I hate to admit being wrong, to publicly change my opinion, especially when that opinion is dear to me. I guess I could just cite the adage; to admit that you were wrong is to declare that you are wiser now than you were before. Maybe I should have started this post by telling you how much more wise I now am than I was in the past. See how I turned that around?
In reality, we need to remember Lord Byron – geese that sounds stuffy – who said; opinions are made to be changed or how is truth to be got at. If we are interested in the truth, we need to reevaluate past positions based on additional evidence. With that in mind, I would like to revisit the question of whether Italian-Americans are Italian.
Now, let me add one caveat here. As I have written before, when many Americans speak informally, they will say that they are Chinese, German, Irish, or Japanese. Typically, it is understood that they are speaking informally. If we were to be strict adherers to the rules we would say we are Chinese-American, German-American, Irish-American, or Japanese-American. Italian-Americans are no exception to this rule. When speaking with other Americans we say that we are Italian, we are speaking informally. This informal way of speaking is not what I am addressing in the post. I am addressing the assertion that there is some relationship between Italian and Italian-Americans that somehow makes us one people.
Italians, those who were born and live in Italy, reject and some even resent when Italian-Americans say that they are Italian. As I relate in my book, Italianità: The Essence of Being Italian and Italian-American, I was talking with a friend who had immigrated to the United States from Italy. When I said that I was Italian, speaking informally as many Americans do, he challenged me. “Bill, how are you Italian? You don’t speak the language. You don’t know our history. You don’t know our culture. So, how are you Italian?” I will put aside that the majority of those accusations are untrue to focus on the larger issue of whether are person who does not know an ethnic group’s language, culture, or history truly can claim to be part of the group.
What I have gathered from the conversations I have had with Italians is that many are repulsed by the behavior of Italian-Americans that visit Italy. I must admit, as I listen to them, I see myself in their comments, especially my first few visits to what we in America call the old country. I would expect that the phrase the old Country itself is offensive to Italians. Italians complain of how Italian-Americans go to Italy using terms like gabagool and oobatz, joking about the Mafia, and generally acting as if they know all there is to know about Italian culture and history. Candidly, I see their point. Quite often we fulfill the stereotype of the ugly American.
What makes a person Italian? This is a legitimate question for any nationality. What are the essential attributes for anyone to claim they are a member of any particular ethnic group? Italians tell me that you need to speak the language, although for many generations Italians didn’t. If you read Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan Quartet, many of the characters in her book spoke in a regional language, and these novels took place in the 1960s. Some say you need to be born in Italy. I ask if that is the case, then if I were born in Italy, yet raised in the United States, unable to speak the language, am I still Italian? We can go on and on, for each of the objections raised by Italians on why Italian-Americans are not Italian, I can provide counter-arguments.
The reality is that I am missing the larger gestalt by focusing on the details. To say it more plainly, missing the forest for the trees, if you will forgive the cliché. There is a confluence of attributes that makes a person an Italian; language, place of birth, historical and cultural knowledge … Whatever this combination might be, Italian Americans don’t have it. I was wrong.
Mea culpa. Mea culpa. Mea maxima culpa.
Given this admission, the mistake Italian-Americans unwittingly make when claiming to be Italian is to deny their heritage. As I have considered this issue, I asked myself what is this Italian-American mania to be Italian. I realized that my Italian-American identity is a great source of pride. While I still have a deep love for Italy and all things Italian, I am Italian-American and proud of that fact. Perhaps we should think of Italy and Italians as cousins, related in some way, but a different family. I will discuss the topic of Italianità-Americana in more detail in my post next week. Until that time for more on Italian and Italian-American culture read my book Italianità: The Essence of Being Italian and Italian-American, available on Amazon.