Archive for the ‘Italian-Americans’ Category

Luke Joseph DeBella: 1917 – 2004

As the 10-year anniversary of my father’s passing comes and goes, I have been thinking a lot about him and of the legacy he left behind.  To say that he was my role model and hero seems trite — everyone says that about their father (if they are fortunate enough to have a strong man in their life to lead them into adulthood as I did).  A man of few words, I learned what was most important by watching him conduct himself throughout his life and in his 52-year love affair with my mother.  It was in this manner that I witnessed the qualities I wanted to emulate for myself.  If I could only become half the person that he was…

When my dad was a young man his nieces and nephews used to call him “Uncle Tootsy”.  If you’d ever met this man you’d understand how ludicrous a moniker that was because my father’s reputation as a curmudgeon was legendary.  He could come-off a little scary at first and often caused my friends at school to shiver in their boots.  However, despite his well-executed “tough-guy” persona, once you got to know him you’d soon realized that his “schtick” was designed to hide one of the biggest and warmest hearts on the planet.  Babies in particular adored my father – they were not fooled by his stern, gruff manner – they could see right through him into his soft, mushy center.  My father had more friends than you could shake a stick at.

Dad was born at home in San Jose, California and raised in a house with 9 other siblings by Sicilian immigrant parents.  Not formally educated past the 8th grade, he would religiously read the newspaper cover-to-cover every day and watch the news each evening.  What my father lacked in academic knowledge he more than made up for in an uncanny intelligence for reading people.

At a young age my father learned his trade as a car mechanic and after returning from Europe at the end of World War II, he began an automotive repair business, “Luke and Martin Service”, in an old converted barn behind my grandparents’ house.  When I was a little girl, I never hesitated to take the opportunity to boast about him. If a kid bragged that his father was a brain surgeon, I would shoot back, “Well, MY dad is a mechanic”! He worked in that capacity until he was nearly 75 years old because, I believe, his regular customers refused to let him retire.  A good, honest and trustworthy auto repairman is really hard to come by.

He wasn’t the kind of guy to show off or talk about himself.  He avoided people who put on “airs” or thought they were superior to others.  He valued honor and respected hard work and straight talk.  When I was a teen, he once said to me, “Being rich doesn’t make you happy”.  My response back was, “That’s just what poor people say to make themselves feel better”, and he just smiled.  He was crazy about Westerns (especially John Wayne and Clint Eastwood), and was an avid outdoor sportsman.  By far, his favorite activity was to fish in a boat on a lake with his buddies.  He was so passionate about it that my family had the words “Gone Fishing” carved into his gravestone.  The cheekiness of that gesture would not be lost on him.

I guess the bottom line is that my dad was the “strong, silent type”.  Not very demonstrative – he wasn’t much for talking about his “feelings”.  In all honesty, I don’t remember my father ever saying the words “I love you” to me, however, there wasn’t a day that went by that I didn’t feel loved and cared for by him.  Some people ‘talk the talk’ but he actually ‘walked the walk’ and taught me one of the most important lessons of my life so far: “Love” isn’t a noun, it’s a verb. by Toni DeBella


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“I find television to be very educating.  Every time somebody turns on the set, I go in the other room and read a book.”  –Groucho Marx

Television as a way to learn a foreign language is by no means a new concept.  Since its inception in the late 1940s, newcomers have been using TV as a means to help them absorb their new language, and more importantly, to assimilate into their new culture.  The conventional wisdom of linguists is there’s no relationship between watching television and mastering a language.  I beg to differ.  Based on only nonscientific anecdotal evidence (me), I assert that watching TV is a super supplement to other means of learning because it gives the viewer verbal as well as visual cues.  You can look at it as a “workbook” in a box.  With respect to colloquialisms that are spoken in everyday life, what better place to soak up slang than from a reality show or afternoon soap opera?  After all, if it’s your intention to fit in and become part of your community, you’ll want to become familiar with the common vernacular.

Pantofolaio (Couch Potato) Beware!

Of course, it’s important to take an interactive role in your “boob tubing”.  Passively sitting back and letting the information wash over you isn’t going to cut it.  Obviously television alone cannot replace formal training in grammar and vocabulary.  However, if used deliberately and thoughtfully, TV can be an effective way to enhance your proficiency in three particular areas: pronunciation, commonly used expressions/vocabulary and popular trends.

Italian All day, every day

Wake up and turn on your television set.  You don’t necessarily have to be watching it to get the benefit – the background noise of Italians in conversation is seeping in.  By bombarding your brain with the spoken word, you can train your “ear” to the musical rhythm and cadence of this beautiful language, and repeating words and phrases out loud helps with pronunciation.  It’s like gymnastics for your tongue – reminding you of the importance of enunciating each and every letter to avoid changing a word’s meaning entirely, i.e., penne (a kind of pasta) and pene (penis).  Otherwise, dialogue at the supermarket could get pretty interesting.

Are you listening to me?

Eavesdropping in public places – awkward.   Watching a talk show in your living room – a much more relaxing way to pick up idioms in context (and with the accompanying hand gestures).  Once I’d heard a phase used over and over, I would ask a friend its meaning and how to use it.  For example, “Secondo me” came up a lot on political talk shows.  I learned that it meant “in my opinion/in my view”.  Once it made sense to me in its proper context, I could begin using it with confidence in my own conversations.

Around the Water Cooler

You get a pretty good idea of the political climate of the country, its mores, values and attitudes with a healthy diet of current affairs programming.  Who and what are in fashion can easily be gleaned from entertainment news and nighttime talk shows.


CATEGORICALLY SPEAKING…Types of Shows that give you the most “bang for your buck”:

#1 – Trivial Pursuit (Trivia Shows)

Millionario is one of my favorites.  Gerry Scotti, (the Ryan Seacrest of Italy) hosts this country’s version of “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire”. The beauty of this show is that along with the questions posed to the contestant, you can read the question and possible answers on the screen. Are you a genius in English and Italian?

#2 -Games People Play (Game Shows)

La Routa della Fortuna is the Italian “Wheel of Fortune”Enrico Papi is clever and better looking than Pat Sajak, but the real fun is kooky Victoria Silvstedt, a former Swedish Playboy Playmate ( “Vanna White‘s” counterpart).  It turns out crossword puzzles are a lot easier in your native tongue.   This show is a surprising mixture of trash TV and educational programming rolled into one crazy format.  A wacky way to learn vocabulary!

#3 – Series, Seriously (Episodic Series)

There’s a plethora of serial dramas and sitcoms – many imported from America – that are broadcast weekly (Commissario Montablano, CSI, Law and Order, House, Friends, etc.).  I discovered that you can set most televisions to the closed captioning mode which allows you to watch and read the programs in Italian at the same time.  It really works!

Television Tower of Babel

It all comes down to one thing: communicating.  It seems television has become our modern day Tower of Babel that works to promote understanding by uniting people while acting as a sort of cultural equalizer. TV can make the world seem not just smaller, but downright miniscule.  So, stay tuned!
by Toni DeBella

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The letter from the Consolato Generale D’Italia a San Francisco arrived in the mail today. The words inside the envelope were a culmination of three long years of hard work and dogged determination: 31/08/11 Dear Ms. DeBella: “I am pleased to notify you that your Italian citizenship has been recognized and that your certificate(s) have been forwarded to the Italian municipality of CORLEONE (PA) for recording.”

Somehow I envisioned this auspicious occasion much differently. There were times when I wondered if this day would ever come. And if it did arrive, I imagined it would be filled with much fanfare, jumping up and down, and screaming. Instead it was a quiet moment. A solitary moment. A very personal moment. It was a time to reflect on what it took for me to get to this place: Patience, tenacity, belief, humor, and a clear intention. August 31, 2011 is the day I became a citizen of Italy.

Italian by Blood Jure sanguinis (“right of blood”) contrasts with jus soli (Latin: “right of soil”) in that citizenship is not determined by place of birth, but rather by having a parent (or decendent) who is a citizen of a nation. In Italy there’s no limit to the generations that can obtain citizenship via blood (except for specific constraints which did not apply to me). Furthermore, because the U.S. and Italy have a reciprocity agreement, one is allowed dual citizenship.

After tracking down my grandparents’ birth certificates (likely located in books archived in church basements of Corleone and Contessa Entellina), respectively, I gathered together some twenty other documents (i.e., birth, death, divorce) for both myself and members of my immediate family. Translations and Apostilles followed, along with a list of discrepancies and misspelled names (of which there were many). And don’t even get me started on the rabbit hole that is the U.S. Department of Homeland Security! This part  of the process took a little over a year to complete. Then there was the waiting period (one-and-a half years, to be exact) for an appointment to personally submit my application to the Italian Consulate.

The procedure was daunting, frustrating, and at times discouraging. When I felt like giving up, I thought about the finish line — life in Italy — which helped to spur me on. I suppose that if becoming a citizen of a country were easy, everyone would do it. You really have to want it!

The Gift

I Nonni DeBella, San Jose, California

Throughout these three years I’ve been fortunate to have the support and encouragement of friends and family, both in the U.S. and Italy. But it was my grandparents, Jake (Gioachino) DiBella and Emma (Ninfa) Pizzo, who deserve my utmost thanks and gratitude for without them none of this would be possible. In the late 1880s, they came to this country as young immigrants from Sicily. They married, worked hard, and raised a family of ten children. I wonder what they would have thought about their granddaughter one day returning to the land they left behind.

It appears that the DeBella family, in the not-too-distant future, is about to come full circle.

by Toni DeBella

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I have never been overly-superstitious and take great pride in my healthy cynicism.   I don’t throw salt over my shoulder or avoid black cats.  As a muralist, I walk under ladders frequently and don’t believe I have ever fallen victim to the evil eye.  Thinking or saying something out loud does not make it come true.  If it did, I’d be a size 6, rich and living in a palazzo in Orvieto.  But I digress.

My grandmother was normally a very serious and solemn woman.  One day a year she would transform into a madwoman, wielding a broom and running in circles shouting and screaming like a banshee in an effort to ward off the evil spirits who had apparently taken up residence in our cellar.  It was spring cleaning run amok.  I don’t know much about the tradition that had this small, fragile and shy lady fearlessly take on a bunch of ghosts in the basement of our house.  I wonder if it was folklore passed down from her childhood in Contessa Entellina, a small Sicilian town 80km from Palermo.  I did a little research and found quite a few references to sweeping away evil spirits with a broom — a common practice especially among southern Italians, but was unable to find any mention of the “screaming and running around” part.  Perhaps that was my grandmother’s own personal stamp on the custom.

Superstitious Minds

A superstition is a belief in something that has no rational foundation in science and is most often based on the prevailing religion or culture that contains these otherworldly beliefs.  The word comes from the classical Latin superstitio, meaning “a standing over [in amazement]”.  Greek and Roman pagans were believed to have scorned men who displayed a fear of the gods and thus, the behavior came to be referred to as superstition. This could explain why Greeks and Italians are famously known for their mythology and have a common legend in the “evil eye” – Malocchio in Italian, Mati in Greek.


When I wrote earlier that I am not particularly superstitious, I wasn’t being completely honest with you.  The fact is that in the last few years I have come to believe a certain necklace I own has developed supernatural powers that, if worn daily, will someday bring me good luck.

It started out as a simple chain with a silver bar hanging from it.  One afternoon while in St. Peter’s Square I looked down to see something glittering in the sun.  I removed it from between the cobblestones to discover it was a tiny medallion of the Madonna.  Convinced this was an omen, I instinctively hung it onto my necklace.  A birthday present of a charm with the word “Friend” engraved on it followed — then a Chinese coin and a 4-leaf clover.  On one arrival in Rome I wrote the message to my friend Angelo, “Io sono in Italia…mi sento come una farfalla” (I am in Italy…I feel like a butterfly).  When he presented me with the gift of a tiny crystal butterfly dangling from a pink heart of course I had to add it to my collection.  This “chain of fortune” is getting rather heavy!

Out of the 365 days in a year, I probably wear the necklace 360 of them.  The other 5 days I just don’t feel quite right without it.  Could I have inherited from Grandma this propensity to make weak associations of cause and effect where there are none?  What can I say? I don’t like tempting fate.  Writer Judith Viorst said it very well: “Superstition is foolish, childish, primitive and irrational — but how much does it cost you to knock on wood?”
by Toni DeBella

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I Nonni DeBella

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

My parents Luke and Nancy

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

A family camping trip

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.

by Toni DeBella

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