Williamsburg folklorist creates politically charged nativity scene
A zombie figurine of President Donald Trump dressed in a blue suit and red tie and followed by a skeleton strolls by center stage of a barren landscape flanked on the left by a refugee camp where baby Jesus and the Virgin Mary are watched from a military tower. To the right, a wall cuts off a deported St. Joseph and the three kings, banished from the area.
“Trump’s Amerikkka” is a tableau placed in Joseph Sciorra’s Williamsburg kitchen and his latest version of the Italian-American presepio, a recreated nativity scene rich in detail.
Figurines representing Latinos, Arabs, Muslims and the gay and lesbian community all have a place in his scene.
“After this horrific political year, this new administration, I felt compelled to make the nativity scene speak for our times,” said Sciorra, a folklorist and director of the Academic and Culture program at the John D. Calandra Italian-American Institute at Queens College.
For Sciorra, a Catholic apostate and Atheist, his presepio does not search for the religious, rather he uses his self-defined “extremely limited” handcraft as a way for him to engage in art while pursuing a hobby.
Sciorra began his interest in the craft at an early age when his father, who came from Italy after World War II, would assemble a presepio below the Christmas tree each year.
But it wasn’t until much later that he began research for his book, “Built with Faith: Place Making and the Religious Imagination in Italian New York,” that he discovered the “breath and wealth of Italian-American nativity scenes.”
“The presepi that I saw in Brooklyn in particular were tremendous,” he said about the creative nativity scenes that would dominate rooms with their figurines around farms and mountains built of cardboard, running water, music and lights.
”They were astonishing. They were just truly amazing landscapes and I was inspired by those,” Sciorra said.
The nativity scene is one of the most traditional symbols of the Christmas season. Catholics around the world recreate the scene of Jesus’ birth. But for Italian-Americans in New York City, the presepio is something unique.
“It is those key figures but also landscapes of the countryside, there are market scenes, tavern scenes. It really is about populating a tabletop with a whole lot more than just the nativity.”
After learning from “maestri of the presepio” in Brooklyn, as he calls them, Sciorra started to create his own — with a twist.
Every year he crafts a nativity scene with a changing theme. One year he set the birth scene on the beaches of Puerto Rico. In 2012 it happened in a zombie cemetery. Sciorra says that he likes to do something different and quirky to engage that kind of creativity.
But sometimes his presepio gets political, like the one he set up in 2007 for the war in Iraq. He decided to recreate the scene in Baghdad with the nativity in an underground bunker.
“There is a long tradition in Italy and also in Italian-Americans of using the presepio as a statement for political means,” he said. “My presepio this year is clearly a political statement.”
Although his current presepio presents a desolate scenario, he said that he didn’t want to have a landscape that was just hopelessness and despair. So he filled the backdrops behind the internment camps with images of protests from Black Lives Mater and this year’s women’s marches.
“Sort of other ways of fighting back and resisting this current administration,” Sciorra said.
Taking over the backdrop are the headlines that he has been clipping from newspapers for the last two weeks about the Trump administration.
One of his inspirations to make political presepi was from Antonio Vigilante, an Italian immigrant who built a 16-foot-long and 8-foot-wide detailed presepio 50 years ago that’s still set up in the basement of St. Athanasius Church in Bensonhurst.
Sciorra met Vigilante in 1989. That year, Vigilante was troubled by racial controversy in his community after the murder of African-American teenager Yusef Hawkins by a mob of predominantly Italian-American men in Bensonhurst.
Vigilante used his presepio to comment on the murder by creating a landscape of inclusivity and hope where Black, Mexican and Neapolitan figurines coexisted.
In speaking about his accomplishment, Vigilante told Sciorra that presepio was a fantasy. For Sciorra, it’s a “fantasyscape.”
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