Are Italian-Americans Italian? People keep telling me we aren’t. When I say I am Italian, Italian-Italians, those born in Italy, look at me with suspicion and scoff. American Uber-patriots chide me, telling me that I am American. In their minds, to associate myself the culture of my forbears is close to treason. With so many people telling me that I am not Italian, I cannot help but wonder if Italian-Americans are Italian.
Before I go much further, I should clarify my terminology here. In the United States, people often speak in a kind of shorthand. They will say they are Irish or Polish or Italian. What they mean is that they are of Irish or Polish or Italian descent. The descent part of the statement is simply implied. What I am discussing, however, is something that is challenged even after making note of this distinction.
On more than one occasion Italians have objected when I said that I am Italian. One such incident I describe in my book, Italianità: The Essence of Being Italian and Italian American. I was speaking with a Sicilian acquaintance who balked when I described Italian-Americans as Italian. “How are you Italian?” he asked. “You don’t speak the language. You don’t know our history. You don’t know our customs. So, Bill, how are you Italian?” Begrudgingly, I must admit that he does have a point. The majority of Italian-Americans don’t know these things. They will heatedly argue with you that fettuccini Alfredo is an authentic Italian dish. Most Italian-Americans probably couldn’t tell you when Italy became a nation, much less who were the leaders of unification. So, alright I get it.
The American uber-patriot, allies of the Italian naysayers, object on the grounds of patriotism. They state with great certainty that there is no room in this country for the hyphenated American, not realizing they are quoting Teddy Roosevelt who originated the remark. While I have a great deal of respect for our 25th president, even the best amongst us get it wrong every now and then. When it comes to American diversity, President Roosevelt misses the mark widely. He was often wrong on this subject. For example, when 11 Italians were lynched in New Orleans he not only thought it was a good thing but announced it proudly while dining with Italian diplomats.
Beyond Roosevelt’s short-coming on this topic, there is something inherently un-American in this attitude. If we were to listen to these uber-patriots, we would all sink into a milky bland sameness, removing any distinctions, removing the core of American culture which is our diversity. They demand we all be the same, we all be what they define as American. We must all become tuna-casserole-eating, English-only-speaking, baseball-loving Americans. To do otherwise, to be otherwise, is infidelity to the Statue of Liberty. It is betrayal.
I believe, however, that both the Italian and the uber-patriot miss the point. They miss the point on what it means to be American as well as what it means to be Italian.
I am Italian-American, a dreaded hyphenated American, and proudly so. To say otherwise would be to deny the culture in which I was raised, a culture which was a mixture of both Italian and American ways of life. On Christmas Eve, while all those nice Amerighan families were stringing popcorn to decorate their tree, my family was celebrating the Feast of Seven Fishes. When other kids were wearing green on March 17th, singing When Irish Eyes are Smiling, the kids in my neighborhood wore red two days later and ate St. Joseph’s Spaghetti. Fridays were fish-frys and Sundays and Wednesdays were macaroni days (macaroni, not pasta). So to simply say that I am American erases all those differences.
While I have acknowledged my Italian friends have a point, I also believe that they can use a bit of a lesson in Italian history and culture. What does it really mean to be Italian? (This would be a great place to plug my book, but I will avoid that.) If the objection is that Italian-Americans don’t speak Italian, I would ask which Italian? The standard accepted Italian? For decades after unification, many Italians spoke their regional language exclusively. Compare these regional languages. Listen to what is spoken in Milan to what is spoken in Bari. The people in those regions as that time would hardly have met my Italian friends’ criteria.
To suggest that since Italian-American culture is not Italian because it differs in some ways from Italian culture is more from a sense of campanilismo than fact. Campanilismo being a stronger identification with one’s region than with one’s nation. When you look across Italy there is great diversity. Compare Florence to Sicily. While Florentine culture was influenced by Northern Europe, Sicilian culture has been shaped by Greek, Norman, and Arab forces. Does this mean the Sicilians are not true Italians? What of Puglia? What of Calabria? Shall we say only those areas North of Napoli are the true Italians because their culture is pure? It would be a ludicrous suggestion. If Italy is so diverse that it can include these differences, is there not room for the Italian-American?
The Italian-American culture evolved from the Italian culture in the United States. It is not wholly Italian neither is it wholly American. We are the children of the marriage of two great nations, Italy and the United States.
I am an American.
I am Italian.
I am Italian-American.
For more on Italian and Italian-American culture read Italianità: The Essence of Being Italian and Italian-American, available on Amazon.