This Italian American Cliché Made Me Cringe. Now I’m Cheering for It.

Personalized celebrations have become an indelible part of football, so when Tommy DeVito, the third-string quarterback for the New York Giants, threw one of his first touchdowns in November, he raised a right hand and pinched his finger and thumb together in an Italian gesture that means, roughly, “Whaddya want?”

People noticed.

A few weeks later, when DeVito was leading the Giants to a thrilling 24-22 victory over the Green Bay Packers at home, thousands of fans joined in by pinching their fingers and waving the backs of their hands toward the field. The gesture was trumpeted on sports broadcasts, adapted to sweatshirts and noted on sports pages all the way to Italy. DeVito explained that the gesture came naturally, citing “old Italians” who, “when they talk, they start doing this. It’s just a little credit to them.”

DeVito’s moment in the spotlight brought some excitement to a disappointing Giants team, even if he’s finishing the season, which concludes Sunday, as a backup quarterback once again. His moment, and its signature gesture, also filled some Italian American observers, including me, with no small amount of ambivalence, even embarrassment. While some fans were proud to see an Italian boy (raised in New Jersey, no less) taking center stage, others cringed at the resurgent popularity of old-school stereotypes, given how Italian American culture can too easily warp quickly into cliché, recalling the excesses of middling mob movies and “Jersey Shore.” I grimaced as I watched the gesture explode all over social media, not least in an endless procession of TikTok videos and Instagram reels set to a Louis Prima song. My apprehension wasn’t helped by the fact that DeVito’s agent, who is also Italian American, attended games dressed floridly in a pinstriped suit and a black fedora. Before season’s end, the sudden star quarterback was drawing criticism for basking a little too enthusiastically in the limelight.

It’s both a truism and the truth that Italians talk with their hands, a trait that most likely developed as a way to ease communication in a country where dialects can differ from village to village. Most of these hand gestures have specific meanings that are recognized throughout Italy, as well as by Italian Americans. I’ve since realized that these gestures, in their evolving meaning, aren’t just a stereotypical throwback or simply a secret language. They exemplify the vitality of my culture and are proof of the vibrant resiliency of our experience.

Growing up on the west coast of Florida, I didn’t encounter the density of Italians that exists in the Northeast, which is where my father, a first-generation Italian American, was raised. Our Florida friends often teased that they knew my family was Italian because of the way we talked with our hands. There’s an old joke: How do you stop an Italian from talking? Tie his hands behind his back. While the comment (and the joke) didn’t necessarily offend me, it did make me aware that I possessed an additional way of communicating that seemed to set me apart.

DeVito’s pinched fingers aren’t the first gesture to stake a claim on the popular consciousness. One of my teenage music idols, the Italian American rock musician Ronnie James Dio of Black Sabbath, is credited with popularizing the heavy metal devil-horns gesture back in the early 1980s, and he claimed he cribbed it from his grandmother. In Italian culture, the gesture is referred to as “la mano cornuta,” or the sign of the horns, and represents an attempt to ward off the “malocchio,” or the evil eye. But Mr. Dio transformed the symbol into one of celebratory rock ’n’ roll rebelliousness, his horns held upright and defiantly above his head.

DeVito’s touchdown gesture is a similar reinvention. Italians worldwide would previously understand the gesture as one of frustration, meaning, “Ma, che fai?!” which translates as “What are you doing?” It’s rarely employed in triumph. Yet in DeVito’s (literal) hands, it became something joyous, a sign that Italian culture is alive and thriving, even in unlikely of places, like an N.F.L. end zone.

The adoption of this symbol as an emoji back in 2020 certainly helped stoke its popularity and alter its meaning, and I now feel pride knowing that this affectionate adaptation has spread so widely. Late in the season, in a loss by the Giants to the New Orleans Saints, the gesture achieved a new notoriety: On two separate plays Saints defensive players, after tackling DeVito, celebrated by mimicking the gesture. (“I’ve got some Italian blood in me,” one of them explained after the game, “so I have to throw it up.”) Once I might have seen this co-opted imitation as insulting; now I see it as triumphant. The gesture’s popularity had proved irresistible, even to DeVito’s opponents.

Yes, the gesture is old-school, imported from the old country and a remnant of the traditions of an immigrant generation. But in its evolution and popularity, I’m seeing how it connects us not only with the generations that came before us but with our new culture, too. Italian American culture is in constant conversation with its own traditions, and with the rest of American culture. You can see this with Italian food, such as the recent embrace of artisanal, Neapolitan-style pizza, which shows how our staples can be widely adopted even as they grow and evolve. So raise those pinched fingers. They’re proof that my culture is as robust and relevant as it’s ever been.

Mark Rotella is a professor of creative writing and the director of the Coccia Institute for the Italian Experience in America at Montclair State University.

Source photographs by Tyler Kaufman/Associated Press, via Getty Images.

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