On Columbus Day, Things My Italian Relatives Never Told Me

Even after nine decades of life as an American, I can find new details about history — even history with particular personal resonance. Until reading in yesterday’s New York Times opinion pages Brent Staples’ piece titled “How Italians Became ‘White,’” I had no idea of the extent of depravity and racist violence inflicted upon Southern Italian immigrants in the early years of the last century. I knew there had been discrimination, but I thought of it in terms of slights or shunning – or struggles for employment or embarrassment about mob bosses – not being hanged alongside African Americans for the sin of skin that might have been somewhat darker. My Southern Italian relatives never told me about that.

Staples notes that “a white, Protestant and homogeneous America” was what Congress had in mind when it declared in 1790 that only “free white persons, who have, or shall migrate into the United States were eligible to become naturalized citizens.” His article continued, “The calculus of racism underwent swift revision when waves of culturally diverse immigrants from the far corners of Europe changed the face of the country.” Staples cites historian Matthew Frye Jacobson’s immigrant history “Whiteness of a Different Color” in noting, “the surge of newcomers engendered a national panic and led Americans to adopt a more restrictive, politicized view of how whiteness was to be allocated.” Sound familiar, does it?

In my as-yet-if-ever-to-be-published book, In Paris, Everyone Calls Me Honey, the letters my mother (family name Miele) wrote  home from an extraordinary year as an art student in France are interspersed with descriptions of the struggles and successes of her immigrant family striving through the Depression years and beyond.  As a second generation Italian-American, I was perplexed by the absence of empathy toward others enduring somewhat similar indignities. Riding in the car with two aunts on a shopping excursion, I saw one turn to the other and gesture toward me in the back seat. “You know,” the one said, “She thinks black people are the same as white people.”  The other, the driver, replied, “That’s because she went to college.” I wish I’d known at the time to mention the lynchings.

Not long ago, my brother, visiting from the east, chatted with a diverse group of my Los Angeles neighbors. He told them about our Italian grandparents and the discrimination that existed on the East Coast when they started out. “Oh no, not Italians,” the neighbor said, implying my brother didn’t know what he was talking about, that no Italian-Americans ever suffered any hardships ever. Always the conciliator, I quickly interjected, “That’s because the Italians who came to California, established vast wineries and giant banks, and became leading citizens. Not everyone on the east coast was able to accomplish that, given the competition. But they managed to educate their children and assure their success, while becoming stalwart members of their communities.”

I am as proud of my immigrant ancestors whose names are now etched on the wall at Ellis Island as I am of the Revolutionary War surgeon and Midwestern homesteaders in my family tree. They and all their descendants have played important roles in making this nation worth preserving.

6 comments on “On Columbus Day, Things My Italian Relatives Never Told Me

  1. soverelfield says:

    Very interesting! In light of what’s going on today, it just seems like we took our step forward in the more hopeful ’50’s and 60’s and now seem to be taking three steps back (sigh).

    • patnieder says:

      Isn’t that the truth? That line about “the surge of newcomers engendered a national panic and led Americans to adopt a more restrictive, politicized view…” hit me. The more things change, the more they stay the same. We would have hoped for improvement.

  2. Dorothy says:

    Well, since I attended an almost totally Italian-American high school where at least Half the students were first-generation Italians, I can attest to the picture Staples draws. The normally outcast Neapolitans in turn, cast aspersions on those of Sicilian descent. But, to your point, grandpa Miele apparently went to adult education classes to learn “proper” Italian and neither our parents or their siblings were allowed to study Italian in school…only French, German, etc. This was brilliant because it afforded them the fastest pathway to acceptance. Some relatives even changed their names to “pass” as anglos.

  3. Kayrene Beck says:

    My paternal grandparents were Germans who were.raised in the Volga area of Russia. They too were targeted during WWII. My dad and aunts never learned to speak German. It is just sad that we do not change. I am very thankful for all the sacrifices they made.

  4. patnieder says:

    This was such a surprise from a new acquaintance! What have we talked about that bypassed this? My late husband ‘s mother was born in one of the Volga German colonies in Russia. At Ed’s death three years ago, the completed manuscript for his first book in a planned trilogy was taken along with all his research by a daughter who intends to complete it.

    As for so many of us second-generation children not learning the language of our elders, there was not only the parents’ desire for quick assimilating to fit in, but for both my grandparents and Ed’s family, America was at war with Italy and Germany. With patriotic fervor high, it was probably wise to downplay one’s country of origin.

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