The Millennial and Gen Z generations are known for their tech-savvy and social media expertise. Has this ethos penetrated Italian American culture? The short answer is yes. Meme pages and podcasts dot the web, but does one entity capture the Millennial/Gen Z ethos, with Italian flavorings, in a totality? GrowingUpItalian, a multimedia entity, based in the Italian section of Williamsburg, Brooklyn, is an excellent example of this. I believe this not only because of what they do online, but also because of what they organize offline.
GrowingUpItalian started off as a meme page when cousins Rocco and Michela created and shared memes about growing up Italian. Michela’s brother, Sabino, joined the mix and the meme page evolved into an online cultural entity. As of February 2020, they have over 56k followers on Facebook and 119k followers on Instagram. The group is not limited to these platforms and the trio’s plans are as deep as their meme catalogue.
One of their vehicles for “spreading Italian culture,” a phrase that Sabino often uses, was the creation of a podcast. According to Sabino, the cousins started the podcast as “a way to interact more with fans. Instead of being just a meme page, it is a way to be more interactive and show our faces.” The purpose of the podcast, according to Sabino, is to provide “a conduit to Italian culture and to provide their perspective.” For the cousins, that is a broad conduit with many perspectives.
Their episodes vary widely in content. Sometimes they host big names in the Italian-American community – such as Sal ‘The Voice’ Valentinetti, John Franco, and Vinny Guadagnino of Jersey Shore fame – to talk about their Italian-American and Italian experiences. Other times, they dedicate episodes to concepts that exist within the Italian community and families such as “the golden child,” Italian superstitions, and Italian curses. Various other episodes are dedicated to discussing cultural markers of Italian American identity such as dual citizenship and Christmas desserts. Another theme, one that penetrates the community directly, is comprised of episodes dedicated to Italian-American businesses such as La Torre Bakery, A&S Pork Store, and Super Coffee. This final theme, of community collaboration, has transformed into a plethora of events.
Last year the group started to host and co-host events so their online community could meet in person. In the spring of 2019, they screened a soccer game, with Brooklyn Bitess, at Kesté, in downtown Manhattan. This was followed by Italian Heritage Day, at Citi Filed, which was co-sponsored with the Italian American Baseball Foundation. In August, the trio hosted a well-attended scopa tournament, at Our Lady of the Snow, in Williamsburg. Finally, during the winter, along with New York’s “unofficial talent scout,” New York Nico, they hosted a spaghetti dinner that raised money for the Coalition for the Homeless. The forward-looking group’s goals do not end there.
The trio sees their various online platforms as a means to “promote Italian culture on a wide scale.” Recently they have created a TikTok account because “younger kids use TikTok.” Therefore, Sabino argues, they are “trying to get to younger kids to embrace Italian culture by showing young kids that being Italian is cool.” Other goals and sponsored events include hitting a million or more followers on all platforms, a new office space, a live Italian comedy show, another heritage night at Citi Field, a second scopa tournament, two new YouTube series, and pasta making classes. Weaving the internet into real-life events is “the way to do it in 2020,” according to Sabino.
When asked why they are doing so much, Sabino exclaimed, “we are concerned about people letting go and not being proud of being Italian. We want to keep the culture alive. We want to be the go-to people for Italian culture because Italian culture is not shown on mainstream platforms. We will build that mainstream platform.” As the feasts and social societies that were common in the past die out, can the type of ethnic cultural organizing that GrowingUpItalian is doing become the future of Italian American social interaction?
When asked if he considers himself “Italian” or the hyphenated “Italian-American,” Sabino, like many others who are second generation, stated he is “too Italian in America and too American in Italy.” Nevertheless, by weaving the online into the real and organizing the new in old places like Our Lady of the Snow, the team at GrowingUpItalian is creating something that encapsulates a Millennial/Gen Z ethos and oozing Italian-American atmosphere. Is this perhaps a glimpse into the future?