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.
Gavriela 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.