Article originally published on the February 2014 issue of Bostoniano, Boston’s Italian American Voice.
Local Italian-American politicians have come a long way in the past few decades, occupying some of the most prestigious and important seats in Massachusetts. And most of them have made sure their Italian heritage stood out.
There are few who can compete with House Speaker Robert DeLeo when it comes to promoting Italian-American culture. Ever since being first elected to the House of Representatives in 1990, the East Boston native has made a point of strengthening commercial and cultural ties between the Commonwealth and Italy, all while helping promote the Italian-American cause within the state. We recently had the opportunity to sit down with the Speaker to ask him about various projects, as well as his Italian-American upbringing.
Growing up in East Boston, DeLeo was immersed in the Italian way of life since he can remember.
“We were all East Bostonians,” he says. “Within a block or so was my mother’s family, and probably within a mile was my father’s family. I grew up in a three-family home. We were on the first floor. On each other floor were two of my mother’s sisters, aunts Angie and Teresa. At the back of the house was a chain-linked fence. On the other side was Nonna Vincenza’s home, who lived with another of my mother’s sisters. I like to think of it as the Italian version of the Kennedy compound,” he chuckles.
DeLeo has fond memories of his grandmother, who had moved from the Avellino area at the turn of the century.
“As a kid growing up, I was very close to my grandmother. I remember going home for lunch from school, St. Mary’s Catholic school right in East Boston. My mother would be working and my grandmother would make these elaborate lunches. She’d make everything Italian.” The two even shared a passion for baseball, although Nonna would root for the hated Yankees. “Being the archrivals of the Red Sox, I’d ask her: ‘Nonna, why do you like the Yankees?’ And she would simply answer: ‘I like the players on the Yankees, you know, Rizzuto, Di Maggio, Berra,’ and all these other Italian names. And even if they weren’t Italian, she would make them Italian. Like Mickey Mantle. His name ends in a vowel, he must be Italian!”
Ultimately, the lessons handed down from his grandmother played a key role in DeLeo’s upbringing. “My fondest memories were the time spent at my grandmother’s, learning from her,” he says. “She might not have had many years of education, but what she taught me, the values that she and my parents, Alfred and Anna, instilled in me, I don’t think can be equaled by anyone with a doctorate degree. And that’s why I felt so ready to go into public service.”
Public service came natural to DeLeo, who spent his early years in a tightly knit community where helping each other was a given. “In that neighborhood in East Boston, if there was anyone who had any problem — financially, physically or something else — it was taken care of by the neighborhood. Your neighbor would be there if you were in need. You were there to help. It was ingrained in you. Being selfish was not an option for anybody. You were there to help and watch over your neighbor.”
In high school, DeLeo started to see the complex and multifaceted city that was Boston. “I grew up in what some considered the Irish side of East Boston, which meant that probably 10 percent of the people were Irish and the rest were Italian. Then I went to Boston Latin School. For the first time in my life, I came in contact with kids from all over the city: Irish, Polish, Jewish, African-American. It was interesting to learn about different cultures. I used to have so much fun. I still joke around with my Irish friends who I went to school with. They used to bring the peanut butter and jelly sandwiches for lunch. We’d have that at 10 o’clock at night as a little snack! Instead, we’d bring these elaborate sandwiches.”
As Speaker of the House, DeLeo is proud to represent the diverse ethnic backgrounds that make up the state of Massachusetts. But to find comfort, he always goes back to his Italian roots. One thing he wouldn’t tell us, though, is his favorite Italian restaurant. “I’d get in trouble!” he laughs. “But I can tell you a funny story. I recently went on a trade mission to Israel. Every night there were meetings and dinners. Well, one night, three of us snuck out to find an Italian restaurant. It was OK. I had the ziti with meat sauce, Paul Donato had the veal. We had to get out that one night and get some home food!”
The connection to his grandparents’ homeland goes much deeper than food, though. DeLeo knows there is potential for more growth in the $1 billion trade market between Italy and Massachusetts. “Aided by the Massachusetts Office of International Trade and Investment and Italy’s Consul General in Boston, Giuseppe Pastorelli, I embarked on a journey to several Italian regions with jobs and job creation foremost on my agenda,” he wrote in a June 2013 editorial for the Boston Business Journal.
A strong relationship with the Italian Consulate in Boston is a key to making sure DeLeo’s vision is made possible. “We developed a fast friendship with Consul Pastorelli. He has been wonderful in terms of his work with the Italian-American community, highlighting and making people in Massachusetts know what we are all about.”
DeLeo also supports Pastorelli’s goal of having an Italian Cultural Center in Boston, although he has a different idea when it comes to location. “I think the Italian Cultural Center would be wonderful. It would help us as an ethnic group and teach people what we’re all about. But I think it would be better in East Boston,” he laughs. “You know, growing up there always used to be this disagreement: Which was more Italian? The North End or East Boston?”
But no disagreements could get in the way of what is without a doubt the most important piece of legislation regarding DeLeo’s Italian-American background. After years of work by DeLeo and several politicians and community leaders, October was designated Italian American Heritage Month by law in 1999.
“It was an interesting process,” he recalls. “It wasn’t as much of a slam dunk as you might think. I would often talk to Judge Ferrino, who was sort of a mentor to me and we lived within a block of each other. We talked about letting people know about the contributions made by Italian Americans here in Massachusetts. I don’t think there was any prejudice, but everyone kept saying that if we do it for Italians, then we have to do it for everyone else. But we were the first ones to propose it. We had the bill signing up at Caruso’s Diplomat in Saugus. Gov. Cellucci came and signed the bill. We must have had more than 1,000 people there. What’s wonderful about it is that it gives us an opportunity to display what we’re all about. We’ve made our mark in so many different ways.”