Are Italian-Americans Italian?

Italian-American

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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

2 thoughts on “Are Italian-Americans Italian?

  1. Wow, Bill, this is a real reach. As an American who speaks Italian and spends time in Italy with my Italian husband’s family, I can tell you that your Italian friends are right: You are American, period. Sure, your Americanness might be a different from mine, and mine is a bit different from the next guy’s. Some of us eat gumbo, some of us eat tacos, and some eat spaghetti. Whatever.

    When I point out to you that you’re American, it’s not because I’m a jingoist. I’m not. I’m just stating a fact. I’ve got no problem with hyphenated Americans when there is a significant connection to each culture on either side of that hyphen. By that, I mean a connection that’s more than a few dishes. My husband was raised in Italy but has lived in the U.S. for a long time and speaks English almost as well as I do. He’s now a dual citizen. I’d have no problem if he wanted to call himself Italian-American. But he doesn’t, because “Italian-American” refers to an American culture that he feels no connection to. So he tends to say that he’s Italian with American citizenship. (In fact, it even annoys him when some Americans reduce his culture down to a few food items. By the way, the “macaroni” passage was entertaining. Italians call pasta “pasta,” not maccheroni, unless it is specifically maccheroni they are referring to.)

    Anyway, I’m an American who reads Italian literature in Italian and watches Italian TV shows and movies without English subtitles (and who can tell you when Italy became a nation). And who, importantly, is immersed in the culture regularly. I can tell you, American to American, the thing about your column here that stands out is *how American* it is, and how American its understanding of Italian culture it is. Just your paragraph on language alone exposes quite a bit about this understanding. (The people in Milan and Bari would meet your Italian friends’ criteria–because they also speak standard Italian natively.)

    Just trust me on this one.

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    • Frist, thank you for your response. It is great to hear another person’s perspective.
      Concerning the term Italian-American, in my opinion, one of the great strengths of the United States is its diversity. The last office in which I worked there were people who were African-American, people who were Mormons from Utah, and me. The cultures in which we were raised had common elements, yet there were significant differences. At a macro level, yes you can say we are all American. However, to be more precise, to celebrate the differences that make our country great, we can be more specific in describing our individual traditions. While I may be American, to be more precise I am Italian-American.

      Concerning Italians not accepting Italian-Americans as Italian, then let’s be up-front about it. Italians should make clear to all the descendants of Italian immigrants that they are not considered Italian by them in any regard. They should make clear that they see no kindred between us. Tell Italian-Americans that when they save up for years to go to Italy because they feel a connection, that they should not bother because there is none.

      You see, Italians are more than glad to take “Italian-American” money with a smile, knowing that we go there specifically because we think we are Italian. So, be up-front, tell us there is not a kinship, that if we want to connect with our culture we should stay in the states.

      Let’s see them have the courage of their convictions.

      Like

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