Celebrating Italian American Heritage Month

In honor of Italian American heritage month, I’ve invited a friend of mine from California, Victoria De Maio, to write a guest post about what it’s like to be Italian.

Uh-oh.  After my controversial post last week, I can already hear the rumblings of more heated debate in the making.  Well, no, she’s not actually Italian—she’s Italian-American, like me.  But it’s a well-known phenomenon that most of us Italian-Americans simply refer to ourselves as “Italian,” even if we don’t speak the language or have ever stepped foot inside the “Old Country.”  (For the record, Victoria travels to Italy often and knows the landscape quite well.)  I don’t have any hard stats to back me up, but I would say that this sense of pride in our cultural heritage is stronger among Italian-Americans than any other ethnic group in the United States.

I’m grateful that Victoria wrote this piece for my blog because, to be honest, I think I’ve sort of lost touch with what it means to be Italian-American.  Nothing will cure an Italian-American of feeling “Italian” so much as living in Italy for a couple of years.  Yes, I was raised amid a big Italian-American family, too.   But after a few years in Rome I now realize that, culturally, I have always had more in common with America’s Puritan forefathers than my own Calabresi and Molisani ancestors.

But what’s really interesting to me (and at the same time perplexing to native-born Italians, like my wife) is this feeling of extreme pride in our D.N.A.   Indeed, it wouldn’t be totally inaccurate to suggest that, as a group, Italian-Americans are often more delighted with their perceived “Italian-ness” than many Italians I know—especially since this adjective means two completely different things to the two different populations.  (Uh-oh, more controversy)

Victoria’s piece opens with a lovely quote by Robert Browning… who, notably, is not an Italian.  Instead, I’ll offer a counter-quote by Beppe Severgnini, who indeed is very Italian.  Severgnini proclaims that, “Your Italy and our Italia are not the same thing.  This is not the sort of country that’s easy to explain.  Particularly when you pack a few fantasies in your baggage and Customs lets them through.”

Such is the difference in perspective.  I suppose that much of what we take away from an experience depends on what we brought with us in the first place.  And it’s plain to see that Victoria brings an honest, heart-felt affection for Italy and her Italian roots.

I hope you all enjoy her story as much as I did.  I’ve encountered many people with similar memories of their upbringing, but Victoria has put it beautifully into words with many perfect examples of what it is like to grow up in this lively, colorful environment. Great photos, too.  Enjoy!

On Being Italian!

Open my heart and you will see graved inside of it, Italy.” –Robert Browning

Carmelo & Josephine Di Maio

Drama! Emotion! Passion! The gesturing and waving of arms! The raising of eyebrows and the shrugging of shoulders! No soft undertones or measured words, no discreet glances… Everyone talking at once! Everyone trying to talk louder than everyone else! Everyone interrupting everyone else! No shades of gray here! Everyone has an opinion about pretty much everything and you are going to hear it!  A soap opera? A movie? The opera? A play? Heavens, no.  Just life growing up in an Italian family!

And growing up in an Italian family, I pretty much took all of this for granted. I didn’t think about “being Italian.”  Didn’t everyone have coffee (with lots of milk) and a sweet for breakfast? Didn’t everyone display their emotions and express their opinions freely? Didn’t everyone pretty much have a home life like we did? Over the years I realized that, of course, they didn’t.

We lived in a small town (at the time), Napa, and there were quite a few Italians there. My parents spoke Italian to each other and like so many of my generation (boomers), sadly we were never taught the language (except for mangia, a letto, basta and a few other commands!).  Of course, even as a child I could interpret a lot from the very expressive tone, volume and gestures (facial and hand!).

Italian immigrants in America

Growing up “Italian” was all I ever knew – the memories are sweet.

There was a generation of Italian old-timers in Napa, including my grandfather, who never learned English but worked hard – most often with their hands. They tended their little vegetable garden, made a little vino, smoked their pipes, played a little bocce, rarely learned to drive, wore those classic suspendered pants and a fedora, and loved their families.

We were a rather small family and although most of the families in my neighborhood and most classmates weren’t Italian, I never thought about it much. I never knew that my dad was discriminated against at work (subtle, but nonetheless…). Even after traveling to Italy for the first time in my twenties, I loved it, but I still didn’t get how much it meant to me to be Italian. That took another 20+ years (please, don’t do the math, OK?).

When I decided that  it was time to go back to Italy, and since no friends or family were going to join me, I signed up for a terrific tour. I’m not sure why, but landing in Rome and setting foot in Italy after a long absence, I wondered why in the world it had taken me so long to come back.

Italians in America

Looking back…with great love & gratitude.

Well, despite that, it still took another five years to get back, then another five and by this time, I had lost both of my parents. My father had wanted to make a return visit to Sicily and we were going to go together but it never happened. That’s when I knew I had to go to Sicily… and finally I just got it! I understood that thread of DNA, the roots that run so deep. I understood him more, I understood me more. Not just understood, but embraced. I had a new respect and gratitude for all of my grandparents who I barely or never knew who came here with so little but with hopes and hands ready to work… and I got what it meant to love a place so much… to miss it every day… and to feel like you really have arrived “home.”

That’s Italy for me… my passion, my heart’s home. Oh, she has her critics and detractors, but her allure is inarguable. She touches everyone who visits her. There’s just that certain undeniable something that fascinates us. La bella figura? La dolce vita? Spezzato? Is it that sense of style in everything from a Ferrari to the way fruit is arranged in the market? Is it that unmistakable sensuality and love of beauty? Or is it that gorgeous melodic language? Or, the passion and romance that seems to permeate everything and enthralls us?

For me, si… all of that and something more… it’s something that comes from the heart that… well, it’s like being in love – it is being in love…

italian americans in california

Nonno, how can I ever thank you?

Oh, I don’t know the name of every type of pasta or every region, I don’t know every custom or historic detail and I’ve taken Italian language classes more times than I can count (and I’m still not even close to conversant, much less fluent). It used to bother me, but not anymore. No matter, I will always be 100% Italian and I let my heart and my love of being Italian speak for me.

About Victoria and Postcards from Travel PiZazz

Victoria De Maio

Victoria De Maio

Victoria De Maio, travel consultant, blogger, and writer who loves sharing her passion for travel – especially travel to Italy!  On her blog, Postcards from Travel PiZazz, she offers no-nonsense travel tips, advice, insights and inspiration – with a lighthearted twist.  And she offers the opportunity to travel with her to Italy (Puglia and Umbria in 2014 for starters!)

To read more about her story, click over to her blog on: Postcards from Travel PiZazz.  You can also find her on Italian Notebook, YouTube, Twitter, Facebook, and Pinterest.  Or you can also contact her directly: postcardsfromtravelpizazz@gmail.com

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Comments

  1. Giovanni Stecchino says:

    Victoria, I follow Rick’s blogs faithfully and look forward to each one. I can’t tell you how much your guest post resonated with me and, I’m sure, with many other Italian-Americans. Everything that you had written regarding your experiences growing up Italian could have been taken verbatim from my own life’s story right down to the vegetable garden, the home made wine, and the loud family gatherings! You put into words perfectly what I’ve felt all my life put could never sum up the way you did with so much passion, eloquence, and obvious love for your Italian heritage. Grazie e brava!

    • Giovanni,
      I’m so touched that my story resonated with you and so many others! I so appreciate you taking the time to read and share your thoughts and feelings – so, I have to say that my parents, being extremely private, would probably be appalled at all this sharing, but making these connections is precious and it makes it all even the more meaningful.
      Grazie a te!
      Victoria

  2. Victoria, I love this story…so nice to read about your family and the connections…the traditions created by your nonno and parents. It’s a shame about the language piece but I get it. Must have been a sign of the times! Although it’s sad because being able to speak to our grandparents and share their stories would have been wonderful. My parents had first languages other than English and guess what, none of their children were taught them! I may not be Italian by birth, but my soul is and I feel the same way when I returnto Italy, like returning home. I didn’t really understand and still don’t it’s just how it feels.

  3. Phyllis
    Si, not teaching the language was definitely a sign of the times! They wanted to be Americans and were very proud of that.
    I’m not sure why Italy resonates with so many non-Italians – but, all things considered – I do think that it does come down to the heart…it’s just something you feel.
    Grazie for sharing!
    Victoria

  4. Charlene Vassalli says:

    I was not born Italian. I was adopted by an Italian American couple just before my second birthday. But even though I don’t have a drop of Italian blood in me, I’ve always considered myself Italian. I’ve always been very proud of my “Italian American” heritage. My family wasn’t rich but they were loving, hard working, proud people. They instilled that pride in me and I’ll be Italian until the day I die…..

    • Hi Charlene, thanks for sharing that lovely sentiment. I hadn’t thought about that type of scenario, but I think it demonstrates very clearly the type of strong emotional connection that supersedes any “blood” relationship that one might have with a country or culture. Therefore, happy Italian-American Heritage Month to you!! I hope you’re celebrating with your family.

  5. What would happen if I didn’t get a permesso di soggiorno and I stayed longer than 3 months? What would happen when I go back to the US?

    • Hi Bertie! I can’t officially give you any legal advice, but based on what I know, this is what I can tell you: 1) the chances of getting “caught” are very slim, and usually only happen if you were to get into some other sort of trouble–only then would they likely notice your lack of permesso. 2) generally the penalty would be to deny you re-entry into the European Union for a period of time, usually two years.
      Again, I can’t really advise you to do it, but the fact is that plenty of people do without consequences. So there you have it…

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