The Italian-American Triumvirate: #2 – Country

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As mentioned last week, October is Italian-American Heritage Month. Not only do we take a day (either the original October 12 or the second Monday) to celebrate Christopher Columbus, the Italian that most influenced America, but, like other ethnic groups, we spend the entire month honoring those who immigrated to the United States centuries after the first Italian discovered a brand new world.

This is the second in a series of columns on “the Big Three,” the three institutions that, though to some extent describe all Americans, speak especially to the cultural heritage of Italian-Americans.

Recall the meaning of “Italian-American.” It represents an acknowledgment that you are proud of your home country (Italy), but you are now a citizen of your newly adopted country (America).

After God comes country.

Here’s the ironic twist. If you haven’t guessed it, like many immigrants, Italian Americans actually honor two countries. This two-country thing is why old Americans have always distrusted new Americans.

It would be incredibly naïve to view this as an unjustified prejudice. It is quite logical, especially when immigrants use their American jobs to funnel money back to their “home” countries rather than using it to fuel the American economy that provides those very jobs.

In addition to this economic reason, there is also the geopolitical reason. At various times in our nation’s existence, we have been at war with foreign adversaries whose citizens reside within our border. This dates back all the way to the Revolutionary War, where roughly a third of the inhabitants sided with the Mother Country (England).

Sensitive to this, and perhaps as a defense to ward off bigotry, immigrant classes of all nations quickly realized they had to make a choice: continue to leech off of America (and suffer the consequences) or assimilate with your new neighbors (and reap the rewards, if not for you immediately, then for your children eventually).

It sounds like a tough choice, but, for Italian-Americans, it wasn’t.

To fully appreciate this, you must place your feet in those immigrant shoes.

The decision to leave your homeland cannot be taken lightly. Most of us came from small villages that dotted the landscape of southern Italy and Sicily (and, if you’re of Italian descent, you know why I separate the two). For generations, your family lived and died in that village. You knew everyone and you knew of everyone. I’ll give you an example.

Established in Roman times with a medieval castle built at its heart, Fontecchio is a small town just south of L’Aquila in the Abruzzi region on the other side of the Apennine Mountains east of Rome. I like to call it “the place where Carosas are made.” Twice I traveled back to this paese (“village”) of Carosa. Once in 1987 and once in 2011. Both times, residents recognized me before I introduced myself.

It’s hard for people to believe this, even when I explain each time the reason for the recognition was because I look exactly like my great-grandfather. Still, no one here thinks it’s possible to remember someone who died nearly 70 years ago.

But there are two excellent explanations for this “amazing” memory. First, most grave sites contain pictures of the people buried there. My great-grandfather’s picture is on his grave. I know. I saw it. So that accounts for the recency of the memory.

That’s not all. In fact, that might not even be the best explanation. A more understandable reason might be that there are only a few hundred people who live in this commune. It’s simply easier to remember what everyone looks (and looked) like.

With that kind of closeness, imagine how hard it is to leave.

At least if you’re old. It turns out many of the Italian immigrants were young. Sometimes they came alone, sometimes they came with their families (including their extended families). The relative youthfulness probably made leaving not only acceptable, but necessary.

Without getting into the whole histories of foreign invasions and control, suffice it to say that southern Italy (and Sicily) suffered. Much of the region scraped by, barely surviving the economic malignance left by this residue. Young people needed a way to feed their family. America promised this.

That’s why my family came. From Fontecchio. From Accadia (east of Naples). From Serradifalco (in the arid hills of central Sicily). It was just too poor to remain living there. And if they wanted to raise their young families, they needed a place where they could get steady jobs.

This isn’t just a personal story. It is the story of Italian-Americans and plenty of other immigrants.

What may have started as an economic need quickly realized itself in something greater. As Columbus before them, Italian-American immigrants discovered a new world. It was a world of freedom unlike they had ever seen.

Granted, as mention in last week’s column, they were also subject to discrimination in some ways worse than American blacks. Despite that, the new-found freedom far exceeded the home country (and, being from southern Italy, it’s not like they hadn’t suffered from bigotry at the hands of other Italians).

It was not hard to want to become American citizens. And, once word got out, other paesans wanted to join the crowd.

Once here, Italian-Americans slowly began to take heart with this second pillar of their cultural triumvirate. Sure, they might have had to form their own civic associations mirroring the American ones that wouldn’t let them in, but they did what they did to fit in. Some Anglicized their last names. Others gave their children non-tradition (i.e., non-Italian) first names. (Sometimes this backfired, when my grandparents named my father “Patsy” thinking it was the American version of “Pasquale,” not realizing, in America, it was a girl’s name.)

This biggest thing they did was stop speaking Italian. From its peak of 1.8 million in 1930, today there are a little over 700,000 Italian speakers in the United States. Certainly, this was the case in my family, where my parents (born in 1937) were not taught Italian, and save for a few common phrases, cannot speak it conversationally.

After decades of assimilation, Italian-Americans saw success first in politics and entertainment. Actor Rudolph Valentino melted women’s hearts during the roaring twenties. During the same decade, Al Smith (whose grandfather changed his last name from Ferraro) served as New York State Governor.

Smith, by the way, was the first Italian-American nominated for president (in 1928) and, for what it’s worth, his landslide loss wasn’t blamed on his Italian heritage, but because he was a Catholic.

World War II, perhaps with the aid of the Yankee Clipper Joe DiMaggio (of Sicilian heritage) who started playing in 1936, accelerated the acceptance of Italian-Americans. Not only did they demonstrate the importance of their country by serving (and dying for) it, they played a prominent role. Enrico Fermi helped develop the atomic bomb. Dominic Salvatore Gentile, proclaimed the “Ace of Aces” surpassed Edie Rickenbacker’s World War I record by downing roughly 30 enemy aircraft.

Of course, in terms of serving one’s country, none reached higher heights (literally) than Walter M. Schirra, Jr., who was one of the Mercury 7 and flew a mission on each of the NASA programs in the 1960s (Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo).

A different height (of sorts) was reached by Frank Sinatra, who out-crooned Bing Crosby to not only top the charts but to score big in film. In fact, such was his stature early on that, after audiences saw Ernest Borgnine’s bigoted character Sgt. “Fatso” Judson beat Sinatra’s Angelo Maggio to death in 1953’s From Here To Eternity, Borgnine was vilified. He had to explain to people that he, too, was Italian (Borgnine was born Ermes Effron Borgnino).

Finally, and as a tribute to both the contemporary acceptance of Italian-Americans and the tradition of that ethnic group’s priority of “Country,” we have recently had two Italian-Americans serve on the United States Supreme Court simultaneously: the Late Antonin Scalia and Samuel Anthony Alito.

God, Country… what comes next?

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