Fiat/Chrysler CEO Sergio Marchionne has apologized for using what some took as an offensive term for Italian-Americans during the Detroit Auto Show last January.
Describing his frustrations with the slow effort to return the Alfa Romeo brand to the U.S. market, Marchionne said the new 4C sports car didn’t have the right powertrain yet, adding that, “With all due respect to my American friends, it needs to be a wop engine.”
The term was meant to convey the desire to have a distinctly Italian engine for the little Alfa – which ultimately won approval from Marchionne a few weeks later.
The term is often used playfully among Italian Americans themselves, much as other racist and derogatory slurs, such as the proscribed “n-word” for blacks. The origin is a subject of frequent debate and may actually have come from a Spanish term spelled guapo but pronounced “wopo,” or “hwopo,” according to some linguists. Others point to the Italian “guappo,” a term for a “ruffian” or “swaggerer.”
Whatever the root, while Marchionne’s comment drew titters during a media roundtable – and did get his point across – it also drew some sharp criticism. The Italian-American One Voice Coalition, a group aimed at responding to ethnic slurs, had been demanding an apology from Marchionne for months.
And now it has gotten one, the blunt-talking CEO directing it at “anyone who might have been offended” by his remarks.
“We felt it was a very heartfelt apology, Sebastian D’Elia, a spokesperson for the One Voice Coalition, told The Detroit Free Press.
Apparently, not everyone was quite so upset. Even before he issued his mea culpa, Marchionne was already scheduled to receive honors from another ethnic group, the Sons of Italy Foundation.
While born in Chieti, Italy in June 1952, Marchionne’s emigrated to Toronto, Ontario when he was 14. He received several degrees “north of the border,” including an MBA from the University of Windsor. He started his professional career in Canada with the accounting firm Deloitte and Touche, and only moved to his familial homeland in 2003, when he joined Fiat. He became its CEO in 2004.
The executive frequently refers to himself as a Canadian and even pronounces his name MAR-chee-own, rather than the traditional Italian way of MAR-Kee-oh-nay.
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