women commented succinctly,

I had a hard life. I got married and it got worse.

Among a wealth of case studies in the book is that of a young woman who in 1946 prayed fervently to the Madonna that her suitor would propose to her. She was grateful when he did so, but she soon found out that he behaved in ways that she could not approve of. Since there was no socially sanctioned way of breaking off the engagement, she again sought the help of the Madonna, strengthening her resolve to end the relationship and making a promise to attend weekly novenas. This ratified her decision, which would have found approval nowhere else in the community; and her attendance at the novenas demonstrated her constancy both to the community and to other suitors.

Orsi 142

Orsi cites a 1930 obituary notice which exploited the chance to instruct women in their duties, its “suffocatingly lyrical prose” concealing an “aesthetic of entrapment”. He ends the chapter with further reflections on the immigrants’ fear of secular power (inherited, indeed, from their ancestral oppression in south Italy):

Distant and self-serving authority, in their eyes, took sons away and sent them to distant wars that would profit only the wealthy, denied or granted them assistance, built housing projects in the neighbourhood from which they were then excluded on the basis of apparently unreasonable regulations designed to defeat them.

In conclusion, Chapter 8 discusses “the theology of the streets”.

Southern Italian popular religion gave voice to the despair of men and women long oppressed—oppressed with peculiar, sadistic ingenuity—and reinforced attitudes of resignation and fear, as well as a sense of the perversity of reality.

This was present in the Harlem devotion, but it was not the whole story.

Orsi notes the problems of reading the theology of such a people within its full social context. It’s not that the immigrants were silent about these issues: they wondered about the meaning of their lives, and pondered their place in the scheme of things. Nor was their theology merely a corruption or a poor assimilation of Catholic doctrine. They resented the American Catholic church’s belittling of their “pagan” faith. In the New World the devotion represented their determination to triumph over adversity.

They had brought their Madonna with them and every year they took her out into the streets where they lived. They would not allow religious officials, in this country or in Italy, to alienate them from the sacred. […]

The Italians of East Harlem revealed a sense of the insufficiency of a male God. Women seemed to doubt that a male God could understand their needs and hopes and so they turned to another, complementary divine figure whose life was full of suffering for her child, a story that resonated deeply with the economy of Italian American family life.

Of course, Orsi’s accounts of generational strife are variations of morality tales around the world. If all this looks like an instance of the crumbling of the strict “family values” such as one can find to various degrees in many, if not all, cultures, it’s a particularly well-documented one. And it shows a painful, confused transitional period, from which communities can apparently emerge.

While the Madonna cult often reminds me of Chinese temple fairs, accounts of the latter tend to be more celebratory, steering clear of the negative aspects of the cultures they represent, or merely indicting the bête-noire of state socialist repression as an alien force repressing an apparently timeless, ideal communal cohesion. This applies to studies of religious life not only in the PRC, but also, I think, in Taiwan, where the strength of traditional observances and values is stressed in implied contrast with those on the mainland. Many such accounts are more centred on liturgical texts and ritual sequences than on the lives of ordinary people.

Another major blessing of Orsi’s deeply humane book is that it bypasses the arcane apparatus of scholarly vocabulary that was already de rigueur in anthropology and ritual studies (see Catherine Bell’s fine surveys—in Ritual: perspectives and dimensions she praises the book for its exposition of orthopraxy—useful as the term may be, Orsi doesn’t even feel a need for it. This economy of jargon makes the text all the more instructive, besides being immensely readable.

* * *

Orsi provides substantial introductions to all three editions. The first is straightforward yet instructive. The second (2002) he calls “Fieldwork between the present and the past” (a crucial issue for China and elsewhere). As he set off on his project in the late 1970s, he aspired to becoming a “real” historian:

I have heard historians proudly say that they study only dead people, and in those early days I, too, was looking for dead people.

(cf. WAM, with Esa-Pekka Salonen’s interview for the LA Phil!). With his discipline of religious studies still “wedded to textuality”, at first Orsi considered that it was the badge of the serious historian to trawl through dusty archives. His epiphany came with finding the papers of Leonard Covello, and by listening to women as he sat with them in their kitchens.

While by Orsi’s time the festa was a pale shadow of its former vibrancy, he found that there was no firm barrier between the present and the past. While one might say he had been unlucky to train as a historian rather than as an ethnographer, he soon broke the chains of that training.

I came to realise that I was learning as much from how people were talking to me as from what they were telling me, as much from what was going on around the stories as from the stories themselves.

Of course, his anxieties on undertaking the project were part of a wider critical re-assessment of the discipline of religious history under the stimulus of ethnography. He interrogates the “unnecessary and confusing boundaries” that sealed off “religion” from “popular religion”. Had his training then extended to anthropology (and indeed ritual studies), he would have found his natural domus—one that many scholars of religion in China still resist, immune to epiphany. Rather than regretting that Orsi didn’t discover the discipline of anthropology sooner, I rejoice in the way he discovered its lessons for himself in the field, rather as I did in China.

Even then Orsi was acutely conscious of gender issues. In the old “body–spirit” antinomy,

Associated with the corporal end of this dichotomy were women and the various concerns of everyday life, while spirit represented the public, the political, and the masculine. […] I found myself right in the vice of the antinomy that structured not only modern historiography but modern professionalism generally.

He also stresses power—not just the power of some over others, but “the power that circulates through cultural forms”, and the power of religion to “shape, orient, and limit the imagination”.

As he becomes aware, “fieldwork proceeds through relationships”. Such study is done not only among real people, but by real people too. “My interlocutors did not let me be invisible, drawing me out with questions about my life and experience”—just as I learned in Gaoluo.

This represents the refusal of otherness by the people we study; it is their determination not to be rendered alien.

He goes on:

On one level, it is useful to remember that the inert documents stored away in archives were once the living media of real people’s engagement with the unfolding events of their times. […] My method in telling the story of the Madonna and Italian Harlem was to bring the voices from the archives and the voices from the streets into relation, allowing them to challenge, amend, deepen, and correct each other.

On his later annual visits to the festa, a woman called Antoinette would always seek him out. “So you think the festa is dying out? Looks pretty good to me.” Orsi concedes that by observing that the festa was waning, he seemed to have fallen into the old trap of early anthropologists who believe they have arrived just in time to preserve a last glimpse of a primitive and disappearing world (see e.g. Musics lost and found). Such “romantic twilight elegies” came to be seen as serving colonial interests, legitimating the work of the ethnographer as a kind of preservationist.

I did have good reason in the early 1980s to think that the festa was not going to be around much longer. The crowds were dwindling. The old Italians in the neighbourhood were dying. Their children, who had moved away to the suburbs, seemed less and less interested in coming back, always more apprehensive about the safety of the neighbourhood…

So in a coda Orsi takes the opportunity of revising his story: “I had not foreseen the arrival of the Haitians. How could I?” By 2010 more Haitians were attending the festa than Italians, transforming it yet again. Orsi notes that whereas Italians held the Puerto Rican community responsible for the demise of Italian Harlem (even though it had been their own choice to move out), the Haitians came into “a special place of cherished memory to which Italian Americans of the second and third generations were themselves “returning”. The Haitians were not seen as taking anything away.

In the third introduction (2010), History, real presence, and the refusal to be purified, Orsi reflects further on changes in religious studies since the 1985 edition—while still refraining (wisely) from detailing changes in anthropology and ritual studies.

He illustrates the continuing story with letters that he regularly received from Italian Americans after the publication of the book, telling their own stories, blurring the line between the past and the present, and transforming themselves from the objects of history into its subjects and narrators.

While Orsi’s approach was in line with studies of working-class cultures at the time, he contrasts the growth of theoretical discourse:

History was being recast as a literary and ideological enterprise with only the most attenuated relationship to anything like a past that had really happened. […] The notion that scholars who studied other cultures or other times were representing in their writing the actual lived experience of the people in these other times and places had become risible and self-delusional, if not a corrupt alignment with power.

Still, he appreciates the increasing popularity of studies of “lived religion”.

The West has been reframed from the perspective of the rest of the world, where what goes on at the Madonna’s shrine is more common and familiar than the sanctioned practices of “modern” Western religion.

He came to explore the potential for accepting folk belief in “real presences”. Part of the modern “eradication of memory” is the forgetting

that not long ago, the gods, spirits, saints, ancestors, and demons were familiar and recognisable members of the social world, in miracles, apparitions, and devotions, amid the relationships of everyday life.

This dangerous amnesia he calls “purification”.

* * *

See also Pomodoro!, a perceptive social history of the tomato on both sides of the Atlantic. Cf. the Boas circle at Columbia; and note the remarkable recordings of piffero and ciaramella played by south Italian immigrants to New York and New Jersey in the early 1960s by the Lomaxes. All this amidst the more familiar ferment of New York life, not least the jazz scene

For a fine study of street gangs in modern Chicago, click here. For female deities in China and women’s participation in ritual there, see e.g. here and here. And among a wealth of discussions of fieldwork, note Bruce Jackson.


[1] Online sites like these have more recollections and images:

https://searchmytribe.com/life-as-an-italian-immigrant-in-east-harlem-new-york-1880-1950/

https://italianharlem.com/, not least this page on the festa in 1942

https://medium.com/harlem-focus/harlems-hidden-history-the-real-little-italy-was-uptown-ac613b023c6b

There must be early film footage of the procession, but I haven’t yet found any. Meanwhile in London, this silent clip shows the 1927 procession for Our Lady of Mount Carmel in Clerkenwell’s Little Italy:

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