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What Does It Mean to Be Italian American? I Have No Idea

I’ve had people look at me querulously when I only supplied the “American” response to the “what nationality are you” question.

by Pasquale Palumbo

Little Italy, in Mahattan, around 1900

You can’t assimilate without abandoning your heritage, and you can’t embrace your heritage the way the old-timers would like without appearing as an outsider.  The challenge is finding a happy medium between the two...  I once asked my Grandmother why she never went back to visit Italy; she said: “For what? All I had there was miseria.”

In her most recent piece for La Voce di New York, “Looking for ‘Italia’ in Little Italies: Just How ‘Italian’ Are Italian-Americans?”, Grace Russo Bullaro asks: “How do Italian-Americans identify themselves? What is their emotional relationship to Italy and America?  What are they interested in?” 

This happens to be a subject on which I’ve reflected quite a bit over the years and this proves to be the perfect opportunity to voice my thoughts.  Let me say it out front so that there will be no argument: I am an American, through and through.  I hold no allegiances to any nation other than the United States.  Unfortunately, our society is divisive enough that declaring yourself solely American is not good enough; I’ve had people look at me querulously when I only supplied the “American” response to the “what nationality are you” question.  It’s become the norm for people to have a need to classify one another as what I like to term a “Hyphen-American.” That being said, I am an Italian-American, although there is an argument as to whether or not I am first generation or fourth generation.  I will say that although I am fiercely American, I am proud of my Italian heritage.  It has molded me into the person that I am, both outwardly and on the subconscious level. 

Most standards of cultural identity are either formed or codified by pop culture i.e. literature, film, television. It’s  well known that writers are products of their upbringing.  Their ethnic background can manifest itself on paper outwardly, as in stories in which all of the characters are based on stereotypical figures from the neighborhood in which the writer grew up.  Mario Puzo’s works lend themselves heavily to this practice.  On the other hand, there is a sense of italianità that may appear underneath the surface in the words of the Italian-American writer.  Writers like Don DeLillo show their Italian heritage in this manner.  While never outwardly expressing his heritage, there is always a sense of his background simmering underneath.  Oftentimes, the voice of reason in a particular work is that of an immigrant minority figure, although not necessarily an Italian.  DeLillo does not outwardly deny his heritage, but it was not until 1997’s Underworld that he created significant characters of Italian descent.

As for me, I probably lie somewhere in the middle. Growing up Italian-American has been nothing short of interesting.  It is amazing how hard it is to balance the American Dream against Old World, Church Dogma-laden values.  I can hear the Old-timers saying “America is the land of opportunity where the streets are paved with gold, but make sure you only trust those people whose last name ends in a vowel” (even though most of the public will think those of you whose names do end in vowels are somehow connected to organized crime).

A dichotomy exists for the Italian-American, particularly the first generation that grows up here.  Assimilation is a goal, sure, but don’t forget who you are and where you came from.  You can’t assimilate without abandoning your heritage, and you can’t embrace your heritage the way the old-timers would like without appearing as an outsider.  The challenge is finding a happy medium between the two.  This begs the question: why?  Why do we have to hold on to an identity that can seem as foreign to us as anyone else observing it?  And perhaps more importantly, who defines it?

I once asked my Grandmother why she never went back to visit Italy; she said: “For what? All I had there was miseria.” The irony is not lost on me that although she’s lived here for sixty-five years, she doesn’t have the greatest command of English, though that’s likely a function of not coming here until she was in her early 30s and living in West Harlem in the 1950s followed by The Bronx, where both neighborhoods were full of newly arrived Italians and speaking English wasn’t necessary to get around. But addressing her response leads me to the conclusion that while we are formed by our experiences and those of our parents and grandparents, looking to an idea of a purely Italian identity is likely fruitless; Italy proper has only been a nation for 157 years and even today is sometimes nothing more than a confederacy of city-states with wildly differing cultures, practices, culinary heritage, history, and languages.  It’s a similar conundrum in America; am I supposed to be a city power broker, an urban street tough guy, a cowboy, a hayseed, a lumberjack, or a farmer?

There are no institutional advantages for being Italian-American; certainly no quotas are met for college admissions or employment opportunities when awarding such placement to an Italian-American (don’t get me started on this).  And so in light of all this, why do we try to create this identity? Is it because we feel marginalized even though we have on the whole been subsumed into the majority population of White Americans (irony alert—Whites will soon be in the minority in the United States).  Or is it because we see the advantages that other ethnic minorities were given and we feel neglected and are now looking for a piece of the action?

Regarding the emotional relationship to Italy, I myself have none.  All I know are the stories my elders taught me and though they had happy family memories, their stories hang heavy with loss and pain.  Why would I want to hold on to that? It would be disingenuous of me to have an emotional relationship to a place that I’ve only heard about and never actually visited.  This is tantamount to the fifth and sixth generation Irish-Americans who get weepy about the “Auld Sod” when they hear “Danny Boy” on the jukebox at some pub on St. Patrick’s Day.

Ultimately, the idea of Italian-American identity is a complex one for the reasons I mentioned and for so many more. One “I-A”’s idea of what it means may seem correct for them yet buffoonish for others; may seem quaint for some and yet lacking as well.  In the end, I think what’s best is this—be proud of where we came from, and what we’ve done here, but don’t lose sight of the journey forward.  Our ancestors came here to forge a new life and as a result a new identity grew out of this.  Whether we forge something unique out of this or default to spaghetti and mafia, well, that’s food for further discussion.

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