Monday, March 2, 2015
I've had two very long conversations with my father recently when we've discussed, among other things, the new PBS four-part special The Italians. I've only seen the first part which chronicles the years in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries when millions of southern Italians immigrated to the United States. I confess to being ignorant about the incredible contributions Italian-Americans made to this country. I was even ignorant of Italy's history -- how it really wasn't a country until Garibaldi "united it" in the late nineteenth century. It's a fascinating documentary and confirms many of the stories that have been handed down to me from my father and his brothers and sisters, my aunts and uncles and cousins. I've posted the photo above of my grandmother Josephine when she was a young woman, and I'm struck again by her penetrating gaze, her eyebrows, the carefully-placed choker and long strand of beads or rosary (I can't tell) hanging down her dress. My nonna was illiterate and came to this country with two children. She'd have three more (my aunt, father and his twin brother), and she'd never learn to read or write or even become a United States citizen despite living here for more than fifty years. Yet, she so very much lives on in me, in my children, in the stories that we continue to tell and even see on specials like The Italians. It's amazing to me how much has changed in such a short time -- that only a couple of generations before mine, my family was tilling other people's fields, scrabbling by on literally nothing, making grueling sacrifices and setting out on journeys to places utterly foreign to them and then making new lives. I found myself scanning the photos and video footage of the documentary, looking for "people I know." My father joked that many of the people were his mother. We spoke about la famigilia, about secrecy and mistrust of authority that linger even today in parts of our extended family. We talked about the similarities of immigrant experience today -- how vilified certain immigrant groups continue to be. I look forward to watching the rest of the series and learning more about my family's immigrant experience and the history of Italian-Americans. Even if you're not Italian, I encourage you to watch them.