Ok, let me be clear. I’m American and proud of it. Born here, raised here, probably will never move out.
I’m also a New York City native, and NYC is, of course, a melting pot mecca for immigration. And we who can trace our heritage to another country by relatives who are still alive and usually have accents, still identify somewhat with that other nationality.
My grandparents on both sides came off the boat from Italy. They were Italian.
They knew English too, but they spoke Italian at home and my parents’ first language was Italian. They were first generation Italian Americans but still had major ties to the boot-shaped motherland.
My first language was English. The parents used occasional Italian words and phrases, or had full conversations with my grandparents, great aunts/uncles or my great-grandmother, who never even learned English but lived in an Italian immigrant neighborhood so got by just fine… but they didn’t teach me or my siblings Italian.
But there were still plenty of references and traditions being done in my house where I felt somewhat Italian. Mostly all holiday/food-related: the Seven Fishes [sic] on Christmas Eve, calling pasta “macaroni” and calling macaroni sauce “gravy,” my parents had Italian music that they played in the house and in the car on the 8 track player, and many many other things.
And did I mention that we were LOUD?
Plus, I grew up in a neighborhood where the majority of people were in a similar situation. As long as we stayed in our little pizza-petri dish of a neighborhood, then we identified as being Italian. If somebody asked us what our nationality was, to us it meant our heritage because our Italian relatives were still around.
Family holidays were LOUD, food was gourmet and plentiful. I swear, my mom’s fried meatballs could have solved world peace.
Of course, Italian Americans had our own take on being Italian, and we all see it in movies and TV. Yes the cast of Sopranos and Jersey Shore look like caricatures but I knew thousands just like that… maybe even one PERSONALLY. Not EVERY Italian American is like that. But there definitely are MANY that are.
But the actual Italian-ness was great. The accents, the traditions, the language, yes the FOOD.
The years have gone by. I lost my last grandparent in 1986. Great Aunts/Uncle, distant cousins along the way too. I have one actual-Italian “second cousin/once removed” left (my grandmother’s first cousin’s son-in-law.) He has an accent and always talks about the old country. I know about 30 words of Italian so I use them with him. Those are great conversations that make me smile ear-to-ear out of respect, adoration and love.
I honor my grandmother by making homemade cavatelli pasta occasionally from scratch. I don’t even use a mixer, all by hand as she taught me:
My mom still throws in an occasional Italian word, we know all of the ones that she uses by now. And she makes traditional Italian food sometimes, but she cooks less these days, and now she and my step-dad now live in Florida so I see them only a few times a year.
And one day, hopefully far from now, the Italian roots will be gone completely. I’m American only. Nothing “wrong” with that, happens to many eventually. Just a realization of change… And it hit me as I screamed “Paisan! Viva Italia!!!” to Italian NY Marathon runners yesterday.