One of the benefits of living long enough is that you understand the past in minute detail rather than as a limited summary of events. So it is with growing up Italian.
You, my readers, are mostly my contemporaries, having yourselves experienced much of what I lived through. We may be the last generation born of four Italian grandparents, some of whom were first generation immigrants who spoke with heavy accents. At times, they might have been an embarrassment to us as we embraced assimilation, or a source of amusement as we listened to their regional dialects and English pronunciation. But, we grew to admire their work ethic and ultimate success in establishing strong and financially independent families despite all odds. Today, we use these memories to judge our own progress and that of other Americans.
Ethnicity has always been an enduring component of my life, partly due to those memories and carrying an Italian surname. It was only in 6th grade that I made the leap from an Italian-kid-from-Brooklyn to a “classical Italian.” A few years before, we moved from Brooklyn to Long Island. It was my 6th grade teacher – Mrs. Kafka, a Jewish lady – who sent me to the school’s speech therapist to rid me of my Brooklyn accent. It was also that year when ancient history was taught and I discovered Roman Italy. My understanding of heritage deepened in 7th and 8th grades when I was required to take Latin. Opening my first Latin text revealed a color map of Roman Italy – that geographical Boot that makes us unique – and I was really hooked.
But coming of age in the 1950s and 1960s hooked many of us to our amazing culture through music and celebrities. It was a time when Italian Americans displayed enormous talent and were easily identified. Perry Como, Frank Sinatra, Mario Lanza, retained their surnames while others with Anglo names like Tony Bennett, Connie Francis, Dean Martin, Bobby Darin, and Frankie Avalon didn’t hide their ethnicity. Singing groups like the Four Seasons and Little Rascals dominated the pop charts. Our world was awash in Italian pride. Even Italy was exporting pride with hit songs like Volare, Quando Quando Quando, and Al di Là. Hollywood movies showcased Italy with gems like Rome Adventure, and Three Coins in the Fountain, and stars like Sofia Loren, Marcello Mastroianni, and Rossano Brazzi. Those were heady times that also saw Italian food become an American staple.
You can understand why many of us thought this rich heritage would carry over to our children and grandchildren. But we actually had no mechanism to insure its transmission. Italian American boys and girls, though Roman Catholic, found Irish, Polish, and German Catholics rather than “Romans” to marry. Hollywood turned on us with a vengeance as the Mafia became a box office sensation. Italian language instruction (or Latin!) and educational tours to Italy were not solid traditions in our community.
These days, the Italian heritage is a tough sell among young people. I suspect that even The Godfather and the Mafia genre pique little interest in them – which is a good thing! Lady Gaga and Madonna don’t exude Italianness, nor do any movie stars of Italian stock. What is left to our young is Italian cuisine – the “Chicken Parm Generations,” as I refer to them.
Points of destination for millennials in general are Lisbon or Bali – Cinque Terre in Liguria is #3 and the Puglia region is #5. The rest of Italy didn’t make the list of top 30. How many Italian American millennials opt for an Italian vacation is a mystery.
Which brings me to a suggestion. We know so little of the 17 million people who claim Italian roots on the U.S. Census. At first blush we assume they are like us, but if they are why is our legacy slipping away? How many Italian American students are enrolled in Italian language or Latin classes? How many choose to study in Italy? How many of our young couples choose Italy for vacation? How many have married fellow Italics? How do these young people see their heritage? Do they even care?
Can answering these questions through surveys help us perpetuate our legacy, or shall we just plow ahead with “positive thinking” without a clue as to who will replace us? -JLM