Italian American Identity

Italian AmericanaITALIAN AMERICAN IDENTITYAuthor(s): JEANETTE (VOLONTE) CONLEYSource: Italian Americana, Vol. 21, No. 1 (Winter 2003), pp. 101-103Published by: Italian AmericanaStable URL: .Accessed: 19/12/2014 17:15Your use of the JSTOR archive indicates your acceptance of the Terms & Conditions of Use, available at . .JSTOR is a not-for-profit service that helps scholars, researchers, and students discover, use, and build upon a wide range ofcontent in a trusted digital archive. We use information technology and tools to increase productivity and facilitate new formsof scholarship. For more information about JSTOR, please contact [email protected]. .Italian Americana is collaborating with JSTOR to digitize, preserve and extend access to Italian Americana.
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Italian American Identity 101 Student Reflections Editor’s Note: For the past couple of years, Professor Elvira Di Fabio of Harvard University and I have given a course in Italian American Studies at Harvard Uni? versity Extension School. Consistently impressed by our students’ work, we thought it deserved a wider audience. From time to time, Italian Americana will present our students’ work to readers. We are pleased to inaugurate this occasional feature with the work of Jeanette (Volonte) Conley and Ann Smith. ITALIAN AMERICAN IDENTITY JEANETTE (VOLONTE) CONLEY Coming of age as a third genration Italian American was like an awak? ening. As children we were seen and not heard. We did what we were told, when we were told, the way we were told. It was as if we went around with a blind fold. Our family life and social life was contained and surrounded with Italians and the Italian way of life. Life was simple and all of our think? ing was done for us. The awakening began and the blindfold started to come off when we entered junior high and high school. We began to question things and started to think for ourselves. This, of course, complicated things. Around the kitchen and dining room table there was always talk, slurs and innuendos about the other people. We began to know these other people. The other people were our friends. Granted they had different names, differ? ent places of worship and they ate differently but they were nice and they were good friends. I think it was this coming together of the cultures that molded this third generation with the spirit of pride in being an American. I know the first and second generations also wanted to be truly American but they had to rid themselves of a lot of baggage. It wasn’t easy; but believe it or not they slowly began to change. I credit my generation for their change of attitude toward these other people and this change was an invigorating ex? perience all around. After graduating from high school the girl cousins went to work for the insurance companies, telephone companies, and the like. The boys had more options. Some boys went to work, some went into the service, and some went to college. The girls went to work all dressed up. We never wore slacks and we always wore white gloves – always the white gloves. Our mothers looked upon our jobs as careers. It was a far cry from their jobs as stitchers. I went to
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102 Italian Americana work for the New England Tel and Tel, into their accounting office. My starting salary was a dollar per hour with the option to buy telephone stock.I received my pay check on Friday, went home, and turned the check over to my mother. My mother did this as a young girl; I was expected to do the same. I never questioned it. Some of the old ways were not going to change. This was certainly not the American thing to do. And, although this was not very American and although the blindfold was still on a little, the American dream was becoming a reality. My mother returned to work about the same time I went to work. There were three paychecks going into the house. My parents moved out of the city and into the suburbs. After a few years they bought a summer home at the Cape. Life was improving. My brother graduated from Harvard. He was on a full scholarship, but he had to work as a meat cutter for his spending money. My sister, who is a decade younger than my brother and I, went to suburban schools and was able to go to college. This advantage was still not the usual for her contemporaries in the family. I got married; it was a mixed marriage: I married an Irish boy. My grandfather Nunzio posed the following question to my father. “Couldn’t she find a nice Italian boy?” Nunzio probably never suspected that it was probably his behavior that prevented me from even looking for a nice Italian boy. The transition into both families, the Italian as well as Irish, was fairly easy. Of course there were differences, many differences. The Irish women were more assertive, everyone went to church, there were clergy in the family, whiskey replaced wine, names were easier to pronounce, educa? tion was more important, fashion was less importnat, and I could go on and on. However, there was one thing that was not different and that was the importance of the family. The families became very friendly. My father taught my husband to drink wine and my husband taught my father to sing Irish songs, which they sang with gusto. In retrospect I wonder during those “clash of the culture years” if I became less Italian and more Irish. I do not think so. Maybe sometimes things may have been a little complex, this “clash of cultures”; but accepting the values of the Irish culture and absorbing them into my life made me an American. The first generation Italians wanted to be American but I do not believe they ever achieved it. They wer still in their own world, surrounded by their own kind, doing the same old things. They did try and I respect them for that. The second generation tried hard too. They had the first generation to an? swer to, but they also had my generation to open their eyes. They were cer? tainly becoming more American; they did not have the ocean to cross or the language to learn. Both of those generations are all gone. So here we are. We
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Thoughts on the Virgin Knows 103 are all awake and we ripped off those blindfolds. We are senior citizens now and what a different world it is. THOUGHTS ON THE VIRGIN KNOWS by Christine Palamidessi Moore ANN SMITH This delightfully quirky novel takes a new and highly enjoyable look at many of the themes we have seen in other examples of Italian American literature. These include the role of Catholicism, opera, the exploitation a naive young immigrant can experience, the Italian perception of America and the difficulties of assimilation. The humor that runs through the book is subtle and ironic, just as we have seen in other Italian American works, such as the Organizer, The Year of the Zinc Penny and Mount Allegro. For example Carlo is sent to Rome to rid him of the idea of going to America, where he happens to stumble upon filming for the Hollywood production of Ben-Hur (16). Also, Jassy gives birth in a funeral parlor after delivering what she and Carlo thought was the body of an old woman but was actually stolen artifacts (130). The way opera is portrayed is also ironic. Renato, whose love of theatre and opera is very Italian, teaches Jassy, the American, to sing opera. Her skills develop beyond his teaching until her life ends abruptly when she takes an opera company to Italy. The naivety of Carlo who builds up a business empire without realizing that he is shipping stolen goods for the Benevolents is similar to the naivety shown at the beginning of their films by the characters of Frank Capra. Like Carlo, Mr. Deeds (Gary Cooper) and Mr. Smith (James Stewart) move from a simpler life with people they can trust, to a big city where they encounter people ready and motivated to take advantage of them. Carlo is desperate to become an American and to be rich and famous (14). He sees America as “open space, freedom and the future” (15). Yet when he gets to America he is able to retain much of his Italian culture. He lives and works in the North End and does not appear to travel beyond the peninsular, except when he visits Alicia in Italy. One of the best examples of how he combines the two cultures so successfully is when he bargains with Cardinal Ulbandini over the photographs he took in the Vatican. He goes on to tell the cardinal that being in America “is just like not leaving Italy for better.” (51) Alicia is a personification of the Italian Americans’ struggle with as? similation. For years she is jealous of her brother’s life. She feels cheated. Yet
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