What’s in a name? That which we call a rose/By any other name would smell as sweet, wrote Shakespeare, but I’m going to argue with Shakespeare here. As an Italian American from New York, I have enough bravado to do that.
A powerful and enduring Southern-Italian tradition is the naming of children after their grandparents and other family members. As opposed to the American tradition, for instance, of giving a father’s name to his son, adding “Junior” to the end of it, the Italian custom is respectful of a hierarchy:
- Your first son is named after his paternal grandfather; your first daughter after her paternal grandmother.
- Your second son is named after his maternal grandfather; your second daughter after her maternal grandmother.
- Then, if you’re blessed (or crazy) enough to have more children, you can, after all four grandparents have had their names passed down, start picking from siblings, aunts, uncles, and patron saints.
This is why in my family, and in many Italian-American families, there are duplicate names – three Dominics, two Giovannis, three Stefaninas. This was done as a sign of respect, and also as dutiful adherence to tradition. It was a means of remembering whom you came from and of ensuring that the names of your ancestors – and by extension their memories – lived on in generations to come.
To name your children any other way was disrespect, and un peccato, too, a sin, a shame. Choosing a random name simply because you liked it, as many Americans, including Italian Americans, now do, was unheard of. Why not just slap your parents across the face and make the insult faster? My mother, for example, willingly did not name my brother Anthony after her father, as tradition dictated. She named him after her brother, Antonio, who died when she was just a teenager. My grandfather had never been much of a father to her, and he made her life hard, and my grandmother’s life even harder, and as such my mother felt very little devotion to him. She sent a message when she named her second son after another man. A clear message that made my grandfather furious, but after a life of neglect and pain at his hands, it was my mother’s one retribution, a single act that could balance the scales of the past.
So you see, this business of names, it’s a serious one.
Not surprisingly, if you’ve been listening to The Italian American Podcast, I am a champion of this tradition, as I am of many traditions. My nephews have names like Zachary and Tyler. My nieces, at least, have Italian names like Sofia and Bella, but they are names that belong to no one. They are names without history. They are names popular during the period within which the children were born, which is a very American way of doing things: modern, contemporary, clean-slated, independent of the past.
I like the idea of names with depth; names that drop like anchors into the great sea of our lives, fixing us, no matter where we drift, to a certain person and place. A name with lineage means you belong to something larger than yourself. While the American ethos is, more often than not – be loyal first to yourself, even at the expense of belonging to the tribe – Italians have understood that it is this very belonging that makes life worth living.
Then there are names that are changed. The stories we so often hear about ancestors arriving at Ellis Island, only to have their names, too exotic and syllabic for American immigration officials to pronounce, unceremoniously transformed with the quick stroke of a pen.
In Episode 24 of The Italian American Podcast, listeners Samuel and Lisa Amato tell the story of their mother/grandmother, who, at the threat of punishment by her Irish school-teacher, was forced to change her name from Crocifissa to Mary. She went by Mary for the rest of her life.
I ask Shakespeare, and you, if there is or if there is not a difference between a woman called Crocifissa all of her life, and a woman called Mary?
You have to explain a name like Crocifissa at every turn. You have to pronounce it for people, sound it out, slowly, syllable by syllable. You have to say things like, It was my grandmother’s name. And when people ask, What is that? Is that Italian? You get to say, Yes, it’s Italian. My family is from Italy…
You can’t forget who you are, who your people are, and where you come from, with a name like Crocifissa.
In Episode 19 of the podcast, Patricia de Stacy Harrison talks about her grandfather, who, trying to establish a lucrative finance career in America, felt that if he altered his last name, Destasio, to de Stacy, it would sound not Italian, but French, and this would grant him the credibility he needed.
In Episode 18 of the show, Tony Reali talks about the extensive thought that went into naming his daughter, Francesca. “These names need to live on,” he says.
In Part II of The Godfather trilogy, an Ellis Island immigration official changes the last name of young Vito from Andolini to Corleone. Seeing the name of the village Vito hails from written on his papers, the immigration official – either without care or without realizing – writes down Corleone when Vito does not respond to his question. Renaming not only Vito, but also generations of his descendants.
And me? I was renamed, too. It was the morning of my first day of kindergarten, as I remember it, and my big sister sat me up on the kitchen table to tie my shoes. They’re gonna call you Dolores at school, she told me. When you learn to write your name, you’ll write, Dolores. She is nine years older than me, and, after beginning grade school in Italy, her experience entering American schools when she spoke no English was not a good one; she wanted, not to rob me of anything, of course, but to spare me. She wanted me to be American. She wanted me to have the ease and luxury of mixing in with the other children that she did not have herself. It was an act of love.
I nodded in agreement, as I devotedly and admiringly did with everything she told me to do. My real name is Addolorata, a very old, very traditional, Southern-Italian name, which comes from my maternal grandmother, who died, much to my perpetual heartbreak, before I was born.
Dolores it was, from then to now. But I would have liked to choose for myself.
Perhaps it goes without saying, but I would have chosen, Addolorata.