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Italiana o ‘Merican’?
When I was a kid, I remember getting my first paint set for Christmas one year. It came with a couple small canvases, and maybe six tiny tubes of acrylic paint. I sat at the kitchen table attempted to create a portrait of my family. As I lathered on the beige straight out of the tube, my older brother– six years my senior and the artist of the family– told me, “Try mixing it with white or yellow.” It was my first introduction to how to blend colors in order to achieve realism.
"Are we to paint what's on the face, what's inside the face, or what's behind it?"
As a a student of art for many years, I have been taught to loathe paint straight out of the tube. These store-bought colors are only foundations upon which to layer and build. No one wants pure, primary red, or a bright lime green, or a snowy, clean white. There’s no depth to flat color; realism and passion are an inexact blend.
For most of my life, I felt like paint straight out of the tube. Flat. Boring. Lacking the depth that these other blends around me– these hodge-podge people with pieces of ten different nations floating in their blood– seemed to so easily possess. It took time to not see myself as plain, but rather as a bold foundation, upon which I could build. Like oils upon canvas, layer upon layer has been brushed and stroked upon my life, creating folds in my existence that no other painter’s hand could ever match.
<b>The History of A Famiglia</b>
My mother was not born in the United States. She was born in Chieti, Italy in 1959. A year later, she came to America with her mother and her three older brothers, her father having immigrated here months before them to build a life and business for himself as a tailor in Italian neighborhoods of South Philadelphia. Though my mother was technically raised in the United States, the culture in which she grew up could hardly be described as American. She grew up speaking Abruzzese, the dialect of her province of Abruzzo in central Italy. As might be expected, her life as an immigrant was filled with contradictions and struggles. She had to learn English to assimilate and to fit in at school, but because she knew English, her parents– who struggled with the language– forced her to function as their mouthpiece. She had opportunity now in America, but she was limited by her lack of financial resources as the daughter of a tailor. She was left stuck between two worlds, attempting to blend into one while holding onto the other.
Now, as her daughter, I, too, have been raised on a border between two worlds. As a one hundred-percent Italian-American– my father is a third generation American among an all Italian family– I still can’t help but shake the feeling that I am different from my peers, with their patchwork ancestry held up as a symbol of the American Melting Pot. For years, I rejected this heritage, allowing myself to be embarrassed by the traditions of my family and the stereotypes of my ethnicity, but now, I have come to value my heritage in the way it represents the struggle of my family– particularly my mother– and the way it shaped my identity on a level that goes far beyond ethnicity, culture, and tradition.
"Why was I not born mysterious? / ¿Por que no nací misterioso?"
- Pablo Neruda
It seems that almost every ethnic minority in the United States has it’s own word for the Anglo-Saxon population. In Italian, that word is ‘merican‘– an abbreviated version of americano. And like many of the terms that Americans have invented for Italians, merican is not used kindly. For years, when my mother would refer mostly in jest to others with this term– merican– I never understood what it meant, or even how it was spelled, sounding more like metigon when spoken with an Italian accent. It wasn’t until I understood what exactly she was saying and what it meant that I recognized the meaning. More often than not, she would use this phrase not to refer to Americans with no Italian ancestry, but rather to Italian-Americans who have forgotten the traditions of their heritage, perhaps those who thought that the best Italian food can be found at Olive Garden and who did not come from a family large enough to form its own football team.
With the usage of this phrase, my mother was waving the flag of her country, promoting the passing-down of tradition, but, at the same time, if I ever referred to her as Italian, or a foreigner, she would quickly correct me by saying, “No, I’m an American.” Without hesitation, she always asserts her American citizenship and loyalty to this country. Yet, she only became a citizen of the United States when she was a sophomore in college in 1979. How could she be simultaneously dismissive of Americanization among her kinsman, and at the same time be so adamant about proving just how proud she was to be an American? For me– and all first generation Americans– the key to finding your cultural identity lies in understanding this dichotomy. We must learn how to walk the line between living up to cultural values and living our own American Dream. Granted, I am not like many first generation Americans who are raised in a bilingual home, forced to live the life of an immigrant struggling to blend into American society. For me, the challenge was not to fit into American society on an external level, but to feel internally that I was just like everyone else.
I remember in third grade, our class was talking about family traditions and heritage. My teacher told us she was French, German, Scottish… etc., etc. Then, each member of my class continued to raise their hand, proudly claiming that they were a quarter this, and an eighth that. I didn’t have all those neat little fractions to tell me who I was and where I came from. They were exciting jigsaw puzzles, put together over generations; I, on the other hand, was just a snapshot of a singular ancestry. To me, my classmates were real Americans. I wasn’t… I was alone.
It took me a long time to realize that, while the blend of many nationalities in one family did represent America, so did I. In fact, more than those kids whose families had lived here for generations, mixing and mingling with all sorts of European genealogies, my single direct heritage and connection with Italy represented the idea that America is still and always will be a nation of immigrants. It didn’t end when Ellis Island and Angel Island closed their doors to immigrants. There are still waves of new Americans entering our borders everyday. It is these new immigrants that will continue to help our nation evolve and grow. I am a representation of the system under which millions of Americans past and present have strived to succeed in this country. Both my parents came from working class families, led working class lives, and paid their own way through higher education. Everything they have today, they earned. That is the American Dream. That is why America became a symbol of hope to millions of people around the world looking for newer, better opportunities.
<b>Come ti chiami? How do you call yourself?</b>
Everything about me and my life represents who I am as an Italian-American, even something as simple as my name. In Italian, my name is not Victoria, but Vittoria. That is the name my grandfather calls me, Vittoria. I always hear him say it. The sound of the thickened syllables, the way the consonants seem to soften, melting away from their English sound, the roll of the “r” in his slightly gravely rumble of his voice. In English, my name is most associated with it’s British roots. It is the name of a waterfall in Africa, a province in Australia, even a Canadian holiday. My name is a chain of lingerie stores. My name is a song by The Kinks. But my name is still me. I am Vittoria and Victoria. It’s the duality of my name, in its pronunciations by my two worlds, that defines me. No matter the accent, or the language, I will still respond to its call, and the meaning– victory– remains the same.
Really, it’s my last name that’s always caused problems. To a lot of people, “Ancone” doesn’t sound very Italian. My whole life, people have attempted to overcomplicate the pronunciation, saying “Ancon?” or “Anconé.” But, no, it is not so exotic– a fact which I have at times been both grateful for and disappointed by. In many ways, I enjoyed being able to somewhat hide my heritage behind my last name, mostly out of fear. No matter what people may say, ethnic stereotypes still exist, and among those of European descent in America, Italians suffer under some of the most cruel stereotypes. After the tenth time that people ask you if your family is in the mafia, it becomes more and more difficult to admit your ethnicity. With light skin and light eyes (features characteristic of Northern Italians, but, to most Americans, do not seem Italian at all) and a somewhat ethnically ambiguous last name, it has always been easy for me to hide from these ignorant perceptions.
However, there came a time when I became fed up with hiding. After studying Spanish for several years, and listening to my mother speak Italian at home to her father, I developed a deep appreciation for the romance languages. Suddenly, I resented my last name. Couldn’t I have been given a name that was more indicative of the culture from which I came? Something more like Parenti, my mother’s maiden name? Something long and filled with vowels… something ending in an “i” or an “o.” But, for me, this has always been the same battle over and over again. Should I embrace a culture that I am both proud and embarrassed of, or should I reject it and become one of those ‘merican’s?
"… The language will be my element, I plunge in."
- Diane de Prima
It’s no secret that food is an enormous part of Italian culture. We rarely eat spaghetti in my house. It’s almost always capellini, maybe linguini. The cheese that we sprinkle on our pasta is not parmesan. In fact, I hate parmesan. It’s pecorino romano all the way in our family. At Easter, we do not slave over hand-colored eggs that serve no actual purpose other than looking pretty. We make Easter bread, a sweet bread traditional in Italy. When December rolls around, we do not make gingerbread men. We make biscotti and pizzelles. Mind you, this is not your American “biskät?;” this is “bisk?t?,” as it sounds in Italian, made from recipes passed down from my great aunt and grandmother… recipes traded from friends and from neighbors. To this day, to pronounce biscotti with an American accent actually hurts my mouth. If ever it escapes my lips, it feels like the first time you ever swear in front of your mother. You can hear the vulgarity and feel the guilt the instant it leaves your mouth and you immediately wish you could take it back.
In Italian, the word biscotti simply means cookie. It doesn’t refer exclusively to the oblong, crispy sort of wafers that most Americans are familiar with. We make a variety of biscotti, all of which come from a family recipe. However, included among these biscotti are Tollhouse chocolate chips, and sugar cookies with Christmas sprinkles.
And that’s the way that my life has always been. It was never strange for me to go into my refrigerator and find prosciutto, cappicola and sorpressata in the drawer next to the American cheese, turkey, and Virginia ham. Though, in my family, we might speak these words in some cross between Abruzzese and an American bastardization, dropping the ending “o” and “a”– saying prosciutt, cappicol, soppressat– it’s nonetheless a normal part of our language. It’s part of us. I take comfort and pride in the traditions that have been passed down to me– both on a broad, cultural scale, and on a very personal one. The hard work and independent spirit my mother was forced to learn at an early age as an immigrant have also been taught to me. I constantly do my best to be self-sufficient and live independently of others, including my parents. A sense of independence, individuality, and perseverance has driven me to do what I do, wear what I wear, and be who I want to be throughout my life. I might not know Italian, but, in a sense, I do. The words and feelings and little pieces of the culture that I have inherited have bound me inextricably to Italy. No matter what I may want to change about my heritage– be it the enormous nosy family, or the cultural stereotypes, or the lack of diversity in my ancestry– it will always be my heritage.
In the end, what it comes down to is that I am a blend of two cultures, neither of which I can ever eliminate. I can never mitigate the impact that they have had on me. Those two elements blend together in a unique mixture making up who I am. They are complimentary colors on a wheel that will never cease to bleed together.
1. “Pablo Picasso Quotes.” ThinkExist Quotations. ThinkExist, 2010. Web. 13 Dec. 2010. <http://thinkexist.com/?quotation/?are_we_to_paint_what-s_on_the_face-what-s_inside/?143265.html>.
2. Pablo Neruda. “LIX.” 1974. The Book of Questions. Trans. William O’Daly. 2nd ed. Port Townsend, Washington: Copper Canyon Press, 2001. 59. Print.
3. Di Prima, Diane. “Poetics.” Beat Poets. Ed. Carmela Ciuraru. New York: Alfred A. Knopf & Random House, Inc., 2002. 53. Print.