Michael Parenti's “Waiting for Yesterday: Pages from a Street Kid's Life,” is a spicy, cantankerous, yet humorous, memoir of life in East Harlem's Little Italy when it was still Little Italy.
The well-known intellectual writes about local characters, the traditions of Italians and Italian-Americans alike (there's a difference, you know), while managing to comment on national and world affairs, culture, politics and all points in between.
Despite its information-packed brevity, Parenti made the rare space in modern literature for Congressman Vito Marcantonio, in his thirty-second chapter entitled, “Someone Else To Remember.”
He observes that, in addition to taking the most radical stances in the defense of unions, minorities, public ownership or world peace, Marcantonio, “could also be judged by the enemies he made: the moneyed interests, big landlords, corporations, fascists, militarists, imperialists, and the reactionary witch-hunters.”
The primary entry in Parenti's recuperation of The Marc involves a campaign event on the “Lucky Corner” at 116th Street and Lexington Avenue.
There, some 500 Italians and their locally bred offspring had gathered to hear Marcantonio speak when, in the middle of his address, there came a ruckus from down Lexington:
“A caravan of cars – shooting sparklers, flashing bright lights, blasting melodious horns and wild music, and sending balloons aloft – came rolling up Lexington Avenue from Spanish Harlem right alongside the large crowd gathered on 116th Street. It was a Puerto Rican invasion!”
Parenti duly notes that there was no love lost between the earlier settled Italian community and the newly arrived Puerto Ricans. The Italians, he explains, viewed the latecomers as competition for jobs, apartments, schools, you name it.
“Now here they were, those wild Puerto Ricans rolling a blazing cavalcade right in the middle of Marc's talk and into the middle of Italian Harlem. Would he react with fury at the interruption? No, he flashed them a big smile, waived vigorously, and shouted an extended rousing welcome in Spanish. By now it was obvious that the invasion from Spanish Harlem was a friendly one. These were Marc's supporters and he had been expecting them all along.
“What happened next was something I shall never forget. As if of one mind, the large crowd of Italian-American men all turned toward the caravan rolling up Lexington Avenue and broke into thunderous applause and deep-throated cheers. At that moment we realized that the Puerto Ricans were not our competitors; they were our allies. (In addition, we probably were impressed and proud that Marc could marshal such enthusiastic support from Spanish Harlem).
“Many politicians divide the common people against each other,” Parenti continues.
“Marcantonio brought them together, showing them their mutual interests – which is one of the reasons he was so hated by the powers that be.”
Parenti dedicates a paragraph to The Marc's effort on behalf of his Puerto Rican constituents.
“People loved Marc because he meant it,” he writes. “He also lived it. He worked tirelessly building an effective organization that was both a political machine and a social service agency.”
At the congressman's funeral, Parenti chatted with a “saddened African-American woman,” who declared Marc both an inspiration and generator of “clarity.”
“Vito Marcantonio goes unnoticed in the official political history of this nation," he concludes. "But he was loved and mourned by hundreds of thousands. For some of us he remains unmatched.”
Like Parenti, The Vito Marcantonio Forum is committed to correcting the historical record, which oft-times has ignored or misrepresented Marcantonio's unceasing work on behalf of those left out of the American Dream and his courageous fight for a more authentically democratic country.