Those of us fortunate enough to have lived with relatives born in the 19th Century and have grandchildren in this 21st Century, have a unique perspective on our Italian heritage spanning three centuries. While we may rightly be proud of the economic progress our families have made over 100 years, we have lost some important values along the way.
Although they were undereducated, our 19th Century relatives gave those of us who paid close attention some valuable insights into their survival skills. Not everyone of the second generation took their Italian-speaking relatives seriously. Some dismissed them as stereotypes, a source of embarrassment rather than inspiration. Others, like author Mario Puzo transplanted the true grit of that generation into fictional criminals, producing that enduring albatross The Godfather. Puzo famously admitted he imbued Don Vito Corleone with mamma Puzo’s fortitude. Likewise, David Chase implanted his mother’s strong attributes into his criminal Soprano’s characters.
Our first generation immigrants had no sense of imparting values to us in a formal way. They taught by example. Words like sweat equity, sacrifice, parental obligation, respect, and self-discipline were communicated in silence. They are part of what it used to mean to be Italian. Frankly, I see few of these values at the top of anyone’s list in this 21st Century. Perhaps it is because we have distilled the immigrant experience down to their “courage” to leave Italy rather than to their cultural operating system.
It often irritates me when our immigrant forebears are called “courageous” for leaving Italy. It cheapens the word. If our grandparents were heroes for booking third class passage on a steam ship, how are we to judge today the thousands of African and Asian men, women, and children who trek a thousand miles across deserts to board a leaky overcrowded raft to cross the Mediterranean to Europe? The correct word for both our ancestors and these wretched masses is “desperate.” Desperation can make a “hero” of anyone.
Our forebears left poverty for a two-week Atlantic crossing and landfall in some Little Italy, all without one English lesson. Moreover, when they arrived they were totally immersed in familiar ethnic neighborhoods stocked with Italian foods, thousands of paesani, and every professional service. As we know, some of them never left the street they arrived on and never adopted American culture. Their ultimate goals were to find a job and raise a family.
Their true inspiration for us should not be in leaving Italy but in how they applied Italian values in their new country. There were plenty of poor Americans whose families settled here hundreds of years before ours. Yet, by the 1960s Italian Americans were among the top ethnic groups in economic wealth and family stability, despite being mainly blue-collar then. We did not climb to the top by political power, old boy networks, government assistance, or religious fellowship – filmmakers would even have us believe our success was Mafia-driven. The plain truth is our first generation relatives knew how to earn and save a dollar. They bought homes not luxuries. They ate at home not at diners. They supported, not abandoned, their children and lived within l’ordine della famiglia, as our Institute’s Dr. Richard Gambino has described in his landmark book Blood of My Blood.
Too many assume the world has become easier and prosperity automatic without hard work, sacrifice, and self-discipline. Today, we are bombarded with incessant messages promoting status, glamour, and excitement – all requiring consumption rather than savings, and debt rather than sacrifice. The crises American society is undergoing, socially and economically, in my opinion, stem from this basic truth.
Italian American values should be an example to other Americans, but some have perverted them. How is it that Mario Puzo, David Chase (orig. de Cesare), Francis Coppola, Martin Scorsese, and others extracted the wrong message from our forebears? How did they replace Italian values with Mafia values? We, no doubt, shared the same childhood as these storytellers – four Italian grandparents, the old neighborhood, Catholicism, blue-collar culture – but extracted a totally different message. The sad truth is that their version has buried ours. And Madison Avenue is replacing what’s left.
We can only hope that our mixed progeny in this century will rediscover their true Italic values.-JLM
[For more details on this subject, visit our website www.italic.org and go to issue XXIX of The Italic Way Magazine, page 9, “Values for the Next Millennium.”]