In the early 1900’s it is important to understand that the courageous Italians who risked life and limb in search of a better life in America, wanted to make sure that they and their offspring did everything they could to be “good” Americans. In many cases they discouraged their children from speaking Italian when out in public, and because they were often judged negatively for some of their traditions, they increasingly assimilated into American life. Rightly, they should be heralded for their bravery, courage, and hard work; all of which led to an opportunity for you and me to enjoy this great country. However, their zealousness often left subsequent generations feeling empty with respect to wanting to feel more connected to their Italian Heritage, and not knowing where to begin. Let me suggest three ways for you to feel a greater sense of belonging to the Italian heritage that is rightfully yours. I like to use the acronym KDL: Know, Defend, and LIVE your heritage.
1. Know what Italian heritage is really about. If you rely on media, as many people do for their information, you will get a very distorted and negative perception of Italian Americans. I would encourage you to study the Italian language, take a trip to Italy if possible, and follow Italian news headlines. Learn also about the Italian American ethnic identity. According to the latest Census statistics, about 1 in 10 people in the US identify themselves as having some Italian blood in them, making us the 5th largest ethnic group in this country. Many have no idea of the vast contributions that those of Italian heritage have made in making this country starting from the American Revolution and profoundly influencing almost every important area in society: the arts, sports, business, education, medicine, science, entertainment and politics. You can visit the NIAF (National Italian American Foundation) and OSIA (Order of the Sons and Daughters of Italy in America) and find a wealth of information on this topic.
2. Defend your heritage. Unlike with other ethnic groups, it seems there is no political correctness with respect to Italian ethnicity. Every time I turn on the TV or go to the movies where Italians are portrayed, there is most often a blatant depiction of Italians as mobsters, buffoons, or over-emotional idiots. But these inappropriate perceptions extend beyond media. In social circles and in many workplaces pervasive innuendos and jokes that slam Italians on a day to day basis go on as a matter of course. Sadly, this is tolerated by many Italian Americans, which is part of the reason it continues. While I encourage everyone of Italian heritage to be respectful and polite, it is also important that we correct negative perception by referring to the facts, and that we defend our heritage by letting advertisers, producers, or even our co-workers know that their portrayals or jokes are offensive and uncalled for.
3. Live your heritage. Try to recall some of the positive traditions your grandparents and parents maintained as you were growing up, and re-incorporate those traditions into your own life on a daily basis. Some examples are the tendency to have pride in a job well-done, Sunday sauce simmering on the stove, the mindset of “arrangiarsi” (confidence that you will make it through your challenges), family get-togethers, and the evening passeggiata (stroll through the neighborhood). You might reproduce a special cake that your grandmother baked on a regular basis, or frame the old photos of your Italian ancestors and hang them on your walls to remind yourself of your lineage.
As you begin reconnecting to your Italian roots through the KDL method, you will no doubt discover more and more ways to keep the traditions of your Italian heritage alive.