“It is certain that nothing is necessary in the world of the humanity, except love.”
Johann Wolfgang Goethe, “Journey to Italy”, 1816
Born in: Dominican Republic
Lives in: Miami (Florida)
She studied the Italian language: Italian Language Schools for Foreigners in Italy and Florida International University in America
Language is the basis of our interpersonal relationships so having a common language is vital to building these relationships and creating bonds. This is the story of the bond between a mother-in-law and the daughter she acquires; a story of love and deep dedication. It is the story of two women, who each left their homeland for a better life. Dominican by birth, Rachel moved to the United States very young, and began anew, marrying a man of Italian-American descent. The day before the wedding she met her mother-in-law, a small Sicilian woman, and spoke to her in English. The woman responded to the greeting with a mixture of English and Italian words, but Rachel couldn’t quite understand what she said. At that moment Rachel decided she would study Italian so she could talk to her husband’s mother. After a period of study, Rachel reached a good level of comprehension and went to visit her mother-in-law. When she arrived, however, she found that the woman did not understand the Italian language — the only language she knew was the dialect of her old home Mussomeli, a small town in the province of Caltanissetta (Sicily). The following is her story, moving and full of love.
Rachel, you were born in the Dominican Republic, but you have American citizenship. Can you explain your relationship with the United States?
“Certainly. To be honest, I have three citizenships, of which I am very proud: Dominican, American and Italian. I acquired the last one thanks to my husband, who is of Italian descent. As a young woman, I moved to the United States where I married and raised four children. In 1992, the day before my wedding, I met my mother-in-law Giovanna. She was born in Mussomeli, Sicily, and moved to Greenville, Pennsylvania, a small town in the United States, when she was 33 years old. When I met her, I noticed immediately that she did not speak English, and when she spoke I could not quite understand her. I also saw that she was rather isolated from the family. She knew just a few words in English, and this saddened me. After the wedding, my husband and I visited her at least once a year in Greenville. During these visits, we all connected with her in the ways we could, but the language barrier made it difficult. Even her seven children, though they loved her fiercely, could only speak to her in English.
Every two years the family organized a big reunion. As time passed, I feared this woman was growing more alone; she showed her love by cooking and cleaning, but hardly spoke to anyone. My husband and his brothers would eagerly reply to her with “yes, mom,” but in reality, they understood few words of the English/dialect mixture she used. As the years went by communication became increasingly difficult, especially on the telephone. It’s sad to say, but my husband spent most of these calls pretending to understand, lovingly waiting for her to finish talking.
My mother-in-law raised seven children, and her husband died when the oldest of them was eleven. She had not had time to study English. They were living in mid-twentieth century Sicily, and were very poor. As was common in those times, my mother-in-law was given in marriage to a man a little older than she; he was a childless widower twice over, who wanted sons. He had come to the United States through Ellis Island in 1903 when he was just six years old, after making the forty-day voyage to get there. (My husband and I found his name in the Ellis Island register.)
It was 1959 when my father-in-law traveled to Sicily, and 1960 when he married Giovanna. He wanted a younger wife so he could start a family, and indeed they married when he was 63 and she was 30. Both Giovanna’s parents had already passed away following a long illness so she decided to emigrate in search of a better life. My father-in-law took her to the United States, where she happily started a new family and began a new life abroad. She would speak fondly of her husband for the rest of her days, grateful that he had given her seven children, for whom she loved.”
Your love for your mother-in-law and the pain you felt in seeing her so isolated drove you to learn Italian. But something went wrong …
“In 2005, as we returned home from our annual visit to my mother-in-law, I decided that I would surprise her the following year. I would arrive having learned some Italian, so I could finally help her feel less alone. I enrolled in an Italian language school called “Istituto Venezia,” located in Campo Santa Margherita in Venice.
I attended classes while my daughters went to a summer camp in Lignano Sabbiadoro, a beautiful place that was then full of German tourists.
By the time my mother-in-law and I saw each other again in 2006, I was ready. I had carefully prepared a little speech to greet her and let her know that from that moment on we could speak to one another. I said to her in Italian, “Hi Giovanna, how are you? Next year we’ll go to Italy; I want to take you to your island in beautiful Sicily!” She looked at me confused and said, “Why do you not speak in English?” I said, “I studied Italian…so I could talk to you…” After a few minutes, I realized what was going on. My mother-in-law did not speak Italian at all – only the Mussomelian dialect, which turned out to be very narrow and difficult to understand.”
In studying Italian, you seem to have crossed half of Italy and beyond. In which schools and universities did you study, and how did you find the experience?
“After studying in Venice twice in 2008, I enrolled at a school in Turin called “L’italiano Porticando” (so named for the many porticoes in Turin). There I attended an intensive two-week course. Then, I enrolled at “Florida International University” in America. In 2010, I returned to Italy for a month thanks to a summer program at the University for Foreigners of Perugia. The most beautiful thing about Perugia is the Etruscan arch, a monument of indescribable beauty. Visitors like myself are awestruck by the majesty and antiquity of the structure.
In 2012, I obtained an Academic Minor in Italian at Florida International University. In just the past few months, I have begun a B2 level course at Siena’s University for Foreigners. I find Unistrasi to be an excellent institution. My teachers are very good and they teach grammar quite well. We are a large group of 29 students from different parts of the world. We are Chinese, Japanese, Vietnamese, Chilean, Argentine, Danish, American, a German priest, a Bulgarian and a Greek (the latter of which speaks very good Italian!). I must say, however, the thing that has helped me most in learning the Italian language has been the TV show “L’eredità”, which I follow from the USA on Rai Uno, for a fee. I find myself turning it on in my spare time, on the weekend or before bed. It may seem strange, but I truly have learned a lot by watching that TV show.”
Returning to your relationship with Italian, how do you use your language skills today?
“After the experience with my mother-in-law, I decided to keep studying Italian. My mother-in-law understood my efforts and seemed appreciative of my gesture of love toward her — though communication between us had still not been possible, unfortunately. The dialects of those small Italian villages are not mutually intelligible with Standard Italian, and they vary from one region to another.
I do think, however, that I was meant to approach the Italian language through this situation. Since then, my passion for it has grown more and more, inspiring me to move forward, and now at last I have a B2 level of Italian, which I am proud of. I think everything happens for a reason in this life, and I can certainly say that this language has helped me grow, both mentally and culturally. Thanks to my knowledge of Italian, I have gotten to know many talented people who speak Italian, but not English, who live in Italy and in other parts of the world. I actually do not like being in Rome because the Romans all seem to know English and want to practice it with me while I just want to speak Italian! In Tuscany though, I get on rather well; here the language is very clear and you learn much more easily, at least regarding the pronunciation of words–apart from the “C” that, as we know, is not heard in Tuscan pronunciation!
In Miami I do not have many opportunities to practice Italian because the Italians who live and work in the Brickell neighborhood speak very little. To breathe some Italian air, I sometimes go to the Brickell City Center, where they recently opened two Italian restaurants. Sometimes the Italian Consulate in Miami will have meetings or organize activities, but the most active Italian club is in Boca Raton.
Apart from that, the languages I use the most are Spanish and English, and I would like to end this interview with a reflection on the importance of the language of origin in our life. A few days before dying, when she was in a terminal state of Alzheimer’s, my mother-in-law began to speak in dialect. She spoke for three days, without stopping. She talked constantly in the Mussomeli dialect that no one understood. Who knows what she said. I like to think that, as she spoke to her children, she invited them to stand next to her and keep her company–to support her lovingly and wordlessly, for the last time.”
Thanks to Chloe Donnelly for editing this version of the interview