“I find in those people a very lively and intelligent industry: not to become rich, but to free themselves from troubles.”
Johann Wolfgang Goethe, “Journey to Italy”, 1816
Born in: Schenectady (Upstate New York)
Age: 28 years
She studied Italian language: at the Italian language school for foreigners “L’Accademia” of Cagliari; in the same city, she also attended her fourth year of high school, with the support of Rotary International.
The story of Meredith lies a little outside the leitmotif of this column, through which we retrace the steps of Goethe’s “Journey in Italy”. For one thing, there is the that fact this young and charismatic American girl studied the Italian language in a land, Sardinia, which Goethe did not visit in his “Journey to Italy”–though paradoxically, the “Kingdom of Italy” was born just after the “Risorgimento War,” which was fought by the Kingdom of Sardinia to achieve Italian national unification. But the most interesting aspect of this story is that Meredith is the daughter of Italian immigrants in the United States (at least three generations back), and yet she is the only grandchild in the whole family who decided to come to Italy to learn the language of her ancestors–and to know the true Italian culture. It’s a touching story, in which many Italian-Americans will probably recognize themselves. It’s a story made of successes and tears, but also of a strong bond between the USA and Italy that Meredith wished to mend by investigating her family tree in person. Her work is a gift to her relatives and to herself, but also to us. We are lucky enough to meet her through the Italian language school of Cagliari “L’Accademia”, which put us in touch.
Meredith, your surname is “Adamo”. Are you Italian?
“Let’s say yes, even if I do not have a real citizenship. My family has been Italian for at least three generations. The first ones to arrive in the USA were my great-great-grandparents, who emigrated to the United States in 1905. When they arrived in America they did not speak English at all, only the Italian dialect of their cities of origin. My grandparents and my father, however, did not speak and still do not speak Italian, and today I am the only one in the family who knows the language. My ancestors came from Bellona (Caserta) and from Bracigliano (Salerno). My grandfather was the penultimate of eight children, born in the USA and raised in the State of New York, near the Canadian border, in the city of Port Henry. Until a few years ago, I didn’t know anything about the history of my family until I decided to do some research using the website of EllisIsland. In 2011, I wrote an essay for college entitled “Italians, Immigration and Identity.” It was a survey on Italian-American immigration at the beginning of the twentieth century which I used as the main tool for reconstructing my Italian origins.
Between 1880 and 1924, more than 4 million Italians left their homeland in Italy and migrated to the United States. My grandfather’s parents and my grandmother’s grandparents were four of these 4 million who left southern Italy and crossed the Atlantic Ocean with the hope of better economic opportunities in America. In the process of their migration however, much of their cultural identity was lost. Their customs changed, their names were modified, and their language disappeared. Today, a few generations later, I claim an Italian heritage; yet in reality, I know little of what this actually means.
The Americanization that transpired within my family and the millions of other Italian families was essential for economic success, but resulted in the loss of Italian identity for subsequent generations. My research began as my desire to understand who my ancestors were. The mystery of my family has always intrigued me, but in a sense it saddens me, too. I want to know the context of who I am, not just presently, but historically as well. Sometimes, claiming Italian heritage almost feels like cheating, because I am so disconnected from it in some ways.
Before I began the research, I knew my father’s family was from Italy, but I could hardly name two of my great-grandparents, let alone what part of the country they came from. I decided to unearth as much as I could about my ancestry, with the hopes of tracing my lineage back as far as possible and discovering its locations of origin in southern Italy. As I found documents in my grandparents’ home and searched online passenger records from Ellis Island, it became apparent that it would not be enough to just trace back the names and locations. Names of people and towns were just letters strung together; they meant nothing to me. I needed to locate them within context.
Thus, I set out to investigate the conditions of Italy post-1900, in an effort to understand what would have made my ancestors leave their homeland, and the environment that they would have found themselves in upon their arrival in America. With this framework I was able to trace the path that led from Italians landing in America–with no basis in American culture or the English language–to today’s generation of Italian-Americans who have no knowledge of the Italian language, and little understanding of authentic Italian culture. I interviewed my grandparents and found a recorded interview of my great-great aunt (Anna Salerno) that my father and grandfather conducted twenty years ago and compared their stories to what I had read in the literature. Through the compilation of all this information, I was able to create the following analysis of my family’s history in the context of their immigration to America and assimilation into American culture.”
Are there any episodes in the history of your ancestors that you remember in a particular way?
“Yes, one in particular. When my grandfather was in the U.S. Military Service from 1953 to 1955, he had the opportunity to go to Italy and seek out some of his father’s relatives. His sister sent him the letters that their father’s cousin had written to the family, and the return address led him to Naples. When he first arrived at the door of the appointed house the man did not believe that my grandfather was Luigi’s son, but when he saw the letters written in his own hand, my grandfather was immediately welcomed with open arms. “He read them once, and he looked at me, and he read them again, and looked at me, and after that it was a homecoming.” – This was how my grandfather used to describe that moment when he was telling his sons and grandchildren about it.
Italian immigrants in general faced many post-immigration struggles that inhibited their abilities to assimilate into American culture, and made their initial period in the United States quite difficult. Economic struggles were a constant hindrance, as many immigrants arrived on the shores of America already in debt from the payment of the trans-Atlantic fare.6 Poverty was a constant burden. Illiteracy also complicated matters, as most adults that immigrated lacked any sort of formal education and consequently did not see the importance of an education for their children either.6 Many Italians feared that if they sent their children to school, they would lose their Italian identity. Thus, the children that were allowed to go to school generally went to ones where the subjects were taught only in Italian. This lack of emphasis on education hindered the potential of the first generation of Italian-Americans, allowing the struggles of immigration to persist long after the first immigrants arrived.
The language barrier was probably the most difficult obstacle for Italian immigrants to overcome. Since most Italians came with the intention of only staying in the United States temporarily, they made little effort to learn the English language. For what little communication they had with Americans, they could always rely on the padroni to translate. Furthermore, the use of the Italian language created a sort of solidarity among Italians, and allowed them a sense of community in an otherwise foreign and unwelcoming culture.6 Speaking in their own tongue allowed them to maintain their ethnic identity and united them in spite of their struggles. My grandfather’s parents spoke very little English, as did my grandmother’s grandparents. All eight of my great-grandparents were essentially illiterate, but my grandparents and their siblings all have high school educations and speak English fluently. This marks a change in the culture and lifestyle from the Italian immigrant to the Italian-American.
As time went on, however, English inevitably began to creep into the language used by the immigrants. Because the Italian language varies considerably depending on the region where it is spoken, uneducated immigrants often lacked knowledge of Standard Italian and spoke only their province’s dialect.6, 7 Thus, they were unable to communicate effectively with Italians who came from other parts of the peninsula. To ameliorate this dilemma, they created Italglish—a language that was Italian in structure but integrated a plethora of English words. Not only did this allow immigrants to communicate roughly with Americans, but it acted as a common linguistic denominator for immigrants from different regions of Italy who otherwise would not have understood each other.4 In this quasi-language, many English words and phrases also took on an Italianized pronunciation; for example, boifrendo (boyfriend), bosso (boss), mi file gudde (I feel good), sciaddappa you mauta (shut your mouth), orriope (hurry up), etc.
Loss of the Italian language was a significant and tragic byproduct of assimilation into American society. As the immigrant population began to pass away, Italian was spoken less and less among family members, until it was eventually forgotten altogether.6 Even Italglish diminished about half a century after its initial use; however, this was seen as advantageous to the assimilation process, as it was originally feared that the idiom would forever isolate Italians from fully integrating into American society. My family’s last name also underwent a significant change. My great-grandfather arrived on the shores of the United States with the name Luigi Adamo, but twenty years later his name was Louis Tom. His first few children were born with the last name “Adamo” on their birth certificates, but after the early 1920s, even his children were born with the last name Tom (including my grandfather). The exact reason for this name change is not known by my living relatives. Anna Salerno believed that my grandfather’s brother Dominick changed the last name when he was in the service, but my grandfather whole-heartedly disagreed. In many of the documents that I unearthed from my grandparent’s house, there is evidence that the last name was changing even before Dominick was born; in fact, the name on Dominick’s birth certificate is “Dominico Atom.”
Nevertheless, by the time my father was born, the entire family went by the last name “Tom”, and all of the Italian first names had been sufficiently Americanized. When my father graduated from college at the age of 22 in 1981, he legally changed his last name back to the original Italian form, “Adamo.” One of my father’s five siblings decided to do the same. Thus, I was born with the last name “Adamo”, along with my sister, and three of my aunt’s children (who have it as a sort of middle-name before the last name of their father). My grandfather expressed to me that he is incredibly proud of my father and aunt for taking the initiative to change their last names to Adamo, and feels in no way offended that they dropped his legal last name. In fact, he told me that he offered to pay for the name change of each of his children, if they were to choose to change it. He even revealed that there are times when he wishes that he had changed his name himself. Finally, renouncing the Italian citizenship in return for American citizenship was the final legal step of assimilation.”
At the age of 18, you came to Italy to attend your fourth year of high school, in the city of Cagliari. What did this choice mean to you?
“From an early age I felt the need to connect with my Italian roots, and I wanted to begin my journey by living in Italy for a year, in a small village near Cagliari, called “Poggio dei Pini.” There I attended a year of high school, hosted by several Italian families. The life and stories of Italian families seemed so far removed from my own, and I felt the need to live that part of “real” Italy that I had not been able to live with my Italian relatives in America. For this reason, once I got older, I came to study in Italy with “Rotary International”, an international organization with more than 33,000 Rotary clubs around the world, which deals with and facilitates the exchange of young people. I stayed in Italy for ten months. I did not know the Italian language at all, but the Italian families that hosted me spoke only in Italian, so in a short time I was able to understand and express myself without major difficulties. I was studying at the scientific high school, and this helped me a lot at the beginning because I did not need Italian to study chemistry and mathematics! In addition, my classmates were exceptional and helped me to understand even some small cultural details, such as the fact that I had to address the teachers in a given way.
Cagliari was and is my Italian home, the only Italian city that I know well. Sardinia for me is friendship, family, perfumes, kindness and infinite beauty. Paradoxically, coming from a small American town, I found myself in a city that was too “modern” for me. I remember having just arrived in Italy, using a paper map to navigate, and being fascinated by the buses that went from the city to the neighboring villages–because in the US I had never taken one. In short, I can say that I have forged an atypical path compared to the Americans who usually go to study in Italy! After a few months in the “Bel Paese”, I felt the need to study the Italian language in more depth, and I turned to the “Academy” of Cagliari. I found it to be a fine institution, which I appreciated for the competence and kindness of the teachers. It was there that I obtained the B2 linguistic certification. Upon returning to the US, I began studying Medicine at Brown University in the city of Providence, Rhode Island, where I will graduate in May. But before graduating, I will return to Italy for a month’s training at the Sant’Orsola hospital in Bologna. I am very happy to have learned the language that my grandparents and my father could not know, and I can say with certainty that my grandfather was very proud of me. I have, in a way, recovered the inheritance that my ancestors were forced to lose in exchange for opportunities. My conscience called to me, my ancestral roots were screaming. It was my responsibility to reverse the sacrifice of my relatives, to recover their history and their language, which I will one day pass on to my own children.”
Thanks to Chloe Donnelly for editing version of the interview