BY ANGELA BARBUTI
In a city where everything is constantly changing, it proves difficult to maintain the traditions on which New York was built. But Italian-Americans of Little Italy continue to celebrate their culture through the Feast of San Gennaro and it has become the largest and longest running one in the city.
Its rich history dates back to 1926, when Italian immigrants who settled in the area wanted to venerate their patron saint in the same way they did back home in Naples. What started as a one-day event now runs from Sept. 15 to Sept. 25 and this year will celebrating its 90th anniversary.
John Fratta is part of that history as his great-grandfather, Luigi Vitale, was one of the feast’s founders. As a fourth-generation Italian, born, raised and still living in Little Italy, Fratta’s pride for the neighborhood has never wavered since he began serving in area politics at just 16 years old.
As a member of Figli di San Gennaro, the nonprofit that runs the feast, he gave us a glimpse into what makes it special this year. For the first time, it will be webcast in Italy, which is a milestone in the celebration’s ongoing narrative. And as for its charitable component, some of the money raised will be sent to central Italy to aid with earthquake relief. This year also marks the first ever Meatball Eating Contest in honor of actor John “Cha Cha” Ciarcia, Little Italy’s unofficial mayor, who passed away last year.
Your great grandfather was the first president of the San Gennaro Society. What can you tell us about how the feast first came about?It came about as a celebration. When the Italian immigrants came over, especially from Naples, they came to Mulberry Street and brought with them their custom of honoring their patron saint, who, of course, is San Gennaro. And they brought that over to New York, like they do in Italy. In Italy, it’s always sunny, so they celebrate the feast outdoors. So it started here more or less as a block party honoring San Gennaro. And then it grew and it grew and it is what it is today. The most important aspect of the feast is the religious significance. People make money during the feast and that’s all great. But without San Gennaro, you don’t have a feast.
How do you keep it religious?It’s difficult, but we do it. We make sure that we have our solemn high mass on its feast day on the 19th of September. That’s where we carry the San Gennaro statue out of the church and march through Little Italy. We have a mass every day at Most Precious Blood Church during the feast. The first day of the feast is the blessing of the stands by the priests. They don’t bless the food; they bless the stands, wishing them luck during the feast. We try very hard to keep the religious aspect of it. Years ago, we used to have fortune tellers in there, then we removed them all. That was ridiculous; you got a religious festival and you got fortune tellers. And we really try to clean up our act with vendors. We have food and game vendors, but we still want the celebration to be about San Gennaro more than everything else.
Tell us about the miracle that San Gennaro is known for in Italy.San Gennaro was killed in 305. When they chopped his head off, a woman in the town soaked up his blood and put it in vials. The vials are kept at the Cathedral of Naples. And on the 19th of September and on the first Sunday of May every year, the blood liquefies. It goes from a powder form to a liquid. Scientists have been trying to figure out how it’s happening. It’s the miracle of San Gennaro. My mother saw it when she was in Naples for the 19th a few years ago and said it was the most unbelievable thing she’s ever seen. This year, it liquefied another time, when Pope Francis went to the Cathedral and lifted up the vials. When we get notified that it liquefied, we announce it throughout the feast with our PA system. To people who have faith, you don’t have to explain it. To people who don’t have faith, you could never explain it.
Where does the money that’s raised go? As we tell everybody, Figli di San Gennaro is not a foundation, we’re a not-for-profit, charitable, religious organization. So whether we make $5 out of this or we make a million dollars, it doesn’t matter to us, because we give that to charity after our expenses are paid. So it’s really about honoring San Gennaro first and then whatever profits we have left, we give out to charity. We give about 80 percent of our leftover money to charities. Originally, when Figli di San Gennaro was formed, we focused on Catholic education. But a lot of our Catholic schools are closed now, so we changed it over. While we do give it to schools in the area, now we also expanded to give to places like Bowery Mission, Cooley’s Anemia Foundation. And, of course, this year, we’re going to try and make a real nice donation to Italy to the earthquake victims.
What was it like growing up in Little Italy? How many of your friends were Italian American?All of them. When you lived on Mulberry Street, that’s all you had. We called it our own little cocoon, our own little bubble. My girlfriend was from Mulberry Street; she’s my wife. We all stayed together. And today, you don’t have that. Today, you got to go on the internet to find a girlfriend or a boyfriend. Where back then, when you lived in a neighborhood like ours, it was very close knit. And you had your groups of friends and the girls had their group of friends. And basically most of my friends all got together with their friends in the neighborhood. And they’re all married today. I’m married 40 years, so they’re married 40 years too. It worked, because we had the same way of living, the same goals.
Tell us about the relationship between Little Italy and Chinatown. The Italians in Little Italy and the Chinese in Chinatown, we grew up with each other. We’re friends. A lot of times the press likes to do stories about how there’s an antagonistic attitude between the two groups, but there’s really not. As a matter of fact, some of the leaders in Chinatown have asked us to bring the feast back to the other side of Canal Street, where it used to be. But we couldn’t do it because there are two different community boards and it became too difficult. But we have a great working relationship with the Asian-American community. As a matter of fact, when they were trying to shorten the feast, the Asian community came out and supported us.
You’re involved in many Italian-Americans organizations in the city. What kinds of initiatives are you working on?I think the biggest issues we’re having as Italian-Americans is still the negative portrayal of us in the media. And we’re trying to dispel that image. But it’s not just going after the bad stuff, it’s also highlighting the good stuff. So you got to try to push the positive image out there all the time. We were very vocal in the fight for Luigi Del Bianco, who was the chief carver of Mount Rushmore and yet, the federal government refused to recognize him. We finally pushed so hard and showed the documentation that he’s now listed as the chief carver. It was something that nobody knew. So it’s fighting issues like that and really just promoting out image and culture which is important. You know, Columbus Day is being attacked all over the place and it hurts because that’s the one day that Italian Americans have to really highlight their culture and be proud of it. And yet, Columbus went from a hero to a villain in the span of maybe 25 years.