The ‘fading’ Italian American is no big deal.
In 1985 sociologist Richard D. Alba published “Italian Americans: Into the Twilight of Ethnicity,” a volume that stirred much consternation in Italian-American circles.
Those whom it bothered argued: “What twilight? Italian-American ethnicity is in it prime.” As a youngish (then 45-year-old) Italian-American activist I was among Alba’s critics.
But back then we were still riding the wave started by the African-American civil rights movement. Italian Americans (and other ethnics) were demanding their slice of the pie. If “Black Is Beautiful,” well, “Italian-Americanness Certainly Is Beautiful Too,” was the prevailing thought.
Alas, Alba was right. Just ahead of his time. And I was wrong. Italian Americans are fading, just as surely as daylight does when the sun dips below the horizon. The evidence is all around us:
- Little Italies are disappearing all over the United States and the few that remain have become Italian Disneylands, no longer peopled by Italian Americans in the immediate neighborhood but by tourists in search of an Italian fix.
- Foods and beverages that used to be “Italian” are now mainstream American (pizza and pasta, of course; but also such items as cannoli, chianti and panini are as popular with people of other ethnicities – or no ethnicity – as they are with Italian Americans).
- The Italian language, once the third most spoken language in the United States (after English and Spanish) is now 14th, well behind Korean, Haitian Creole and Hindi. In fact, very few Americans speak Italian. There are 15,638,348 Italian Americans (per U.S. census) but just 753,992 Italian speakers. Only 0.03 percent of all Americans speak Dante’s tongue (and that includes many who know the language but do not have Italian roots).
- There are fewer and fewer “100 percent Italian” Italian Americans. We are marrying people of other ethnicities. Our children are only fractional Italian Americans; grandchildren even less. Although I am one of those 100 percent dinosaurs, thanks to my multi-ethnic wife, my children are part Irish, German, Danish and Jewish as well as Italian and my grandchildren have added a few more ethnicities to their identities.
For those of us who read, study and promote Italian culture this may seem a tragedy. But is it really? I have concluded that it is not. This simply is the natural order of things. People leave a country and carry the heritage of that country only for so long. Originally, the entire human race came out of Africa. After a few generations in other locales they had no African culture to speak of.
We are Americans. That is now our ethnicity. If we have some “roots in the boot” so be it. But we are not Italian. People in Italy know that. I lived in Italy for a year. When I would tell an Italian that I was a third-generation Italian American (meaning my immigrant grandparents were born in Italy) it made about as much of an impression as if I said I had brown eyes. “So what?” was the general reaction, “You’re an American.” When I specifically asked if Italian Americans were seen as different from Americans without any Italian ancestry, the answer was a definite “No.”
So are we just going to wring our hands and live in a world of nostalgia, in the Little Italies of the 1930s and ‘40s? That, I believe, gets us nowhere.
There may be few Little Italies but there still is an Italy. Italian culture is alive and well. The Italian language is still spoken by 60 million-plus people. Italian literature, music, films, radio, TV, magazines and newspapers abound as do tons of Italian websites, blogs and podcasts. They are available to anyone who wants to take advantage of them.
I do, regularly.
So do multitudes of others, including many who have little or no “Italian blood” but love all things Italian. Italian American ethnicity may be in it’s twilight but italianità is not fading. It, fortunately, never will. It can’t. – Bob Masullo