I used to make the same mistake most Italian Americans make. When someone asked my nationality I always responded “I’m Italian.” It was when I moved to Italy and became immersed in its culture that I began to detect the distinct differences between us: Italians vs. Italian Americans. We are cousins for sure – we share ancestors, history, traditions and certain sensibilities, but we are also completely different. It comes down to that aged-old question: nature of nurture? Nationality: I believe it’s in our DNA.
Sono italo americana
Many Italian Americans grow up in an environment that is quintessentially American but with undertones of Italian culture threaded through everything. Mine, I think, is typical of a lot of first and second generation families whose descendants immigrated from Italy in the late 1800s to early 1900s. My Sicilian grandparents, Gioachino DiBella and Nimfa Pizzo, were born in small towns near Palermo, and although they were very young children when they left their homeland, they remained “from the old country” their entire lives. The photo at the top, for example, was taken in our backyard in San Jose, California around 1965. At the time bell bottoms and the Beatles were in fashion, but looking at my grandparents in this photo, it could have been taken in 1865!
Born in America: Parts from Italy
I would say that Italian Americans are born with an identity crisis. We are “hybrids” – the Prius’ of American society. We feel part of a culture and experience that is in stark contrast to the Ward and June Clever-types portrayed in TV sitcoms. Our large, loud and chaotic families are the center of our universe. At birthdays, Baptisms, Christmas, etc., the house is filled with people from the same gene pool. Sunday dinner is served at 1:00 p.m. at our grandparents’ house (who live with us, next door to us, or down the street from us). Thanksgiving dinner includes the traditional turkey, stuffing, yams and homemade ravioli. Italian American friends never call – they just stop by after dinner, often bearing brown paper bags filled with cherries, zucchini, tomatoes…whatever they have in abundance from their trees or in their gardens.
Il Segreto: The Secret
I can’t really list for you all the differences between Italians from Italy and Italian Americans, I just know we are different. I try to resist the urge to boil people down to stereotypes because it’s never useful and not quite that simple. However, when I am surrounded by Italians, I can feel it. It’s like they know something that I don’t know. It’s in their eyes, in the way they carry themselves, a sort of special grin that says to me “I have the secret” to: 1) happiness, 2) living well, 3) the meaning of life. Italians are a fascinating composite of intelligence, cynicism, superstition, generosity, warmth, hyper-criticism, style, emotionality and humanism. You certainly have to consider that their civilization has been in existence for thousands of years. It’s a culture of people who have seen it all, done it all and have the T-shirt. Americans are the “teenagers” of civilizations – we have a lot to learn. We may be the most powerful country in the free world, but we are “cultural pipsqueaks” in comparison.
“Families are like fudge – mostly sweet with a few nuts.” ~Author Unknown
Despite all our differences, when it comes down to it, what makes us most alike – two separate people from two different countries – is our regard for family. Family is the cornerstone of our lives: we hold it in highest esteem – even if we don’t understand each other, fight with one another, or at times hate each other. We never forget that home and family is where we started. And if we are lucky to have been born into a good and loving one, we hope it is where we will be in the end. So, here’s to the family…”Alla Famiglia”. That’s Italian and Italian American.