I Am Not A Mafiosa

There’s a really cool thing that happens every time I walk into a predominantly Italian neighborhood. I checked with my friend Christine the other day to see if my experience was some kind of odd isolated thing or if this was a common occurrence for anyone with Italian roots; she told me that the same thing happens for her as well.

When we walk into a neighborhood with lots of other Italians around, be it Little Italy in New York or South Philadelphia or where I used to live in Tacony, Northeast Philadelphia, Christine and I can drop our families’ last names and everything changes. Suddenly, we’re “good kids”, we get extra food in restaurants, people say that they will “keep an eye on us” as we’re walking around, and our extended family grows exponentially. It’s a beautiful, “warm and fuzzy” experience, like being wrapped in sunshine.

It’s a coming home that has few parallels in my life.

I’m one-quarter southern Italian. My great-great-grandparents, the Lotitos, came through Ellis Island from Napoli. Later on, in the late 1890’s, my great-grandfather, Ostilio Martire, arrived in New York from Calabria as a young boy–not even a teenager–unaccompanied. Ostilio later met and married Margaret Lotito, and they had four children, the youngest of whom was my grandmother, Agnes.

Life was not easy. I don’t know a lot about Margaret, and I wish I knew more. My grandmother feels sad talking about her. Margaret was a beautiful woman with auburn hair and soulful eyes. She was very loving to her children. Sadly, she died at a young age in my grandmother’s arms. None of my grandmother’s six children ever got to know her. She must have been an amazing cook if she taught my grandmother to cook as well as she does.

My great-grandfather’s life was one of much sorrow, too. His father sent him and his older brother to America alone to save their lives. My great-great-grandfather was an officer in the state police back in Italy. When organized crime was starting to become an increasing problem in Cosenza, the city where that part of my family is from, my great-great-grandfather knew that his sons would be a target because of his line of work. First, he sent my uncle Jacobo to New York, at barely 13 years old, and later, he sent my great-grandfather Ostilio over. Both had orders to never return.

So there were two very young men, alone on the streets of New York City–where organized crime was also a problem–but stuck with orders to make something of themselves and to live. They were surrounded by people who told them that their darker southern Italian skin wasn’t good enough, and that their names absolutely had to change. The pronunciation of their last name changed immediately, followed by their first names changing from Jacobo to Jimmy and Ostilio to Austin.

“Austin” was terrified by Protestant caseworkers into only eating Italian food on special holidays and to speaking English at all times. I have several Italian friends whose families still speak at least some Italian here and there and have communication with relatives back home in Italy. My family has barely any of that now, maybe just a few words of the language but no contact with our family back home, and it breaks my heart.

I never got to know my great-grandfather except through photographs: a picture of him looking somewhat emotional at my grandparents’ wedding, another of him beaming at the sight of my infant father, his first grandchild, playing on the rug at Christmas. He had a very loving heart from all I’ve heard, despite going through such difficult times. It must have been hard enough to lose his family as a child through immigration, and then to lose his wife at such a relatively young age. Add to that the bigotry of caseworkers telling him that the very way he ate food and the language that he spoke and that his own name were unacceptable and that he had to change everything or else he’d never make it in a country that he had no choice but to accept.

Later, I’ve discovered, Ostilio never quite could let people even know that he was from Calabria, which is one of the southernmost points in Italy, right at the “toe of the boot”. During World War II, he was especially scared of sharing where he was from. As was true for all able-bodied males at that time, Ostilio had to register for the draft. When asked for his birthplace, he claimed to be from a far further north state in Italy. I know that during the war, Italians were targeted as enemies of the state if they were not yet naturalized citizens, and I’m still not clear on whether or not Ostilio was by then. I do know that even during the 1940’s, however, people from southern Italy were still considered “less than” and “not good enough”. They didn’t get much better than skilled manual labor jobs (he worked as a carpenter and glazier), and there was a constant assumption that southern Italians were connected to organized crime, which was obviously a grand offense to my great-grandfather considering why he came to America in the first place.

I’d like to say that the bigoted assumption that all southern Italians have a connection to the mafia is gone. You’d think that the accomplishments of Fiorello LaGuardia, Mario Cuomo, and other prominent Italian Americans with clean records would show that not all of us are “bad news”. However, as Frank Sinatra said when he was treated with suspicion even by President Kennedy’s entourage, when your last name ends in a vowel, everyone thinks you’re automatically no good.

And, as I’ve found, when I mention that I’m Italian to people, be it at college or kiddush or wherever, people tend to make two assumptions right off the bat:1. that I’m Sicilian and 2. that I have Mafia ties, or that making a joke about having Mafia ties will at least be acceptable and really funny.

Oh, what can I say…

First of all, I have many, many friends who are Sicilian. Sicily is an amazing place with a rich history that has sadly gotten a bad rap. According to the genealogical research I’ve done into my Martire relatives, I do have cousins living there, and I would of course love to meet them and visit their homes someday. I, however, am not Sicilian. Making the assumption that I am, or any other Italians are, right off the bat, is like making the assumption that every white person you come across is Belgian. (Much love to the Belgians, I’m just using you as an example here, no harm meant.)

I mean, really now? Come on. Stop showing that kind of idiotic disrespect to Sicilians and Italians in general. We all know that expression: “To assume makes an…” Stop with the assumptions about Italians in general and about Sicilians, too.

Secondly… Do I really have to say what I’m thinking about the Mafia ties after describing what my great-grandfather went through? This is an extremely painful topic for my family. It’s the reason why we’re here in America and why we no longer have contact with our family back home. I have tried for years to have a sense of humor about this topic, while in the back of my head knowing that if my grandmother caught me joking around about the Mafia, she’d be furious with me.

I feel shame for it. For years, I’ve said nothing because the reason that my great-grandfather and his brother had to come to America has been treated like a dark secret. But, now that others have talked about their scary run-ins with the mafia in PBS’ special, The Italian Americans, I don’t feel so scared to talk about what happened within our family as well.

I’m not going to risk upsetting my grandmother or dishonor the memory of my great-grandfather anymore by cringing and pretending that jokes that I’m a Mafiosa (which I am not) are okay anymore. I’m Italian. My family’s name is Martire. When I tell you that, either honor it or keep your mouth shut. If you can’t do that, I’m not going to pretend to be polite in order to preserve some sense of “shalom bayit” during kiddush or be afraid of creating a sense of buzzkill anywhere else. If I upset you by saying something to you for insinuating that I’m a Mafiosa in defense of my great-grandfather’s memory, too bad.

Get over yourself.

I’m not a cartoon character, and “The Sopranos” doesn’t represent me or my family. Capisce?

Yeah, that’s one Italian word that did survive in my family. I hardly wonder why.

gavrielaGavriela hails originally from Philadelphia, Pennsylvania but now resides in Forest Hills, New York. She has a Masters degree in clinical social work from Temple University and is a dedicated volunteer in the animal rescue community. Gavriela is a major science geek and finds that her love of science strengthens her belief in G-d and vice versa, contrary to what others might expect.


2 thoughts on “I Am Not A Mafiosa”

  1. First a someone light-hearted but also serious question. Do you think the focus on Sicily is at least partly due to something more recent than organized crime but all those stories told by Sylvia in the Golden Girls? That show is the most rerun show at the moment, as I understand it, it’s pretty much on somewhere at any given moment. Yes, there were “Mafia Jokes” but the were so absurd that I saw them as akin to the racist comments spouted by Archie Bunker. It showed how stupid stereotypes are without you realizing it, my making you laugh (there there is the yummy pizza).

    On a more serious note, you remember the “turf war” in Tacony between the Italians and the Irish over who would control the various civic organizations in Tacony (and the bigotry of a certain Irish politician who controlled the purse strings towards the largely Italian leadership?) Ironically, he took enough money away from the group I worked for to cost me, a half-Irish person with a Gaelic name, to lose that job. smh

    And I understand the stereotyping and how it can hurt. I am also largely German. People don’t think to highly of Germans. It will be a long time before the shame of what Germans did in WWII is a thing of the past. My family was here before the war, and my German grandfather fought in WWII in the Navy. But he also refused to let me do a family tree when I decided to major in history. An excuse was made that was logical at the time. But then I look back at how he adopted his wife’s, my grandmother’s Irish culture. He either knew family that stayed behind were Nazi’s or feared/suspected it.

    I won’t look into it. I don’t need to know.

    Excellent article!


    1. Addressing the first part, it actually goes much further back in time, and I only really know what I know because of watching PBS’ series, “The Italian-Americans”, which really is a must watch. In the 1800’s, there was a huge influx of Italian immigrants, which most of us knows. And, there were many from Sicily, of course. Unfortunately, some of the Sicilians were members of the Black Hand, the precursor to the Mafia as we know it today. In Louisiana, the Black Hand were up to no good and got into it with a local police chief. If I remember the story correctly, some men were arrested, but it’s never been clear whether they were the actual culpable members of the Black Hand or not. The Black Hand are suspected of having killed the chief, though, and the men who had been arrested were then executed in retaliation. The story of all of this spread nationwide, along with later stories about Black Hand activities, and so all of Sicilians — and later, all Italians — gained a bad reputation. It was so bad that future immigrants were labeled as either Northern or Southern Italian, like it was a race issue, at Ellis Island. And, it wasn’t until pizza became cool to eat, when Sinatra and Frank Valli were popular to listen to, and when Fiorello LaGuardia and Mario Cuomo proved to be great, respectable political leaders free of corruption that the discrimination died down even a bit. But, we still have a good way to go.

      On the second count, I sadly do remember.

      On the third, something I didn’t really mention in the article was that during World War II, another thing talked about in the PBS special, Italian- and German-Americans were also frequently rounded up from their homes and into camps just as Japanese-Americans were, if they were first-generation immigrants and not yet naturalized, just as George Takei’s family was. My great-grandfather struggled to hide his identity during that time and even registered in the draft. I know he had a Social Security number, too. So, maybe between that and registering for the draft and even lying to people about where in Italy he was from (I’ve seen that he did that from genealogical research), he was able to avoid being stuck in a camp? I’m not sure. But there were many, many Italian immigrants and German immigrants and sometimes their children, too, who were seen as enemies of the state, taken from their homes, and stuck in those federal camps. Some of them were little old ladies who hadn’t been back home for several decades and didn’t even write letters to anyone there. When they were sent to the camps, they lost everything they owned. I would venture to say that a very high number of people in those camps were anything but enemies of the state. These were people who came to America to build a new life, not to start trouble decades upon decades later for governments that they knew nothing about. There were some Italians who were fed propaganda through an Italian-American newspaper about Mussolini, unaware of what was really going on, but that stopped as soon as the paper’s owner got wind of Mussolini’s real behavior and associations (Mussolini had approached him to publish the propaganda and sweet talked him into it — it might have been our government who schooled the owner about the real deal, I can’t remember right now). Still, there were no reports of any of the readership doing anything unpatriotic or stupid after reading that paper. They were just deluded for a time into thinking that Mussolini was taking good care of Italy and that they should think of him as some kind of nice guy. None of them did anything against the US government. That was well before the camps opened up, too.

      You can watch the PBS special online like I did. There’s a link to it in the article. I really recommend checking it out. It’d be good for PBS to do more specials like it on other ethnic communities in the US so that we understand each other better.


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