Wednesday, October 21, 2020

Will our grandchildren have any idea what it means to be Italian-American?

Those of us who grew up in strong Italian American families and communities soon came to appreciate the special strengths of our ethnic identity. Mostly, it was the closeness of our nuclear and extended families, but our uniqueness also encompassed fantastic food, a strong work ethic and a host of other admirable traits. We had good reason to exhibit pride in our Italian origins—and we still do!

But do our children understand this? Well, how about our grandchildren and great grandchildren, who may only have a small percentage of Italian blood and have no chance of meeting their ancestors who actually lived in Italy? That’s the topic that writer Jim Pantaleo recently discussed on his Facebook page, and he has given me permission to reprint his insightful observations here.

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There’s an old Country song called “Don’t Get Above Your Raising.” It means no matter how successful you are, never forget where and who you came from.

Jim (center) and his sons.
For Italian-Americans, with each passing generation, that gets harder. My children are lucky enough to have known their grandparents, but not their great grandparents…the first in our family to come from Italy. Their memory will be even further removed from my grandchildren. Each new generation will know less about those who came from the old country and the traditions they brought with them, many of which we struggle to keep alive even today.

It’s so ironic that the greatest wish of those first immigrants was that their children would assimilate, become Americanized, so that their chances for a better life here might be improved. Many never spoke Italian at home in an effort to speed up that transition. The good news is that they succeeded beyond their wildest dreams. That is also the bad news because of the price that had to be paid. Pretty soon, Italian-American became American-Italian, with the Italian part losing ground fast.

I am encouraged by my kids’ interest in their ancestry and country of origin. Internet research has made family tree tracing easier. We need to support this curiosity. Tell them about their roots, the towns and villages our ancestors came from. Take better care of old family photos. Write down what you can remember about that immigrant generation and what their lives were like. I am proud to be an American, but the first time I stepped off a plane in Rome, I felt the tug of my Italian ancestry too.

Maybe we can’t stop the fading of our Italian culture in America, but we can slow it down. We need to honor that immigrant generation by keeping alive the traditions they left behind.

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Jim Pantaleo is the author of SPALDEEN DREAMS: A Boy Comes of Age in 1950's Brooklyn, available on Amazon.


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