I am surprised by the push back I often receive from other Americans of Italian descent when I use the term Italian American. The strongest reactions seem to come from people like me, first generation American-born or those who emigrated before they were old enough to remember life in Italy. We were raised to be “Good Americans,” to speak English well, to vote, to serve our country: to fit in, but not too much, you should never forget where you came from.
I have had argued with friends who insist that Italian American doesn’t exist. Others who take umbrage to the term prefer to say that we are Americans of Italian descent, as though anything else is treasonous. This is particularly laughable because that is precisely the standard definition of Italian American. That was the assumption beyond Martin Scorsese’s 1974 documentary, Italian American, which opened a window on his family’s life and history as, well, Italian Americans.
I first encountered the term in the early eighties in its Italian form, Italo-Americano. I was ten and had just been relocated to Italy, my father’s homeland, for his job. Since the plan was to return to the States in a few years and could only speak a few words of Italian, with the obvious exception of my father, we were enrolled in the American School of Milan. Many of my classmates at ASM were like me, American citizens of Italian descent. Others were Italian citizens whose parents were either diplomats or wealthy business executives who wanted their children to have a command of English and the prestige of a private American education. Then there were the Italo-Americani. These kids bridged the American and the Italian. Through one circumstance or another, they held dual citizenship: either one of their parents was an American citizen and the other an Italian citizen or their Italian-born, American naturalized parent had returned to Italy and lived there long enough that the Italian granted them the rights of citizenship and because they did not request it, they were allowed to maintain their American citizenship as well.
These were the cool kids in my school. They were intelligent, well-rounded and generally classy at least to my eyes, peeking out from above a nose that had just started growing faster than the rest of the features on my pimpled face and still wearing clothes from Sears. Unlike the rest of us who either spoke English like Edward R. Morrow and Italian like James Caan or Italian like Marcello Mastroianni and English like Father Guido Sarducci, they spoke both in measured tones and without a hint of an accent in either. When we all got back from school holidays while my friends and I chatted about whether our grandparents had sent us Jiff or Skippy in our Christmas care packages the Italo-Americani casually mentioned sunning in Tahiti with Mick Jagger’s family or skiing in Austria with Princess Stèphanie of Monaco.
But since I was neither stylish nor polished and we would be back in the US long before the Italian government would get around to offering my father his citizenship (although even at eleven I know that dual citizenship would not clear up acne or make my ears an appropriate size for my face) I stuck with the designated American crowd, at least they knew who the Yankees were.
When I returned to my homeland a few years later the question of whether I was Italian or American took a backseat to my efforts to eliminate that heavy Queens accent I had had all my speaking life. My accent had never been a cause for concern in the multi-national environment I had in Italy but gave the powers that be in my new school yet another reason to shove me into the lockers of my New Jersey high school. Granted this was the same cadre who didn’t know the lyrics to the national anthem, couldn’t find Trenton on a map of New Jersey and had no clue that there were actually homeless people living less than 35 miles away in the cities of Newark and New York, but reminding them of this would only get me wedged into an even smaller locker.
But there was no denying that my time in Italy has changed the delicate balance between my American and Italian sides. I could now speak what my Abruzzese grandparents referred to as ‘good Italian’ fluently. And while this made my nonni proud, it didn’t do much to endear me to my “American” cousins who, in spite of being younger than me, were all allowed to wear makeup and date.
For the next ten years I waffled between two minds: “I’m Italian” vs. “I’m American.” But what I wanted is to find a way to be both.
It didn’t help that I fell in love with and eventually married an American so far removed from his Irish German roots as to make the designation irrelevant. While the thought of losing a piece of his history tragic by beloved found my background a little overwhelming. Like all newlyweds we build our own traditions out of our respective backgrounds. I gave up Sunday afternoon dinner and he accepted lasagna on Christmas and ravioli with a rosemary roasted turkey at our early Thanksgiving dinner (the late dinner, a few hours later, includes a “traditional” turkey and all the frozen vegetables you can eat). To the Dotzmans I am “the Italian.”
Their assuredness didn’t help me; in fact it only compounded my struggle to find my place. I saw myself as too Italian to be American and too American to be Italian. Through writing I started to find clarity. Not my own writing, at first, but by other women like Helen Barolini and Rita Ciresi whose characters fought to find their places. With these women and many others as inspiration I started to feel comfortable writing stories true to my own experience.
By the time I finished the first draft of Of Asphalt and Earth I realized what Italian American means. Being American means that I am a citizen of the United States, carry a US passport, pay my taxes, vote and celebrate Independence Day on July 4th. And none of these things conflict with the spectrum of Italian American culture that colors the words I use, the foods I eat, the way I relate to my family and the way I look at the world. It is a spectrum because it includes me, Frances Xavier Cabrini, Geraldine Ferraro, Dean Martin and as much as I hate to admit it Mike “The Situation” Sorrentino. There’s even a place on the spectrum for those who refuse to believe that there is a spectrum.
Just like at Sunday dinner, there’s always room for one more.