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New speaker gives voice to Italian-Americans

These are Jerry Maffeo's memories of growing up Italian-American. His immigrant father woke up at dawn every morning to go to work. His mother balanced a tailoring job while raising six children. And the North End was the center for Italian festivals and family gatherings.

Still, Maffeo recalls, in those days non-Italians sometimes threw out ethnic slurs, and some employers refused to hire Italians. Few Italian-Americans were in positions of power and, it seemed, no matter how hard Italian-Americans tried, they were constantly fighting to prove how American they were.

But those days are gone now, said Maffeo, 70, co-owner of Martini's Smoke Shop in North End. "And the Italians are stepping up to where they belong. We're finally moving up in America."

And what's the latest sign of this "stepping up?"

Nancy Pelosi, said Maffeo.

Come Thursday, Pelosi will become the first Italian-American speaker of the House. That will be the highest office that any Italian-American has ever held in the US legislative branch, and it's the closest an Italian-American has ever come to becoming president. According to federal law, the speaker of the House is third behind the vice president to the office of the presidency.

If Maffeo's father were around to see it, Maffeo said, even he wouldn't believe it.

Born Nancy D'Alesandro, Pelosi is the daughter of Italian-American parents from the Little Italy area of Baltimore. Her father, Thomas D'Alesandro Jr., was the mayor of Baltimore and a congressman, and her mother, Annunciata D'Alesandro, was an Italian immigrant.

In interviews with Italian-Americans in Boston's North End, many pointed to Pelosi's rise as another important milestone for Italian-Americans. They said that having an Italian-American in such a high-profile position fulfills the dreams of their immigrant grandparents and great-grandparents who came to the United States seeking a better life. And although some interviewed admitted that they had never heard of Pelosi, they said having an Italian-American in such a high position shows just how far Italian-American s have come.

"Who doesn't like his own kind to be up there?" said Angelo DiPierro, a contractor from Everett. "It feels good. It's about time."

Before last month's midterm elections, Pelosi, a congresswoman from San Francisco, was largely unknown to most Americans. Few knew anything about her, much less that if the Democrats took control of the House of Representatives, she would likely become the first female speaker of the House.

Now that Pelosi has been thrown into the national spotlight, more Americans are discovering the 66-year-old Democratic leader.

Marisa Iocco, a 48-year-old chef who "always votes for candidates whose names end in a vowel," said she had been reading about Pelosi before the midterm election and was rooting for her to become speaker. "I'm Italian. I'm a woman. I'm in business. So, I'm very inspired by this," said Iocco, an Italian immigrant.

"We're proud. It's an achievement for us," said Lisa Guarino, 44, a North End resident. "Everybody's happy... in the coffeeshops, everywhere, you know. "

Guarino said Pelosi's rise gives younger Italian-American's hope.

"They have a chance now. Anything's possible," she said.

Guarino's son, Ronnie, 19, agreed. "It's an achievement," he said. Now, "we can be like the Irish."

As far as Pelosi facing tough scrutiny as the first female speaker, Lisa Guarino said, "She's ready. She's an Italian woman, she can handle it."

Massachusetts, especially in Boston and Lawrence, was one of the many places where southern Italian immigrants settled after the great migration at the turn of the last century. Most who came had little formal education and few skills. Many spent a lifetime working in factories or as fishermen.

Today, more than 25 million Italian-Americans live in the United States. Massachusetts cities have a number of Italian-Americans serving as mayors (Tom Menino in Boston, for example, and Michael J. Sullivan in Lawrence, whose mother is Italian).

The rise of Pelosi raises the profile of Italian-Americans nationally and their story, said Kevin Caira, president of the Massachusetts chapter of the Order Sons of Italy. "It's just a defining moment in the history of the US," Caira said. "There is a sense of excitement."

Caira added that, for now, excitement transcends party affiliation for many Italian-Americans.

"It's not about whether you're a Democrat or Republican," said Caira. "Many of us are proud that she's an Italian-American and she's worked for it. She's broken the ceiling."

Tony Squillante, 71, a barber in the North End, said he is happy Pelosi is speaker, not just because she's Italian, but because she wants a new direction in Iraq.

"We need change in this country," said Squillante. "We can't afford this anymore."

Now that Italian-Americans have reached this milestone, many say it's on to the next -- electing the first Italian-American as president.

Maffeo believes that's something that could happen in his lifetime.

In fact, it could happen in 2008. Former New York mayor Rudy Giuliani is toying with the idea of seeking the Republican nomination for president.

"I was hoping it would be Mario Cuomo," said Maffeo, referring to the former New York governor. "But Giuliani is just as good. Believe me."

Russell Contreras can be reached at

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