If Italian-Americans aren’t Italian, what are they?

When I was a kid growing up in an Italian neighborhood in New York, we used to say there were two kinds of people in the world; Italians and those that wanted to be. When my daughters were just children, I told them they were very lucky little girls; not everyone gets to be Italian. Then I made my first trip to Italy. I started developing acquaintances with people born and raised in Italy, Italian Italians, not Italian-Americans. I was shocked by what I had learned. My daughters and I were not lucky. We were members of the second group, those that wanted to be. We weren’t Italian!

I have argued for years that Italian-Americans are Italian. Yet, after speaking with Italians, I started to see the question differently, to reconsider the issue. As a result, I realized I was wrong. Since I discussed this reevaluation in my post last week, Are Italian Americans Italian? Redux, I will not revisit that topic here. I will simply admit my error. However, this new position puts my cultural heritage in a different light. If we are not Italian, what are we? Are Italian-Americans simply American, a group of people without distinction?

Typically, uber-patriots take the firm stance that there are just Americans, no subgroups. Quoting Teddy Roosevelt, they tell me that there is no room for hyphenated Americans. I remind them that Roosevelt also said that the lynching of Italians and Italian-Americans in 1891 was a good thing, disqualifying him as an authority on American diversity. People who think this way miss what makes America unique. We are a quilt, a patchwork of many different subcultures. There are few things about the culture of the United States that is solely American; just about everything came from somewhere else. This is one of the many beautiful things about American culture. We are a confederacy of many subcultures; one culture formed out of many, E Pluribus Unum.

One of these subcultures, the one in which I was raised, evolved from the culture brought to the United States by Italian immigrants. In my neighborhood, many customs were different from those practiced by the rest of the country. For us, Christmas Eve was a bigger holiday than Christmas Day, and La Festa di San Giuseppe more important than St. Patrick’s Day. Many Italian-American homes called Wednesday night dinner Spaghetti Night, and, of course, we always had a fish fry on Friday night. These are examples of practices that were not typical of most American families.

In a thousand and one ways, the Italian-American way of life is different from any other, including that of Italians, the boot-shaped peninsula’s denizens. While our subculture started as Italian, it evolved as it adapted to its new environment, life in the United States. At the same time, Italian cultural evolved as it adapted to changing conditions in Italy. Both cultures developed so differently that we could hardly be considered the same breed. Think of the evolution of dogs, for example. They all started as wolves, but some evolved to become German Shepherds while others became Dachshunds. Italian-Americans and Italians may belong to the same genus, but we are different species.

When Italian immigrants first came to this country, they continued to live as closely as possible to the way they lived in Italy, but they evolved to fit their environment. For example, in Italy, they have strict food rules; you don’t have a cappuccino after ten in the morning, and you don’t mix pasta and meat. Italian Americans are more relaxed in our eating habits. In the United States, our immigrant grandparents had greater access to meat than they did in Italy. It is common, therefore, to see meat in many dishes. My home town is known for Utica Riggies, a dish that mixes chicken and rigatoni.

You can also see the evolutionary differences between the two groups in our language. Italians spoke regional languages for much of Italy’s history (see Italians Don’t Speak Dialects. Or Do They?). Since WWII, for several reasons, proper standard Italian and English have become more common. Italian Americans went in another direction. When our grandparents and great grandparents came to the United States, they developed an Italian-American pidgin that combined various dialects and English. Eventually, words such capicola became gabagool and pasta fagioli became pasta fasul. When my generation finally came bopping along, we thought this pidgin was proper Italian.

While there is a mania in some quarters of the Italian-American community to claim to be Italian, I believe that I have overcome this particular affliction. We are not Italian but members of an American subculture. While I still dearly love Italy, both its culture and people, I am prouder to say that I am Italian-American. Perhaps, rather than say that the two types of people in the world are Italians and people who want to be, we should say that the two types of people in the world are Italian-Americans and those who want to be. It turns out that my daughters are very lucky. Not because they are Italian, but that they are Italian-American.

As Italian-Americans, we should be less fixated on our Italian past and take greater pride in our Italian-American present. This is a topic I will explore in more detail in my post next week.

For more on Italian and Italian-American culture, read my book Italianità, The Essence of Being Italian

One thought on “If Italian-Americans aren’t Italian, what are they?

  1. Pingback: So, you’re Italian-American. What’s the big deal? | Italianità

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