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The Disturbing Case of Dino Cinel

Published in 1982 to widespread acclaim, From Italy to San Francisco (Stanford University Press), a history of that city's Italian community, came to serve as the launch pad of a brilliant academic career for its author, Dino Cinel. It won him the Merle Curti Award in Social History for 1984 and just a few years later helped him secure a Distinguished Professor of Italian-American Studies at City University of New York. When the Agnelli Foundation sponsored an Italian-language anthology on Italian emigration, excerpts from the book were chosen to represent this group's experience in the American West. And at the 1989 American Italian Historical Association conference in San Francisco, he was the one called upon to give the opening address for an exhibit called "Shattering the Stereotype."

But this remarkable career trajectory was cut short soon after, and he was gradually forced out and exiled from the academy. Summed up in an article in the December 1991 issue of Vanity Fair, this reversal of fortune stemmed not from his scholarly work but from his extracurricular activities. It appears that while the professor -- who was also at the time a priest -- was teaching at Tulane University in New Orleans, he was caught with a very large cache of child pornography in the St. Rita Church rectory where he lived. Worse still was the fact that much of the collection consisted of home-made videos featuring the reverend himself --and with a cast of teen aged boys, at least one of them a minor, as partners. (A Google search under "Father Dino Cinel" turns up some of those videos on the Internet even now.)

It also came out that, unbeknownst to some of those boys, who subsequently sued him, "Father Dino" had been selling some of those videos to a pornographic establishment in Denmark. The material in question was discovered in his quarters at the rectory while he was away in Europe; his superior, Archbishop Hannan, called him up and told him to stay there. Cinel, feeling himself to be the aggrieved party for the fact that his rooms has been accessed without his permission, refused to go quietly. There was an argument and after that the two accounts of the conversation diverge. Confronted by Leslie Bennetts, the Vanity Fair reporter, with Cinel's version, Archbishop Hannan became incensed at the idea that anyone could take this man's word over his own.(1)

Even Vanity Fair, however, never thought to question Cinel's standing as a "respected historian." Does his scholarly work indeed retain the kind of integrity so egregiously missing from his priestly work? To find out I examined From Italy to San Francisco: The Immigrant Experience.

Let us begin by addressing what appears to be the main theme of the work: regionalism. Positing a three-stage theory of social assimilation -- (old country) regionalism followed by (Italian) nationalism, and finally, by Americanization--Cinel goes on to devote his eighth chapter to the "regional" stage of that evolution. Between 1848 and 1916, he contends, no Italian immigrant association disregarding its members' regional origins could long survive in San Francisco. Organizations open to all Italians were doomed from the outset because its members actually considered themselves chiefly Genoese, Piedmontese, Tuscans, Sicilians, etc. and remained mainly interested in associating with people of their own regions.

Sad to say, an all too formidable obstacle stands in the way of this tidy scheme, the Societa' Italiana di Mutua Beneficenza (SIMB) which, founded in 1858, has in fact been open to Italians of all regions for over a century. Unperturbed, Cinel informs us that the SIMB kept losing members so long as it remained open in this way but quickly revived again after becoming a Genoese-only organization.

But there is a bit of a problem with this contention: it happens to be fictional. The present writer, who, as an employee at the SIMB, enjoys daily access to its archives, can state unequivocally that there is not a shred of evidence of its ever having had a policy of screening out members on the basis of region. In fact, none of the book's sources back up this claim of regional exclusivity and it remains a mystery where the author could have gotten this notion.

Throughout the chapter, Cinel's emphasis is on regionalism as a deeply divisive force in the settlement of Italians in America. Ostensibly using a cache of never-before-seen consular reports, he repeats over and over how regionalism caused conflict, mutual suspicion and a near-total inability to cooperate. One unnamed consul is quoted as reporting: "There is a deep distrust of any form of association among Italians; whatever is organized is automatically suspect." (p.200) Another nameless consul asserts that: "The Genoese do not intend to share their advantage with other Italians. If manpower is needed on the farm, the Genoese will send for a relative or a friend from Italy, and will not offer the job to an Italian from another region." (p.214) or "Immigrants from Lucca tried several times to become growers, but met the strong opposition of the Genoese." (P.216)

The Ligurians themselves were a deeply divided group according to one of these nameless consuls: "Those from the city of Genoa…have carried with them the prejudice that the immigrants from Fontabuona [another part of Liguria] are primitive people." (p.203) "The division of the Ligurians into several groups," writes Cinel himself on the same page "was most probably brought about by economic rivalries." Over the years this fragmentation grew worse. "Our colony is growing fast, and it is badly divided," he quotes another consul as writing, "and it seems to have lost its sense of purpose."(p.222)

None of these passages being provided with the name of their author, we are left to wonder if Cinel is quoting one, two or three or a half dozen different consuls. The trouble with these consular passages is that no one but him has ever been able to find them. In October of 2000, this writer personally went looking for them in the Archives of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Rome (where such reports are housed), and was not able locate a single one. Patrizia Salvetti, a Professor of history at the University of Rome, has had the same frustrating experience. Back in his Tulane University days, Salvetti, in fact, wrote to Cinel to the effect that his consular quotes were proving impossible to find and she never received an answer. Conveying a similar frustration, Gianfausto Rosoli, late editor of Studi Emigrazione, and an old friend of Cinel's, also requested his assistance in the search for these passages. Cinel merely replied that he had had the reports (including the originals) at home and must have thrown them out in the process of moving to a new address.(2) A more self-incriminating answer for someone desirous of being taken seriously as a historian could hardly be imagined.

Cinel has yet another surprise in store for us in his conclusion. Here is how, on page 226, he sums up chapter eight: "At this point I want to draw some general conclusions about the regionalism of the San Francisco Italians up to the late 19th century. In both their social and economic life, regionalism was the basis of interaction: it kept immigrants from the same region together and it created competition among regional groups." "Regionalism could not provide the solutions to all community problems." "The years from the mid-90's to 1916 were a period of groping for new solutions."

Regionalism could not provide the solution to all community problems! He has just spent 30 pages treating regionalism itself as the problem, a veritable curse, blocking competition, breeding Genoese monopolies, and causing terrible, sometimes violent, conflicts within and between regional groups. In fact, even after this reference to "solutions," we are still apt to find him alluding to it as a "problem." "The problem regionalism posed for Italian businessmen in San Francisco," he writes on page 239, "was not greatly different from the problems other American entrepreneurs confronted." Yet here he is on page 226 telling us that regionalism was a "solution" because it "kept immigrants from the same region together" and created "competition" among regional groups. And he even speaks of an "Italian community." What kind of community could possibly have existed amid such relentless selfishness, conflict, and distrust as those depicted in his book? With a snap of the fingers, he has turned the "problem" into the "solution," "conflict" into "competition," and a feuding mass of regionals into a "community."

Another gaffe along the same lines is his statement on page 230 that "Competition from other groups was either eliminated or kept under control, by formal or informal arrangements." Yet, on page 226, he claims that regionalism "created competition among regional groups." On this point we have thus seen him come full circle. Throughout chapter 8, he has been saying that their regionalism prompted the Genoese to "oppose competition" with other Italians, then in its conclusion, he informs us that regionalism "created competition" among the immigrants of different regions, and now, all of four pages later, here he is asserting that the Genoese "eliminated competition." In effect, we just keep going around and around in this work--perpetually arriving where we started.

Cinel's repeated attempts to bring about regionalism's demise in San Francisco's Italian enclave collapse into yet another comedy of errors. On page 228 he writes, "the founding of the [Italian welfare] agency in 1916…marked the end of regionalism and the final acceptance of nationalism as the basis for social organization." Yet just a few pages later (p. 233), after listing the activities of several business enterprises, we find him asserting "By 1910, the days of the modest Italian businessman …were only a memory…The days of regionalism were over." To further complicate matters, on page 239 he goes on to claim that: "By the 1920's, the strong regionalism of the 1890's was, if not dead, at least moribund." Confused?

The problem with this book is not only that it contains fictions but that even the fictions contradict one another! What possible reason could there be for so many death dates? The first one he gives, the 1916 launching of the Italian Welfare Agency, is important because it was "the first large, non-regional Italian organization in San Francisco." In a footnote he elaborates on this, alleging that "The other societies that were opened to all Italians regardless of regional origin, like the Masonic Lodges and the veterans associations, were also small organizations." And what are his sources for these last two claims? He gives none. We have his word for it!

The 1910 and 1920 death dates, on the other hand, are backed by economic developments. Seeing regionalism as an obstacle to good business, local entrepreneurs did their utmost to combat it. Among his regionalism busters are Mark J. Fontana's cannery, the Ghirardelli Chocolate Co., the Italian-American Bank, Columbus Savings and Loan, and Bank of Italy. Yet, every one of these was already in operation before 1910. Of the three financial institutions, the Bank of Italy -- by far the largest and most successful business ever to come out of the settlement -- was founded in 1904, and the other two even earlier. The Ghirardellis and Fontanas were running thriving businesses even before the turn of the century.(3) Aside from his supposed death dates (1916, 1910 and the 1920's) contradicting one another then, is the fact that the reasoning behind each of them is specious. Using his logic, he could just as easily have claimed that regionalism came to an end with Bank of Italy's founding in 1904 or Mark J. Fontana's cannery in the 1890's or the Societa' Italiana di Mutua Beneficenza's origins back in 1858.

The truth is that regional and national sentiments have been commingling and co-existing among Bay Area Italians from the Gold Rush to the present day. Cinel's delusions notwithstanding, there were Italian regional societies springing up virtually under his nose while he was holding forth on the death of regionalism in San Francisco: the Lucchesi nel Mondo was founded in 1972, ten years before Cinel's book came out; Circolo Marchigiano in 1977; Trentini nel Mondo in 1980; the Marche Club, on the other hand, dates back to 1932. All are still in existence as of this writing. The Monte Cristo Club, founded in the 1920's, belongs in a category which does not appear in Cinel's lexicon, a hybrid: an exclusively Ligurian club that came to accept all comers without, however, completely losing its original Ligurian flavor. Figli di Calabria and Piemontesi nel Mondo came into being a year after Cinel's book's publication. In nearby Oakland, the Ligure Club originated in 1932. Other such clubs have also long been active in San Jose and Alameda.(4)

Nor are his citations any more reliable than his text. His whole footnote system appears to be designed to obstruct rather than help our search for his sources. On page 122, for instance, he claims he has interviewed 25 San Francisco's Italians, summarizing what they have to say about their immigrant experience, and providing a number of quotes. Turning to his footnote, we find the following citation: "Interviews. San Francisco. November through December, 1976." He does not give a single name of an interviewee or time and place of an interview. How do we know that any of these interviews ever took place? And he does the same thing on page 187: "Of 25 Italians I asked whether they had invited their parents," he writes, "nineteen answered that they never had, three that they had and that the parents had come for a period of time and then returned, and three that their parents had joined them in San Francisco and remained." His citation for this passage is given as: "Interviews, SF, Dec. 1975." We thus have a total of 50 interviews for which he refuses to divulge a single name.

And this is typical of the way he handles his sources. The book's whole core, over 90 different passages, consists of quotes from the reports of Italian government officials--consuls, mayors and prefects--who are never named. It is a relentless program of obfuscation that includes his newspapers citations. He cites such newspapers as L'Italia, La Voce del Popolo, and the San Francisco Chronicle as sources but includes only the dates while omitting authors, article titles, and page numbers. Those wishing to track down a one or two-sentence quote are forced to read the entire newspaper to find it. Anyone foolish enough to play this game will spend the rest of his life looking up his irrelevant references.

Most of his sources for his treatment of Bay Area agriculture, the Italian-Swiss Colony, the Italian-language press, and the fishing industry are demonstrably unhelpful to his case. Some of his more outlandish assertions are backed by no sources at all. Add to this the fact that the random samples on which he bases chapters six and seven are not available to us and what we have, in the end, is a book basically demanding to be taken on faith.

How could this ludicrous mess have been allowed to pass as a serious work of scholarship? Cinel does not even seem to know its contents let alone the history of San Francisco's Italian community. Yet, here is but one example of the kind of reviews it received in academic journals. In the American Historical Review, John W. Briggs called it "an important contribution to the recent scholarship on the people of San Francisco." "Cinel has developed to new levels the art of linking specific immigrants to their Italian origins." "…his book is much more than a history of Italians in a single American city. His analysis of immigrant origins will be of great value for all immigration scholars and is a contribution to Italian social history." Though taking exception to some minor points, Briggs went on to enthusiastically endorse the work and its author: "My criticisms, however, are insignificant in light of the achievements of the book. Cinel has set a high standard for immigration studies."(5 )

What, finally, is there to say for the peer review process that let this individual loose on an unsuspecting generation of students at Tulane and CUNY? 1) a total mockery of immigration history is published by a major university press; 2) on the basis of it, the author finds employment first at Tulane University and later at City University of New York; 3) the book garners mostly rave reviews in prestigious history periodicals; 4) its author is granted tenure; 5) the book receives the Merle Curti Award; 6) its author is installed in an endowed chair, a $90,000 a-year salary with a title of "Distinguished Professor of Italian-American Studies." (6) At every step of the way, a review presumably took place--and completely missed the mark. Having seen what Cinel did in his book, one cannot also help but wonder what his teaching -- largely free of such scrutiny -- could have been like. Were his students perhaps a bit confused as they left the hall at the end of his lectures? Like the Bellesiles case, this sad episode raises some troubling questions as to how professional historians go about their duties in the academy.

1 Leslie Bennetts, Vanity Fair, 54, no. 12, December 1991, pp. 224-278, quote is on page 229.

2 Private, hand written letter by Gianfausto Rosoli to this writer date October 2, 1993: Patrizia Salvetti's unsuccessful attempts to contact Cinel about his elusive consular reports are related in a letter dated February 18, 1999.

3 Ruth Teiser, An Account of Domingo Ghirardelli and the Early Years of the Ghirardelli Company, San Francisco, 1945, pp.1-25; on Mark J. Fontana, see Hans C. Palmer, "Italian Immigration and the Development of California Agriculture," Ph.D. Dissertation, University of California, Berkeley, 1965,
pp. 241-45; on Bank of Italy, see Marquis James, and Bessie Rowland James, Biography of a Bank: the Story of Bank of America, 1954.

4 Andrew M. Canepa, "Panorama della vita associativa fra i Piemontesi del Nord California, Il Platano, vol. XXIV, no. 1(Jan. - Jul. 1999), 89-94; "Toscani in Nord America," Toscana Emigrazione, vol.VII, no. 10(July-Sep. 1989),1-12.

5 John W. Briggs, American Historical Review, 88, no. 4, October 1983, pp. 1088-1089.

6 For additional favorable reviews, see Felice Anthony Bonadio, California History, 61-62, no. 1, Spring 1983, pp. 70-72; Alexander De Conde, Pacific Historical Review, 52, no. 4, November 1983, pp. 450-452. But there were others which took a more critical stance: see, for example, Andrew Rolle,
Journal of American History, 70, no. 3, December 1983, p. 693; Rudolph J. Vecoli, Reviews in American History, 12, no.1, March 1984, pp. 109-114.