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Let Them Eat Cake Illustration by Graeme Zirk.

Let Them Eat Cake

Historically, Italians were called ignorant, subversive and prone to violence. While the groups of immigrants coming to Canada have changed, prejudices towards them have not.

Every cultural group has words that garner laughter and nods of approval from insiders, and blank stares from everyone else. Often difficult to define, these words are usually left out of official documents and history books, relegated to the realm of the ephemeral. So, it was with shock in June 2015 that I came across an announcement that the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) was adding one of these words, near and dear to me, to their collection: Mangiacake (noun): (Among Canadians of Italian descent) a person who is not Italian. 

Two things immediately jumped out to me. First, mangiacake’s inclusion in the OED provides an indicator of the position Italian Canadians hold in contemporary society. Second, the definition of the term, as I understand it, is wrong. 

Mangiacake, which translates literally to “cake eater,” isn’t used to mark all outsiders. Rather, Italian Canadians use it to mark a very specific kind of outsider. You’re a mangiacake if you eat Wonder Bread sandwiches with ham and mustard instead of a flaky panino with mortadella, salami, prosciutto, provolone and fresh tomatoes. You’re a mangiacake if you buy Ragu instead of pulling out a mason jar of homemade sauce from the fruit cellar. You’re a mangiacake if you show up empty- handed to someone’s house as a guest. You’re not a mangiacake if you cook with ghee instead of olive oil, eat rice instead of pasta, or avoid pork or beef. Italians don’t see mangiacakes as people with a different culture; they see them as people who seemingly have no culture. These people have always been WASPs—white Anglo-Saxon Protestants. 

The exact origin of mangiacake is disputed, but there are two prominent theories: upon arriving in Canada, Italians received bread from locals and assumed it was cake, or even a pillow, because of how soft and fluffy it was; or, Italians were dismayed by the flour- and sugarheavy diet they found when they landed on Canada’s shores. Either way, the word emerged in an era in which Italians were marginalized, not-yet-white newcomers in a strange land. Mangiacake was used to refer to those in power. 

In the first half of the nineteenth century, the Italian peninsula was ruled by a variety of kingdoms, with much of the impoverished south controlled by the Spanish Bourbon monarchy. Then, in 1861, General Giuseppe Garibaldi unified these kingdoms and expelled foreign rulers to form the modern Italian state. Yet according to author Tom Santopietro in the PBS documentary The Italian Americans, Garibaldi’s push for unification wasn’t completely well-received. “After the unification of Italy, Garibaldi thinks he’s doing a great thing for all of us. The problem is all it did to the southern Italians, it was just another invader,” he says. “Instead of from another country, it was from the north of Italy, and the northern government did nothing for the southern Italian peasants.” 

Millions of people, mostly from the south, emigrated from the newly created state of Italy in the latter part of the nineteenth century. The southern Italians, three quarters of whom were farmers or peasants, left to escape abject poverty, government persecution, and inadequate education and healthcare. Canada, along with the United States, South America and parts of Western Europe, was a popular destination. 

The first wave of mass migration, from around 1900 to 1913, saw more than 60,000 Italians arrive in Canada. Most were young men, often lured by the promise of employment in heavy labour industries, including railway and mining. Some of these men came with the intention of making money and then returning home, while others intended to sponsor their families.

Though Italians made it into North America, they were initially classified as “non-preferred” immigrants. According to Jennifer Guglielmo, the editor of the anthology Are Italians White?, Italians were seen as “hordes of dark, dirty, ignorant, lazy, subversive, superstitious criminals” who were “prone to violence.” The largest lynching in US history took place in 1891, when eleven Italians were killed by an angry mob of WASPs in New Orleans after they were found not guilty of assassinating the police chief. The New York Times published an editorial shortly thereafter describing the victims as “sneaking and cowardly Sicilians, the descendants of bandits and assassins.” In 1911, John Parker, an organizer of the lynching who later became the governor of Louisiana, described Italians as “just a little worse than the Negro, being if anything filthier in [their] habits, lawless and treacherous.” These views continued well into the mid-twentieth century, as documented in Franca Iacovetta’s book Such Hardworking People: in a 1949 government memo, Canada’s commissioner for overseas immigration, Laval Fortier, wrote that the Italian “peasant” is “not the type we are looking for in Canada. His standard of living, his way of life, even his civilization seems so different that I doubt if he could ever become an asset to our country.” 

Doug Saunders, author of The Myth of the Muslim Tide, writes that this treatment was, in part, sparked by stereotypes similar to those Muslims face today. Italians, as well as some other Catholics in North America, were seen as coming from “countries that were almost all authoritarian, religiously fundamentalist and opposed to the rights of women,” and adhering to “a changeless, unalterable, clerically preordained dogma that was not so much a faith as a political ideology.” The perception was that these Catholics “could not and would not be integrated,” Saunders writes. They were even accused of having a secret plot to outbreed the settled population and take over their new country’s politics. 

Things got worse in the 1930s, when, due to mounting tensions with the fascist- ruled Italian state, more than 30,000 Italian Canadians were classified as “enemy aliens.” Many lost their jobs or had their shops vandalized. From 1940 through much of the Second World War, over 600 Italians were forced into internment camps by the Canadian state, suspected of being disloyal fascists. Most were not. 

Still, Italians felt as though they were forced to prove their loyalty to Canada. In Timmins, Ontario, for example, Italians gathered publicly for a rally in June 1940, and passed a resolution stating that they, as Italian Canadians, had an undivided loyalty to the state and would be willing to fight and die for Canada. Other methods included making a concerted effort to speak English among themselves, as well as Anglicizing their names, usually by dropping a vowel. These hostilities carried on throughout the war as patriotism bred suspicion of Italians, though the tables started to turn in September 1943 when Italy surrendered to the Allied forces. 

Eventually, war tensions died down. Italy entered the newly formed North Atlantic Treaty Organization, and Italians became a popular, though still not ideal, choice of immigrants to fill North America’s increasing need for manual labourers. The poverty that had pushed southern Italians to Canada was heightened by post-war devastation, and over a half million Italian migrants arrived between 1950 and the early 1970s. There are over 1.4 million Italians in Canada today—including my grandparents, who met when my nonno delivered olive oil to my nonna’s house in their town in Italy’s southern Puglia region. They arrived in Canada in 1963 as newlyweds, both in their mid-twenties, and like most other Italians at the time, ended up staying. Still, the nature of their work—largely dangerous and unregulated hard physical labour that white Canadians were unwilling to do—remained the same. One of my nonno’s first jobs in Canada was as a construction worker, and he nearly died when he fell off a roof, cracking his skull and ribs. At the same time, Italians were also, according to the Pier 21 history museum, accused of “taking jobs away from Canadians” and living in overcrowded, unhealthy conditions; out of economic necessity, my grandparents lived in a multi-family home when they first arrived—though it wasn’t unhealthy. The perception of Italians as dangerous criminals also persisted, with harmful stereotypes depicting all Italians as members of the mafia. 

Over the next couple of decades, however, Italians inched closer to achieving the full benefits of whiteness in Canada. They began to earn enough money to move from crowded inner-city enclaves to spacious suburban neighbourhoods; they established newspapers, radio stations and TV channels; they began assuming prominent political positions. Today, Italians have achieved stability and prosperity in Canada, though in some ways they are still viewed as “ethnic whites,” much like other southern and eastern European communities. 

Despite these advances, mangiacake is still a popular term. I heard it all the time in the 1990s and 2000s while growing up in Cambridge, Ontario. When I was younger, I’d often ask my parents what it meant. They couldn’t really explain it to me, but as time went on and the examples mounted, I began to understand. The kids who made fun of me for my complicated name were mangiacakes. The neighbours who had cottages as well as grandparents who spoke perfect English and had university degrees were mangiacakes, too. Their families resembled what I saw on TV, while mine seemed like an anomaly— dysfunctional and strange. At first, I felt like my family’s foreign roots and different language and customs meant we were less civilized. But as time went on, this flipped and I became proud of the environment I grew up in. 

Mangiacake, for me, developed into something to avoid, not aspire to. The Sopranos did a superb job of capturing the tension among Italians who stayed close to their roots and those who strayed too close to WASP-ness, as well as between Italians and mangiacakes, or as they call them in the US, ’merigans. In one scene, Tony Soprano is in a therapy session with his doctor, Jennifer Melfi, discussing his pretentious, golf-playing neighbour, the doctor Bruce Cusamano. “My wife thinks I need to meet new people,” Soprano says. “So?” Melfi asks. “Come on, you’re Italian, you understand. Guys like me were brought up to think the ’merigans are fucking bores. The truth is, the average white man is no more boring than the millionth conversation over who should have won, Marciano or Ali.” Melfi then asks, “So am I to understand that you don’t consider yourself white?” Soprano replies, “I don’t mean white like Caucasian, I mean a white man, like our friend Cusamano. Now, he’s Italian, but he’s a ’merigan. He’s what my old man would have called a Wonder Bread wop. You know, he eats his Sunday gravy out of a jar.” 

When I hear jokes about white culture, most of them don’t apply to my life. Last year I saw Aamer Rahman, a Bangladeshi-Australian comedian, and at the end of the show I realized I had heard versions of many of his jokes before, but from Italian- Australian comedian Joe Avati. 

Still, Soprano’s distinction between being white and being white is an informative one. As Guglielmo writes, “virtually all Italian immigrants arrived in the United States without a consciousness about its colour line. But they quickly learned that to be white meant having the ability to avoid many forms of violence and humiliation, and assured preferential access to citizenship, property, satisfying work, livable wages, decent housing, political power, social status and a good education, among other privileges.” While Italian Canadians distance themselves from mangiacakes in a cultural sense, when it comes down to social and political struggles, we stand on the front lines with them, refusing to challenge the benefits offered by the whiteness we worked so hard to attain. 

Italians, who Guglielmo says “stand in for the very image of white ethnic working-class right-wing conservatism,” have largely distanced ourselves from other marginalized groups in order to become white. We do this by propagating a romanticized version of our own history to anyone who will listen, and then contrasting it with whatever group is reviled at the time. I suspect most Italian Canadians are familiar with this ritualistic display of self-righteousness: you’re sitting with family, maybe at the dinner table or on the couch watching the news. Something comes up that triggers the discussion—a story about refugees, a recent immigrant committing a crime—and the inevitable response from older family members always ends up questioning why newcomers can’t fit in like they did, overcoming discrimination without help. Usually, this discussion ends with a call for more recent immigrants to leave if they aren’t willing to silently persevere. 

These sorts of statements ignore the fact that, as Saunders asserts, each wave of immigration was “seen as something different and unprecedented,” and, “[e]ach time, the same line was heard: earlier waves of immigrants were from a race and civilization similar to ours, but this group is different: they come from an alien culture, and can never share our values.” In a June 2002 radio show, Black DJ Chuck Nice critiqued Italians’ collective amnesia, claiming, “Italians are niggas with short memories.” 

The tragedy in all of this is that a history of marginalization can be used as motivation to fight ongoing inequalities and oppression. In 2015, three Vietnamese refugees who came to Canada between 1979 and 1981 co-founded Vietnamese Canadians for Lifeline Syria, an organization established to assist private citizens in sponsoring Syrian refugees. Speaking to the Toronto Star, co-founder Le Luong said, “I’m a big believer in paying it forward, somewhere, somehow. We don’t necessarily need to help the people who helped us, but [rather] help other people.” 

When I think of my grandparents, I burst with pride at how far they and their paesani, coming over as mostly uneducated farmers, have made it here. But it shakes me to my core when Italians use our struggle to dismiss that of others. The thing is, though, it doesn’t have to be this way. There are historical examples from the first half of the twentieth century of Italians working in solidarity with people of colour against inequality, including fighting alongside Black people against the Ku Klux Klan and taking leadership roles in multi-racial labour movements. Decades have gone by and times have changed, but it’s never too late. Italians need to re-examine our history so that instead of asking why newcomers can’t make it through it like we did, we can say that no one should have to go through what we did, or worse. If we continue to accept the unjust system that we once were victims of, then we’ve just become mangiacakes with a different diet.