Every other ethnic background seems to stand up for itself and demand respect when it is being discriminated against. If we look back over the history of this country we will find group after group that defend their rights. Groups that do not want to be portrayed in a negative light within the culture and groups that insist upon compensation for what Americans and the American society has done to them. Why, then, when we look at Italian Americans, do we tend to see a group of people who in effect renounce who they are and do not embrace their heritage?
There are many reasons for this quite common denouncement. The first is an attempt to assimilate. “By 1930, more than 4.5 million Italians had entered the United States,”; that is, a third of the population left Italy within the fifty years leading up to 1930 (Mangione 33). These Italians immigrated to this country with the hope that they would find food, jobs and financial security. Instead, they found, often times, worse conditions than they had left behind in Italy. This humungous population was the largest immigration from any one country to ever enter the United States. These people were in need and when they arrived they were ready to work and to earn their wages, which could lead to comfort and happiness. They came in hopes of finding “the American dream.” As a whole, this group was not looking for handouts, but merely for opportunities. Unfortunately, they were met with opposition.
As the History Channel’s documentary on Italian Americans states, Italians were told that in America they would find “streets paved with gold, only to arrive and realize they had to dig the streets.” So, these immigrants picked up shovels and went to work. But they quickly found opposition to their efforts. The Irish, who had come a few years prior to the Italians, did not appreciate the Italians’ willingness to perform hard labor jobs for small wages. The Irish began to feel threatened and soon a rivalry rose between the two groups. This was unfortunate, for both groups, because they were both primarily Catholic. But, this common ground became a divider and not a connector between the two groups.
Irish Americans began to exclude Italian Americans and to state that they were not welcome within the doors of the Irish Catholic churches. The Irish having known English before immigrating to the United States, began to show the Italians that the first thing that made them different was the language barrier. Italians, for the most part spoke very little English and the English they did speak was broken. So, settling Italians started to encourage their children to speak English. Although, a majority of them could not speak English, they began to pride themselves in the knowledge that their children could.
Many Italian Americans began sending their children to Irish churches primarily so they could learn the English language. The Italians wanted to connect with other Catholics and believed that by introducing their children to the religion, they were helping develop moral and kind adults. But, the Irish would not have it. Being bitter at the new Italian immigrant population, they began to discriminate against the Italians. Soon, Italian immigrants believed that the Irish Catholics were simply money groveling, but they continued to attend the Irish Catholic churches. They did not want to, in any way, jeopardize their children’s chances of a relationship with God, so Italian parents continued to be supportive of Irish churches. In Mount Allegro by Jerre Mangione, there is a chapter entitled “God and the Sicilian”. In this chapter he speaks of his Sicilian family and their relationship with God. He talks of how the parents already have an “in “ with God and although they do not attend church, there was no doubt in he and his brother’s mind that his parents were devote Catholics. But, this family struggled with the Irish church their children attended. And, when it came time for the children to go to school, wanting the best for her children, Mrs. Mangione tried to enroll them in a parochial school but was quickly stopped by the racial hatred of the Irish priest who was in charge of the school. “But the Irish priest refused to enroll Joe along with me on the ground that he was not old enough to enter school . . . she [mom] marched us to the nearest public school, where she had no difficulty enrolling us” (Mangione 71). Events like this between the Italians and the Americans were so prevalent, Italians were ready to change to avoid them. Here is where their assimilation began.
Italian Americans began denouncing their culture and changing their culture to match and function within the context of the American society. They began hiding the fact that they were Italian and starting discouraging their children from the Italian ways. But, this rejection of their heritage started to create conflict within the children. These children lived in homes were Americanized Italian was spoken and where they lived an Italian culture, but their parents were beginning to demand their generation to also be American. While the children were struggling with their duality so were the parents. At times they shunned the idea of their children being American, but at the same time they believed that their children could go farther if they could just hide their Italian heritage.
Children began to see their parents hating who they were and trying to hide their Italian lifestyle. This assimilation has become the leading issue in our present day Italian American population. Instead of embracing the Italian heritage and if necessary, defending it, Italian Americans seem to divorce themselves from their roots. They do this in order to become part of the dominant culture here in America.
For example, the role that the mafia plays in the lives of the average Italian American and the role that the mafia portrays in the entertainment world is quite different. But, Italian Americans do not protest the negative portrayal of themselves or their ancestors because it is as though they have separated themselves from who they were. From this disconnectedness, they have adopted a new identity that divorces them from the responsibility they have to their roots. So, as a result, they embrace movies like the Godfather and other mafia movies that portray not only their ancestors, but also themselves as thugs and murderers.
All of this stems from the self-hatred the immigrating population had regarding their culture, customs and roots. It is as though the emigrating generation tried so hard to assimilate, that they have accepted the Italian image as the entertainment world have created it only because they are so disconnected from what it really “could” be to be an Italian America.
This self-hatred is not acceptable and it has to change. The change can start by realizing that to be an Italian American is a privilege not a disgrace. That is not to say that Italian Americans are better than all other Americans, but it is to say that Italian Americans have just as much ability and worth as the next non-Italian American. Italian Americans can find this worth from their fellow Italian Americans who are and continue to succeed and persevere while being proud of being American and having Italian heritage.
One place where self-hatred manifests itself is in politics. Politically, Italian Americans feel embarrassed ( http://www.io.com/~segreta/about/preface.html ). This may come from Mussolini’s involvement with Hitler during World War II. But, this is no longer a reason to be ashamed of one’s heritage. Just like German Americans and Germans should not hate themselves because of the holocaust, neither should Italian Americans. Instead, all Americans need to see what happened to Jewish people, recognize it is unacceptable and make sure nothing like it ever happens again. Instead, of being embarrassed about the mistakes Italy made politically, Italian Americans need to look at some of the leaders that are Italian American. Right now we have a huge number of politicians in office that are Italian Americans. Here is when Italian Americans need to be proud that their race has persevered through discrimination and is currently being elected to public office by the majority of their American peers.
The United States is a democratic country. Our officials are not appointed and as a result, the fact that Italian Americans are being voted into offices shows that other Americans see Italian Americans as worthy and capable Americans. Also, it is important to include that the places where Italian Americans are being elected into office are not predominantly Italian American. In Massachusetts for example, Governor Celluci is an Italian American. However, in Massachusetts the population of Italian Americans is 845,432 people, which is only 14.1 percent of the Massachusetts population (http://www.niaf.org ). Hence, it is obvious to see that other ethnic groups must have also seen Celluci as a worthy candidate for governor.
Also, this year four more Italian Americans were voted into the House of Representatives. These four people add to the current balance to include 32 Italian Americans within the Congress. The new members include Shelly Moore Capito, Mike Ferguson, Felix Grucci and Pat Tiberi. All four of these people have recently been chosen by their fellow Americans and so were the 28 Italian Americans before them that comprise the current Congress (http://www.niaf.org ). Other Americans see these Italian Americans as intelligent and capable.
So, if other people see the worth of Italian Americans, why don’t the Italian Americans themselves? And why don't Italian Americans unite to fight discrimination? This comes from a fear that they will be “discovered” as different. Italians tried to come to America and become one with Americans. So, currently, they do not stand up for what they believe they were and they do not believe that what they were relates to what they are today. Because Italian Americans did not feel as though they would ever be accepted they transformed themselves in order to be accepted. This change, over the last two generations, has caused a strange backlash. That is, instead of fighting against stereotypical and discriminatory actions, they tend to embrace them. As though Italian Americans do not want to reject them for fear that they may then be isolating themselves once again from the dominant culture. Take the show “The Sopranos” for instance. Why did so many Italian Americans try out to portray Italian Mafiosi?
The interest occurred for two reasons. One, to many Italian Americans, the mafia is something that they have never had contact with so to these Italian Americans what they are actually portraying is not Italian American reality, but instead simply a Hollywood created idea of Italian Mafiosi. As a result, the Italian Americans do not feel as though it is unacceptable. But, what about the Italian Americans who do feel it is unacceptable that 72 percent of the films that depict Italian Americans show them as, “boors, bigots or bimbos” (http://www.niaf.org )? Do they not stand up and fight the discrimination because they worry that the other Italian Americans will be angered by this? Or do they instead feel as though standing up against their culture’s discrimination will some how isolate them again? Either way, what needs to change is the feeling of shame for who these Italian Americans are. So how do Italian Americans do this?
First, they need to realize, that they are Americans and that they are of Italian descent and that there is absolutely nothing wrong with either of these things. How can this come about? Well, first, a great step would be in abolishing television shows and movies that portray Italian Americans in a bad light and instead making programs that emphasize the family and other beautiful aspects of the culture. This may give Italian Americans the confidence to concentrate on the positives while still affecting other Americans as well. If the programming changes, so will the opinions of the viewers.
Also, in order for Italian Americans to feel comfortable and open about their heritage it is important for forums to open where Italian Americans can go to realize they are not alone in their thinking. The Internet lends itself quite nicely to this. Luckily, there are many forums on the Internet for Italian Americans, but the best seems to be found at http://clubs.yahoo.com/clubs/italianamericansunite . There, Italian Americans can discuss with other Italian Americans issues regarding discrimination, media and/or positive cultural aspects. This forum could be extremely instrumental in providing reassurance to some Italian Americans. It could bring pride to Italian Americans that may be struggling to embrace and appreciate their heritage.
Another way to help give Italian Americans pride is to publicize the organizations throughout America that are supportive of Italian American efforts and abilities. One such organization is NIAF, The National Italian American Foundation. NIAF not only is supportive of Italian Americans, but they are very open to all people. This is a wonderful plateau for any group to stand on and the love of everyone may make it easier for Italian Americans to maintain a love of their heritage as well as embrace being American.
NIAF has also comprised a way to try to eliminate stereotyping of Italian Americans within movies and television shows. The call it the “the three R’s”: Review, Respond and Read. NIAF suggests that Italian Americans or any Americans should find out who is responsible for the offensive programming and then they should send a written letter to him or her, and then the person should continue to educate themselves on the Italian American culture ( http://www.niaf.org ). From education, NIAF believes, change occurs.
So, hopefully, if Italian Americans begin to make a conscious effort to look and find positive things about themselves, then they will be proud enough and confident enough to say and do what they believe is in their ethnic background’s best interest. But these changes are not going to happen until Italian Americans realize that assimilation is not the answer or the solution. Instead, embracing and enjoying their ancestor’s Italian heritage and their American heritage is where Italian Americans should go to find a confident and happy way of living.
January 3, 2002
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