YOU ARE AN ITALIAN-AMERICAN
“You are Italian-American,” my mother stated firmly to my classmates, as I slunk lower and lower in my chair, wishing I could disappear inside the desk itself. I was in seventh grade, and my mother had somehow gotten the principal to agree to use the seventh and eighth grade classes, including my own and that of my older sister, as research in the development of her undergraduate thesis: “A Study in Building Ethnic Pride for the Italo-American Child.”
The upper classes of my parochial school, Our Lady of Victory, consisted mainly of the children of Southern Italian immigrants. The agreement was that she would use the 45 minutes allotted to social studies for each of the two seventh grade and two eighth grade classes to deliver her six-week, one-day-a-week program.
In her dissertation, in words typed thickly across the page, she states: “The aim of the project was to help eliminate the negative self-image of the Sicilian/Southern Italian child as the first step in attaining cultural pride in their ethnic heritage.”
She goes on to say: “In their haste to become American, Italo-American children often reject family patterns, which lead to a sense of guilt within themselves and causes a feeling of alienation from their families, who in turn, are torn apart by interpreting the rejection of values as a rejection of themselves. The child learns to live in two worlds: the preferred American world in school, and the less prestigious Italian one at home.”
The seventh and eighth grade students at my school were not known to be particularly kind to teachers—especially substitutes. The boys especially took a sadistic pleasure in seeing how many teachers they could make cry, with extra credit if a nun would leave the room in tears. In her paper my mother says the two upper classes were chosen particularly for this reason. “I felt that part of the conflicts being encountered at the school may have been due to the children’s negative self-image, intensified by exposure to American values and the consequent confusion of roles within their familial setting.”
So, it was not surprising that she reported encountering “an avalanche of antagonism, dismay, some compliance and a few total rejections,” by the students. My classmates viewed her as my mother, not a teacher, and felt she had no authority over them. She was also taking time from a popular social studies teacher, and the worst decision of all—no student would be graded on their work or contributions to the class so there was no incentive to comply.
“We are American!” Nicky yelled at her whenever she brought up the subject of Italian heritage or culture, while his buddies jeered.
“My mother is a complete American,” another informed her when she talked about the immigration experience. “I think my grandparents came from Italy, but they all died, and my mother is an American.”
I was afraid the erasers would soon start flying.
It was 1972 and what my mother called “hyphenated-identities” was a radical concept. These kids were first- or second-generation Italians. They had been born in America, most in our small working-class town of Mount Vernon, NY, four-square miles wedged between Yonkers, the Bronx, and the wealthy neighborhoods of Pelham and Bronxville. The kids were proud to be American, wanted to identify as American and were embarrassed to be anything but American. Most, like me, had not even been taught Italian. Although she received honors on her paper, she admits in it that the project itself was beset with problems, not the least of which was her own lack of teaching experience and the limitations of the program itself in time and scope. Much of what she had planned to do did not happen. For example, getting the parents involved proved impossible because most worked, and the idea of inviting senior citizens to lecture on their immigration experience was shelved because of “the disruptive nature of the classes.”
The undergraduate thesis was a requirement unique to the State University of New York at Purchase, a brand-new college with an avant-garde bent. My mother was one of the unusual “older” students in its first class. Since large chunks of the campus were still under construction, many of the classes were held in trailers or temporary buildings, and I remember playing in the fields with my brothers and sister, and watching the barefoot hippies run to class wearing gauzy dresses or ragged bell bottoms, their long hair flowing behind them.
The seventies had brought with it a whole new attitude that transformed my Sicilian housewife-mother into a feminist and perpetual student juggling five young children. Since she didn’t know how to drive, and my father exclusively drove our beat-up station wagon, she often shuttled us with her or left us at our local library while she took subways and buses to advance her education: Purchase College for her BA, Bank Street College for a double masters, and Columbia University for a Ph.D.
She was claiming her power as a woman, and, having married an Irish guy from her Bronx neighborhood, she was reclaiming her identity as a Sicilian by hyphenating her name: Marianne DiPalermo-McCauley, way before it was popular to do so.
Which was all fine with my father. She always said she had married him precisely because she knew even back in the late 50’s that he wouldn’t try to control her like most of the Italian boys she had dated.
She became a cultural anthropologist, the Human Rights Commissioner for the City of Mount Vernon, an educator at John Jay College working with the foreign student population, and, until her forced retirement when she was in her 80’s, she was on staff at the Calandra Italian American Institute of the City of New York, researching and curating such exhibits as the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire, the Black Madonna, and the Statue of Liberty.
She also went to Denmark as one of Jimmy Carter’s Cultural Ambassadors and spent a semester in Trento, Italy, to establish an exchange student program for John Jay and, as she said, “to remember her Italian,” her first language, which she had been discouraged to speak once she entered Kindergarten in the American School System.
But in seventh grade, I was mostly embarrassed by her. She was weird. She wasn’t like any of the mothers of any of my friends or the mothers on TV. She didn’t bake cookies or wear an apron, or even clean the house. When we asked what was for dinner, she would glare at us and say, “FOOD.”
It wasn’t until I was an adult that I began to appreciate and then become awed by my mother. Of the five of us, I became most like her, also garnering degrees and accomplishments and traveling the world, while my brothers all married “traditional” Italian or Greek girls who would stay home and keep house for them. I even got my undergraduate degree at Purchase College and loved the symmetry of being in their 10th graduating class as she had been in their first. Many of my teachers remembered my mom, the always curious older student who asked lots of questions and was a catalyst for the university hiring more Italian-American and female professors instead of always plucking from the pool of white male Jewish ones. I remember my mother commenting once that she thought she couldn’t be smart because she wasn’t Jewish.
But sitting in my seventh grade classroom during those six weeks, every time the other kids asked me if my mother was coming in that day, I just remember shamefully nodding my head and enduring it.
When we all turned fifty, most of my Our Lady of Victory classmates found each other on Facebook. A few of them organized a reunion, and I was excited to return. Most of us had not seen each other since eighth grade.
I was aware that I had turned into my mother, and I was certain I would be the only woman there who had chosen a career instead of a family. Entering the restaurant for the reunion and seeing everyone, my first reaction was that I had stepped onto the set of the Sopranos. Where had all those cute boys gone? In their place I saw a room full of burly men.
Nicky, the one who, in my memory, had most berated my mother, sat down next to me. He told me he had become a psychologist. After sharing a few reminisces, he asked how my mother was. When I told him she had developed Alzheimer’s, he looked as shocked as I still felt.
He shook his head sorrowfully. “Your mom spoke to us as if she was more of a big sister than someone’s mom,” he said. “I thought it was very impressive. She didn’t look like a mom, she didn’t dress like a mom, and she was very approachable. She seemed so comfortable and made us all feel comfortable. She didn’t teach, she communicated. She asked questions and engaged us in dialogue. She cared about what we had to say.”
I smiled, wishing my mother could hear his words, and especially what he said next, to be able to know that her efforts all those years ago had not been such a failure after all:
“She taught me to see myself in the context of my heritage and not to avoid it or be embarrassed by it. I always think of her when I say, ‘I am Italian-American, and I’m proud of it.’”
Hey, wait for me!
i’ve only just arrived!
the sounds, the path are new;
my feet have never felt this road
and sturdy buoys are few.
my eyes have seen a different light,
which casts a different glow,
the shadows on the wall were real
and these i came to know.
i can only build on where i’ve been,
from where i’ve had to see,
the rest of me is still inside
waiting to be free.
my reality has changed a bit,
but how much is still unreal?
if i advance, stretch out my hand,
what is it i’ll feel?
Marianne DiPalermo-McCauley, 1978
Linda McCauley Freeman has been widely published in international literary journals and anthologies, including a Chinese translation of her work. Most recently she appeared in Poet Magazine, Amsterdam Quarterly, won Grand Prize in StoriArts poetry contest honoring Maya Angelou, and was selected by the Arts MidHudson for their Poets Respond to Art 2020 and 2021 shows. She was a three-time winner in the Talespinners Short Story contest judged by Michael Korda. She has an MFA in Writing and Literature from Bennington College and is the former poet-in-residence of the Putnam Arts Council. She lives in the Hudson Valley, NY. You can follow her at www.Facebook.com/LindaMcCauleyFreeman