The year was 1997 and I was a college junior applying for a prestigious fellowship for first generation college students. The fellowship provided funds and a mentor to guide and prepare students for graduate work in the humanities and sciences. The fellowship had strict academic and social-economic requirements. On the socio-economic side, students were expected to be first generation college students, fall on the lower end of the income scale, and come from an ethic group that were/are underrepresented at US graduate programs.
In my view, I was qualified for the above fellowship and was excited to apply. The question as to whether I was from a distinct ethnic group (underrepresented in academic circles) was not an issue in my mind (the last I checked most prestigious universities had faculties brimming with waspy sounding last names and not surnames ending in vowels). After all, I did not learn to speak English until I was 5 and thought the American side of my Italian-American moniker was just a way of acknowledging that we breathed the air in New Jersey and not Calabria; I spoke, ate, lived amongst, and thought like an Italian, so I was a true Italian.
When I got the call from the faculty advisor alerting me that I would not be selected for the summer fellowship program, my immediate reaction was rage. Not because I had been denied, but rather because I had been denied for not being from an appropriate “ethnic group”; at least the groups that were currently in fashion as being minorities in the US and in turn at Academic institutions. I pleaded my case with the advisor and asked, for example, how many of the students that had been selected spoke a second language or had been to the region/country that deemed them to be a minority, for example? The answers that came back were disheartening and I felt betrayed.
The incident made me think long and hard about what it means to be an Italian-American living in the United States today. Unlike Geremio and his son Paul in Pietro DiDonato’s classic novel Christ in Concrete, being an Italian American in New York at the turn of 20th century did not come with the added effort of proving one’s status as an American with Italian ancestry. After all, Geremio’s son Paul was Italian, although born in New York (like the author who was born in West Hoboken). No one at the turn of the 20th century would accuse Paul as being an American, rather he was an Italian who happened to be born to recent immigrants from Italy. Suffice it to say, if such an academic fellowship existed in Paul’s time, he would have surely qualified as being part of a true ethnic group.
So, what has happened to the Italian-American in the 90+ years since DiDonato’s seminal novel? Has the Italian-American remained truly unique with strong ties to what it means to live like an Italian in a foreign country? Or have the images of Sonny, Tony Soprano and the cast of Jersey Shore penetrated our media and fame driven society so deeply that to be Italian in America is solely about being involved in crime, putting gel in one’s dark colored hair, and consuming tomato sauce?
Again, what has happened to the attributes of the Italian American that were so pronounced and vivid in DiDonato’s America yet so dull and mis-represented in our current epoch? In my view, unadulterated assimilation has happened (some self induced and some pushed by the larger American society) of the negative kind that leaves the current Italian American in a state of watered down culture and misrepresentation (in short, what we have in the United States today are many pseudo Italian-Americans).
All is not lost for the modern Italian American, however, and there are glimpses of living the Italian way in America that are centered on practical living, working hard, eating well, and simply living the Italian way. I see first and second generation Italian Americans shunning the popular, and myth driven, portrayals of the goofy, unintelligent, Tony Soprano (don’t let the literary critics convince you he was a seminal and complex TV character; he was a mafioso with strong survival instincts) and argue that being Italian in America is just that; namely, living like a typical Italian that has been transplanted to North America (with a focus on food, family, friends, and enjoying deep and meaningful experiences every day).
So, how do you live as an Italian in America today?