In last week’s episode of The Italian American Podcast, we aired a conversation in our Stories Segment between Anthony and an actor, Charlie, who was raised around the late 1950’s in Philadelphia, his grandparents having emigrated from Italy. Charlie laughed, fondly reminiscing, about his exuberant upbringing – the classic big Sunday dinners with cousins, the arguing around the table, the huge family gatherings. He remarked, proudly, that we Italians are loud and talk with our hands. They were common, or obvious, identifiers.
As I listened to the playback, I realized that what Charlie used to distinguish himself as an Italian-American fits into historical context; by the luck (or maybe sfortuna) of when he was born, he, as with many American-born, third-generation Italian youth of his generation, talks of the power of his Italian-American experience as residing in its past. This is not to disparage Charlie, in any way, but to explore what happened to those generations caught between the old world and the new, which made the desire to be accepted by American society a priority over maintaining the Italian way of life.
As I listened, my heart really started to go out to Charlie. He spoke about the sadness he feels over not being able to speak or understand Italian, how much he misses the old days, which held, of course, in their ordinariness, something that now seems extraordinary. Like so many of us, he longs for “those days.”
How many people I meet who say, I wish I could speak the language. How many people I meet who say, I wish I would’ve asked more questions. Now it’s too late. How many people I meet who say, I wish I would’ve learned the traditions, but everyone is gone now.
This is a historical consequence. Contrast this with 36-year-old Paulie Malignaggi, for instance, our guest in Episode 37, who speaks both the Sicilian dialect and proper Italian, and spends part of every year in Sicily with his family. His connection to his Italian-American neighborhood in Bensonhurst, Brooklyn remains strong, and his heritage is a real, breathing, part of his everyday life.
But for the generations before, things were different….
For instance, someone like Charlie, a product of World War II , where the homeland was literally at war with the new, and signs hung in grocery stores demanding people not “speak the enemy’s language” (i.e. Italian, German, etc.), there was a real pressure to be American, and quickly.
Straight into the 1980s, we were still dagos, wops, garlic eaters, racially inferior, and more. How confusing it must’ve been to be an American teenager in this environment! At home, your mother was wearing a housedress and praying malocchio away, while the other kids’ mothers were wearing hoop skirts and cooking casseroles! These earlier American-born generations were embarrassed in many ways, as many teenagers feel embarrassed about their parents, but with the double weight of being outsiders, foreign. Episode 15 guest Gay Talese says in “The Italian Americans” series that even the school lunches his mother packed for him were embarrassing, so different from the other children’s lunches, and he wished at times he could steal away, hide, and devour his lunch alone.
He wanted the food of his Italian home, but out in the greater American society, he was ashamed of it. He wanted to hide it, and in so doing, perhaps appear American. In The Madonna of 115th Street, Robert Orsi (Episode 36) quotes from the testimony of educator Leonard Covello, from his experience in the 1920’s: “We were becoming American by learning how to be ashamed of our parents.”
Covello comments on the divide between the generations: “Their children – born in America – know nothing of the heritage of their mothers and fathers.”
Writes Orsi: “Covello was afraid of a deep and lasting anomie, a loss of vision and direction resulting from the loss of memory.”
Establishing The Italian American Experience has not made Anthony and I millionaires – not by a long shot, so long, in fact, I’m laughing as I type this. When we started the endeavor, I don’t know what we expected; I don’t think we expected very much. But one thing we did not anticipate, and what has been such a rewarding surprise, is that through the show we have met and become friends with so many people we would otherwise not have. Often, our listeners become acquaintances we write back and forth with. Often, our guests become friends and an extension of our community. To drill down even further, the true surprise has been all the young people we’ve met; Italian Americans of our generation, like The National Italian American Foundation’s President John Viola; Mickela Mallozzi of the Emmy-Award winning show “Barefeet with Mickela Mallozzi”; Cassandra Santoro of Travel Italian Style; Rossella Rago of “Cooking With Nonna.” I could go on. Incidentally, all of those people speak the Italian language, with most of them speaking their family’s native dialect as well.
When you’re a little weird Italian girl infatuated with her heritage, as I was in girlhood, you think it’s only you. You don’t even understand why it means so much. You don’t even know what to do with the obsession. John, Mickela, Cassandra, Rossella, these people understand my compulsion to preserve our brilliant heritage, and, especially, to explore it.
You know, we’re a generation that can do that.
Listening to Charlie, I started to think about how we are the generation that can bring it all together now – the success and the tradition; the accomplishment and the values. We don’t have to choose one aspect of our heritage over the other. We can explore – via technology, a sturdy body of literature and history, the lack of embarrassment, the power of our pride – why our people do the things they do, where it originates from, and why it has both endured and dissipated.
For pretty much every generation before us, we just needed to survive. We needed to survive in America, and then survive the struggle to be accepted as Americans. Our generation has the luxury of going deeper, and bringing new riches up to the surface.
Anthony and I are writing a book about Italian-American traditions. It’s going to be a deep exploration, the why behind what we do, not just nostalgia and memory, as much as those two things can hook us. When you go further, when you plunge deeper, the things you learn about yourself add dimension to your understanding of who you are and where you come from.
The experience becomes alive, dimensional, and present.
If you remember the San Gennaro Feast on Mulberry Street, as an example, and what you largely remember is the festivity, the food, and the celebration, what happens when you learn that the Napolitanos who established that feast believed San Gennaro to be as real and as much a part of their lives as you believe your brother is real and part of your life? As Jerre Mangione and Ben Morreale write in La Storia, there is a long-told tale that during an eruption of Vesuvius, the Neapolitans placed a statue of Saint Gennaro, their patron saint, of course, in the streaming lava heading toward their city and screamed, “You can die, or you can save us!” And San Gennaro saved both himself and Naples, redirecting the lava’s flow.
How do you view the San Gennaro Festival now?
A depth is added, isn’t it?
Perhaps it will be a little harder to simply eat a sausage and pepper sandwich the next time you’re at the festa, now that you have a sliver of an idea of how real, alive, and meaningful a part San Gennaro played in the lives of your ancestors. Enough of this understanding can build a rather firm and abiding foundation for you to stand upon.
From one generation to another, andiamo avanti….