With this in mind, on my first trip to Italy I was expecting to find prominent differences between our cultures. However, happily, I found that while there were definitely many notable ones, to be an Italo-American is not very far off from being an Italian from Italy. It was reassuring to know the work of my ancestors was not in vain.
Italy was founded as the country we know it to be in 1861. Before that it was broken into smaller states ruled by pre-existing countries such as Germany, France, and Spain. Eventually a social movement came along called Il Risorgimento that unified the Peninsula, declaring it the new country of Italy under King Victor Emmanuel II and the first Italian Parliament of Torino. Due to the new country’s previous separation, there was no national language. Each region, influenced by their former ruling countries, spoke a unique dialect. Additionally, as happens with the forming of most new nations,
Italy was in economic turmoil. The south especially was extremely poor, so for the next century, many southern Italians fled to America. It is for this reason that the majority of the Italo-Americans, myself included, hail from southern regions, starting at Rome and extending to all of southern Italy and Sicily below the meridionale. The Italian language as it is spoken today was not solidified until the mid 1900’s, with the introduction of the television into everyone’s homes, where a singular language was needed to broadcast stations nationally.
A huge difference between Italo-American and Italian culture is the language. I have spent my life proudly ordering the wet “mutzadel” (mozzarella) and the fresh “galamad” (calamari) “gabagool”(capicola) “pruh-zhoot” (prosciutto) and “braggiol” (braciole) from the neighborhood macellaio. I have exclaimed with conviction “Maron’!” (madonna) and “Fangool!” (vaffanculo) in moments of frustration. I’ve called people “giadrul’” (cetriolo) “gavone” (cafone) “stunad’” (stonato) particularly when I don’t want them to know what I’m saying. The language Italo-Americans created is called a pidgin or an incomplete secondary language formed in an area where the people do not speak the main language. Italo-American ancestors arrived before “standard italian” was widely known, therefore making our pidgin rooted in dialects like Calabrese, Pugliese, Siciliano, and mainly, Napoletano. In Italy, the older generations have kept the usage of dialects alive in each region, speaking dialect to their children at home, and teaching standard Italian at school. Many Italians themselves can’t recognize words spoken in dialect between the north and south, so if you speak Italo-American dialect in Italy, prepare to be embarrassed (or simply learn from my mistake and save yourself the awkward moment!).
A couple of my favorite examples to give you an idea of the evolution:
Standard Italian: Ma tu sei pazzo!
Napoletano: Ma tu si pazz!
Standard Italian: Stai zitto!
During the time of World War II, Italian immigrants were oppressed, marginalized and seen as the “enemy of war” in America. Due to the tension, a law was passed making it illegal to speak Italian in America. Many of our ancestors came with the “American Dream” in mind, and wanted nothing more to assimilate. Therefore, they stopped passing down their native tongue and only certain words, phrases, and accents of their dialects remained. Chepreca (che peccato), right?
Italo-Americans embrace the American style of eating, which is “quickly and efficiently,” grabbing something convenient for their 30 minute lunch break and saving their big meal for dinner when they’re home from work and can finally relax. Italians can sit over a meal for hours at a time, practicing the art of conversation, and stretching a meal over many courses consisting of an aperitivo, antipasto, primo, secondo, contorno, dolce, and digestivo. Traditionally, Italians will have their biggest meal at lunch, due to the more laid-back lifestyle consisting of a riposo, when businesses shut down mid-afternoon and families convene for food and a nap. In America, thanks to the fast-paced money-driven lifestyle, Italo-Americans reserve their big family lunches for Sunday. Believe me, there isn’t a better smell than the smell of fresh sugo being cooked after a morning at church.
Another notable difference in cultures is the celebration of worldwide holidays, in particular, Christmas! Similarly to Italians, Italo-Americans celebrate Christmas Eve more so than Christmas itself keeping with the tradition of La Festa Dei Sette Pesci, a feast of seafood. However, in the spirit of laid-back Italians dragging things out, the holiday in Italy usually spans Christmas Eve, Christmas Day, and the day after Christmas as well. Traditionally, Christmas Eve is spent in anticipation of Santa Claus or in Italy, Babbo Natale to arrive with the goods, leaving him a plate of fresh cookies and a glass of ice cold milk. But in Italy, while Babbo Natale does come too, children more so anticipate the arrival of La Befana on the Epiphany, a witch bearing gifts who sweeps the house before she leaves, and expects a glass of wine to be left out for her troubles, forget milk! While I grew up playing games of scrabble or pictionary in between the seafood pasta meat and dolce extravaganza (including my nonna’s secret recipe for zeppole), Italians will sit around the table and have their hand at a game of gambling bingo called Tambola and even show up to the occasion with matching change purses. Generally, celebrations and holidays in an Italian or Italo-American family tend to be a Meghan Markle/Prince Harry sized event. You thought the royal wedding was big? You haven’t seen one of our baptisms.
It gives me peace of mind and reassurance to know that the hard work of our Italian ancestors to, despite all the hardship they faced, keep the Italian culture flourishing in their families for generations was successful. The courage they had to come to a new country, one unwelcoming at the time, is something that I feel can only be honored and thanked by the passage of culture. For every difference that there is between Italo-Americans and Italians, there is a world of similarities where it counts the most: in values. Like those of our Italian counterparts, Italo-American families are tight knit, strong, and taught to always come first. Community is a concept held in high regard, whether it be a neighborhood of Italo-Americans, a market or cafe where the community can come together, or even a church diocese. The Roman Catholic religion is not only remembered but highly celebrated, continuing the work of the Vatican in our own backyard.
Yet, above all, the most valuable lesson passed through the ages is to love. Italian is the culture of love, but not just romantic love, all love: love through sacrifice, hard work, loyalty, and through making sure the ones you care about always have a panza (pancia) full of pasta!
Written by Juliette Stewart.
About the Author:
Juliette is a New York City native and recent graduate of both the musical theatre and acting majors in Temple University, Philadelphia, with a minor in Italian language from Temple Rome, Italy. Not only is she proficient in the disciples of musical theatre, but she has an extensive background in both jazz and classical music, film, artist-management, language, and writing.
In her time off the stage, and not in Italy, she has written weekly articles for online fashion magazines as well as been published in poetry books. Juliette is fluent in both English and Italian and plans to further the spread of language-learning and social change through teaching and art-making. She hopes to curate and create international performance arts in Italy specifically, advancing the country's exposure to important work on a global and polyglottal platform.
Official Website: juliettestewart.com
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