By LARRY THOMAS
Bernardo “Bernie” Carducci never strays far from his Italian roots.
The 55-year-old Jeffersonville resident and president of the Italian-American Association is the son of a father who was a first-generation immigrant to the U.S. and a mother who was born a U.S. citizen, but spent most of her childhood in Italy before returning to America as a teen.
Both of Carducci’s parents considered Italian their first language, but worked hard to learn English so that they could thrive socially and economically here. To today’s immigrants, Carducci offers the following advice: “Learn the language. That was the key to the success of the Italians. But, don’t forget your heritage.”
The association itself is in at least its third incarnation in Louisville and Southern Indiana, dating back nearly 100 years. Carducci stresses that membership is not limited to those of Italian descent, but to those who “just like those thing that are” Italian.
Carducci, a professor of psychology at IU Southeast and director of the university’s Shyness Institute, is a native of Detroit who grew up in Southern California. He is the author of several books, including “Shyness: A Bold New Approach” and “The Shyness Breakthrough: A Pocket Guide to Making Successful Small Talk.”
As part of its weekly Q&A; series, Carducci recently sat down with The Evening News and The Tribune to discuss the Italian-American Association and the importance of ethnic heritage in people’s lives.
QUESTION: You are a shy person by nature, admittedly, yet your career and your work as president of a very social organization seem as roles more suited for an extrovert. Do we make these choices in spite of, or because of, our shyness?
BERNIE CARDUCCI: “My thought is that what shy people do is that they truly want to be with other people. Shyness actually has more in common with extroversion than it does with introversion. What I try to encourage shy people to do, through example, is to become what I call ‘successfully shy,’ and that is to understand the nature and dynamics of your shyness and to work with that understanding rather than working against it — so you controlling your shyness rather than your shyness controlling you.
“One of the most effective ways to become successfully shy is to become more involved in the lives of other people. By becoming more ‘other-focused’ you become less self-focused and thus less self-conscious. I tell shy people the best thing you can do is volunteer, become involved in the lives of others, and I try to do that. I work on my shyness constantly, striving to be successfully shy. (Laughing.) It’s all in my book, which is available at local bookstores. A little self-promotion.”
QUESTION: What are some of the key things the Italian-American Association does for its members and the community?
CARDUCCI: “One of the key things we do is that we provide a sense of ethnic heritage, connection, to Italian roots. We gather once a month for socializing and eating and drinking and talking. We are highly family-friendly and we focus on the family.”
QUESTION: Is there any inherent importance to maintaining ties to one’s roots?
CARDUCCI: “It gives you a connection with the past. It gives you a sense of, from where you came. And it also provides you a perspective with present and future movement in an individual’s life. So, it gives you a place from which to start.
“Given the transient nature of so many people today, moving away from families, that kind of stuff, moving all around for a variety of reasons, being a part of an ethnic heritage group like this gives you a sense of family, for me. I don’t have family. My family is scattered all over the country. I moved here to Louisville, and the Italian-American Association is my family.
QUESTION: Of what Italian contributions to American culture are you particularly proud?
CARDUCCI: “What I am most proud is the work ethic that the early Italians brought to this country. The Italian contribution to this country goes all the way back to the founding of this nation, to the building of this country, to its military service. The Italian-American community was the largest ethnic group to participate in (U.S. military service during) World War II.
QUESTION: In recent years there’s been kind of an outcry from Italian-American groups and leaders about the media’s ongoing fascination with Italians-as-mobster storylines. What’s your take on this?
CARDUCCI: “A couple of things. One is that we are always fascinated by those people who sort of reflect those characteristics that are within us that we must hide, sort of our dark side. So we’re sort of fascinated with these people who go against the system and, in many cases, beat the system. That is, there is a sort of real fascination of our sense of mobster culture.”
QUESTION: Years ago, Louisville hosted regular heritage weekends on The Belvedere. Is this something our region should look to bring back and, why or why not, might it be a good idea now?
CARDUCCI: “The Italian Heritage Weekend, that’s what got me interested in the Italian-American Association in the late ’70s here in Louisville. And the reason why we should continue to support these things, the reason why we brought the festival back after being absent for so many years, was to have, not only our group, but serve as an inspiration to these many new immigrant groups that are coming into Louisville.
“You can still maintain your sense of ethnic identity and yet be heavily involved and heavily committed to your community. That’s truly what the Italian-American Festival is designed to do. That weekend, we create a sense of Little Italy right here in Louisville, where everybody can become Italian. I’m always amazed at the people who come up to me and say, ‘Oh my gosh, I have Italian heritage. This brings back all those memories.’
“Particularly at a time where everybody is so fractured, we have people going so many directions, there’s so many assaults on identity and a search for identity — I think these ethnic festivals help people to keep in touch with this aspect of their identity. I think what’s important is that this organization, which has been here, in Louisville, since the early 20th Century, serves as an inspiration to these people who are coming to us, these new immigrant groups.
QUESTION: A lot of fraternal organizations, in this day and age, struggle to maintain their memberships and to keep them active. What do you guys do to accomplish those two goals?
CARDUCCI: “That is a great question, because as an ethnic group becomes more successful and assimilates into the culture, what happens is you can lose that identity. This is something I’ve heard from many different ethnic organizations in the community who’ve been around for awhile. The Germans, the Irish here in Louisville say the same kinds of things. What we try to do is to put on events that focus on a wide range of interests. We have stuff at our festival for young kids, for middle-aged kids, adolescents, for adults, for older adults, senior citizens. We try to appeal to many different needs, and we try to do it on a regular basis.
“We have a meeting every month, so people know that they can count on the Italian-American Association every month to do something. That, I think, is very critical, and also to welcome others, as well. You don’t have to be Italian to join our group or participate in our events. It’s just people who are interested in Italian culture. So that’s how we continue to promote and become a viable in the community. We also do charity work as well. If it’s out there, we participate. Any time there’s a public event, an ethnic parade or anything like that, I’m there with the Italian flag, my Italian sash and my Italian friends.”
QUESTION: How would you like to see the Italian-American Association evolve or change over the next five to 10 years?
CARDUCCI: “One of the things I would like to see us do is to expand the Italian festival. That is our most visible activity at this point. I’d like to see us to continue to grow in terms of our membership by attracting younger members to our organization — our younger families, in particular.
“The other thing I hope we can do is to provide some sense of physical documentation in the form of a statue, in the form of a plaque or in the form of an Italian cultural center to document the contributions the Italians have made in this area — in Louisville and Southern Indiana. There was never really a major concentration of Italians in this city, just a couple of percent at the turn of the (20th) century. But these people, their fingerprints are all over this city. When you look at the architecture, the stone work, these kids of things — the food in this city, the early hay market, that was a major economic force in Louisville in the 1930s, so we made a significant contribution culturally, architecturally, economically in this area.
“But there is not one piece of official evidence to document that contribution, and I think that is a shame. I will take a lot of responsibility for that, but we’re trying to rectify that. The first thing do in moving in that direction is to develop a solid community organization like the Italian-American Association and, from that, when you have this vital organization then you can begin to think about putting together an Italian cultural center.
“So if anybody is interested in, please give me a call. Or if people have photos of their Italian heritage here in this city — businesses, social events — we’d love to have those so that we can put them on our Web site. We have a family photo history project that we do in our organization as well. You can contact me either at (IU Southeast) or through the Italian-American Association Web site.”