With the deficits the New York Racing Association racked up last year and during the first quarter of this year, you would think the organization would have something better to do than tell people of Italian descent, specifically Andrea Loguidice and Brandon Snooks, that they cannot set up their popular Wandering Dago food truck at the Saratoga Race Course because the word “dago” is an ethnic slur.
My question for NYRA is: Where were your anti-slur, anti-hate speech antenna when you invited Steel Wolf to play at the opening of the Belmont Stakes Festival in June, seeing they are the authors of the anti-Catholic song, “The Perfect Solution,” the lyrics of which read “See a nun and just for fun/Whip it out, watch her run,” and then goes on to call nuns “bitches” and says other things which cannot be printed in this family-oriented newspaper.
NYRA made its decision to ban the Wandering Dago because a few people complained about the use of the word. One wonders if the people complaining were Italian-Americans or politically correct people who want to control speech and thought and turn English into a vanilla Jello language? While I will not dwell on it, this is, among others, a free speech issue, and NYRA has no business attempting to curb speech that does not violate the constitution.
It also has no business breaking the contract it made with the owners of the Wandering Dago, causing them financial loss. It makes you wonder how NYRA could, with straight faces, post on its website, “Ethics are very important to NYRA, and NYRA urges you to please report ethics issues or concerns to NYRA’s Ethics Officer ...”
Turning the tables
Often the sting is taken out of slurs when the people they are used against embrace and transform them into something positive. Quakers, Shakers and Methodists are just three of many religious groups that have embraced and transformed the slurs used against them. The words Quaker, Shaker and Methodist conjure up only positive images today, although originally they were derogatory words used by their enemies to insult them. While the word dago has not lost its power to hurt, it does appear some Italians are attempting to transform it into a positive word, and it is their right to do so.
It seems to me also that NYRA made the decision to ban the Wandering Dago from the racetrack before doing any research. An Internet search would have revealed the use of the word dago by Italian-American restaurants is not uncommon, and the owners of the Wandering Dago aren’t the only Italian-Americans who are trying to pull the barb from this slur.
Here is a short list of Italian-American eateries that used the word dago in their name:
u The Mascagni family’s Lil Dago’s Restaurant in Natchez, Miss.
u Dago’s Hotdogs in Miami
u Dago Joe’s Family Restaurant in Ajo, Ariz.
u Dago Joe’s Italian Catering in Detroit, which also bottles various Italian sauces under its name and sells them throughout Michigan.
Furthermore, there is an Italian sandwich called the hot dago, popular in the St. Paul/Minneapolis area. Yarusso-Brothers Italian Restaurant in St. Paul, Minn., while it doesn’t have the word dago in its name, serves dagos. The restaurant was started in 1933 by an Italian immigrant and is run today by his descendants. While the sandwich has been around for several decades and is made and served by Italian-Americans in Italian-American restaurants, it has only been recently that a few people have protested against its name — to no avail, I might add.
Who has the right?
While I do not use racial and ethnic slurs — even the term WASP, which is still used by people who won’t use other ethnic slurs — it is not my business to tell Italian-Americans they shouldn’t use the word dago, although it is my business to defend their right to use it. Neither is it NYRA’s business to stop ethnic groups from attempting to own and transform the hateful words used against them.
The only people the Wandering Dago concerns are Italian-Americans. I am sure some Italian-Americans are offended by the name, and possibly the unnamed state official who complained about it is one of them. Maybe it would have been wiser for Loguidice and Snooks to name their retrofitted UPS truck the Wandering Paisan. Certainly, it would have saved them some trouble.
Nevertheless, I can’t help but admire the owners of the Wandering Dago for trying to turn a negative into a positive, just as the United Society of Believers in Christ’s Second Coming did when people made fun of their ecstatic form of worship by calling them Shakers. I also admire the way Loguidice and Snooks left their jobs, moved to this area and became entrepreneurs, joining thousands of Italian-Americans who have done the same.
These are the kind of young people we have for years been trying to attract to this area. We, including NYRA, should be doing everything we can to encourage them to stay.
Daniel T. Weaver lives in Amsterdam and is a regular contributor to the Sunday Opinion section.