Cultural Impastas

What’s it like to have someone obsess over your culture, but disregard you, as a person? What’s it like to weep at the thought of having a governor of Italian-American descent (see: Mario Cuomo circa 1990)? I know what it’s like.

Italian this, Italian that. Pizza, pasta, fashion, and more pizza.

All my life, I have been stereotyped. That’s fine, I’m a super proud Italian-American, and at this point, it feels natural that people would assume things about me. I decided a long time ago not to waste my time talking to brick walls; some people are so set in their beliefs. And sometimes, they’re not even wrong.

I’m pretty sure I came out of the womb eating pasta, and naturally, I was two weeks late. I have expensive taste, I’m picky with the quality of my food, I speak Italian, everyone thinks my dad is a mob boss because of our aforementioned appreciation for pricey things. I don’t fight all the stereotypes, because denying them would be denying part of who I am. I’m proud of who I am.

It’s different, however, when people physically apply stereotypes, when our entire quality of life is altered because of our heritage. It wasn’t until I was almost an adult did I realize the severity of the discrimination the people of my culture faced. Listen to me, people will hear a name, and they’ll automatically make assumptions. I guess it’s human nature, because everyone does it; “What is that, is that Spanish? How do you pronounce that? Oh, it’s Italian?”

Imagine families forced out of their respective cities to live on the sidelines in an outer ring, with sun-baked pavement and too many children in too small of a home. Rotting food in vendors’ carts in the heat, drafty windows and frozen nights in the cold. All of this, simply because our last names end in vowels? My dad did not grow up here, but he could’ve.

My dad, Roberto, grew up in a small town about an hour outside of Rome, in a place called San Giovanni Incarico.

(Che bellissima!)

His father (my nonno) was ambitious, his mother (my nonna) a fabulous cook, and he only had one brother. Growing up in such a small place in the 1950s (yes, my dad is old, but olive oil keeps him young), left him yearning to see the world, to see grand ol’ America in its heyday.

With the idea of possibly moving his family in mind, his father went to America for work (sans Roberto), and he took his wife with him. My father was left with his uncle and his brother, wondering just how much of the world he hadn’t seen.

Knowing this story, I grew up, slowly learning that my life could’ve turned out very differently. My grandparents had moved back to Italy shortly and stayed there, after realizing life in America wasn’t all it’s made out to be. The obsession is with Italian food, fashion, and culture, but never the people. Spaghetti and meatballs were wonderful, if they were being made by a white housewife in the suburbs, with a yard and a white picket fence. Pizza was great, but only at the local pizza parlor—nevermind it was run by Italian immigrants.

I came to understand that we, as Americans, have a habit of adopting a culture we fancy, but skewing it, and making our own version of it. For example, Jersey Shore:

Seeing this show represent my culture is utterly EMBARRASSING for me. They’re imposters, imposters, I say!

I’ve witnessed this “cultural obsession” throughout history, and even now. It’s strange to think that one likes the product, but not the source. I’ve never understood how that works, personally, in cultural terms.

I was never bullied because of my heritage, but I was different. In school, I ate different things than most of the kids. I’d been to more countries, knew parts of a different language. I have siblings with “weird” names. I have a dad whose English no one but his kids could understand.

My godfather—my dad’s best friend— came from Italy years ago as well, and he was embarrassed. For years, he stifled his strong Italian accent, and eventually, he was able to conceal it. I think about that sometimes, and I wonder why he was made to feel shame, simply because of his origins.

Now don’t get me wrong… I don’t want to make it sound like we’re suffering now; this is more of a history lesson, but it is a painful history. I haven’t been discriminated against, but every day, I remember what my ancestors struggled with. I’m aware this isn’t as prominent or as recent of an issue as other (very important!!) movements. We are Italian, and most of us are very proud, but it took decades for it to be that way.

If I could change anything about the world, it would be to rid the world of the fear of the unknown. So much would change, if we were less judgmental, less fearful of things we didn’t understand, and less obsessive over things we have no claim over.

Who are we to claim a culture, to give it a makeover, and present it in a way that is entirely incorrect? Who are we to judge? It requires some consideration, and a final thought for you to leave with, reader: chi siamo noi?

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