AND NOW WE CAN SING
My grandparents and parents never talked about prejudice against Italians, although they certainly encountered it. Like many Southern-Italian immigrants who fled death and starvation in an Italy that had abandoned them, they too found prosperity in America. They worked as laborers and in factories in their newly adopted country. In America, Italians, like my grandparents, could build productive lives, make a future for their children. Southern-Italian immigrants were a largely uneducated population. Having left Italy in poverty, they arrived with only their bodies to work. They didn’t talk or write about their experiences. They mostly remained silent.
Both of my grandparents on my mother’s side were born in the United States. Both were Sicilian. My grandmother, Carmela (Millie), worked in a book bindery most of her adult life. You don’t often see someone like Millie portrayed in films. She was soft spoken, wise and forgiving. My grandfather, Alberto, whose sister was born in Sicily, dropped out of school and then worked on the railroad until he retired. He’d been a laborer, digging trenches, tunneling through the catacombs of New York City. He then worked his way up to New York City train conductor. Alberto Alberti was built like a boxer, wiry and firm. His nose was thin and fine. He was handsome. And he was dark skinned; he looked Egyptian or Moroccan. He said that when he was younger he wasn’t allowed in certain bars because sometimes people said he was black.
My grandparents were an immigrant family in transition. They lived amongst other Sicilians, some who were born in Italy and some who were born in the United States. They both spoke Sicilian. In the Lower East Side tenements where they lived, Sicilian and other Southern-Italian dialects were spoken along with Russian, Yiddish, Polish and German.
Some say Sicilian is a dialect and some say it’s a different language. There are many words and expressions of Arabic origin in Sicilian. The Sicilian language also drifted from Italian due to its historical poverty and physical separation from the mainland. Core Sicilian words like father “padje” and beautiful “beda” are different than in standard Italian. Interestingly, there is no future tense in the Sicilian language.
My grandparents didn’t teach us Sicilian; they only spoke it so we wouldn’t understand them. It was a secret language. My grandparents, like many immigrants, tried to maintain their difference in a private manner. They didn’t trust outsiders anyway. Why waste time explaining yourself when you couldn’t really trust people who were not your family? Explaining yourself to others seemed like an esoteric task. Focus on the things you have control over, I can hear them say. Don’t worry about these things, work hard, save your money.
When I was sick I stayed at my grandparents’ house. They were both retired. My parents worked. They knew it was time for me to go home when I became restless.
As I would get ready to leave, my grandmother would say to my grandfather “da chi na cosa.” It meant “give him something.” My grandfather reached for a few dollars from the porcelain leaf ashtray, stacked with change and dollar bills, which sat on the radiator. I knew what it meant because I had heard it many times. My grandmother would say, “It’s our dialect, you won’t understand it,” as if the Sicilian language defied translation. And perhaps Sicilian, like the stone caves in north-central Sicily, was impenetrable, its rough-hewn exterior protecting a soft fleshy interior.
Years later in high-school, then in college, I studied Italian. We were taught that it was the Florentine dialect, the language of Dante. A language connected by antiquity to Caesar, Cicero and Lucretius. The language which nourished the western world. The tongue my grandparents spoke was the language of poor immigrants, and of book bindery and railroad workers. There was a swallowed shame in speaking Sicilian.
My parents didn’t speak Italian or Sicilian dialect at all, though they knew some words and phrases. When my parents were children between World War I and II, many Italians, especially southerners, concealed their foreignness. They only spoke the language amongst each other and never in public. In secret. Even some of the novelty songs of their era belie the Southern Italian tendency for dual expression: one private and one public. For example, the English lyrics for Zooma Zooma, a song by Louie Prima, are silly and nonsensical, but the dialect translations of the verses are risqué and suggestive. There was power in keeping it hidden. They knew what it really meant and you didn’t.
As I studied Italian, I’d try to speak it to my grandparents. When my grandfather said things like “manga cava” meaning ‘you eat like a horse,” I just stared at him blankly. Sentences were condensed. Entire portions of words were lopped off for brevity. He’d make fun of me, calling me “Il Professore” since I was only book learned. In fact, growing up in New York City, I heard mostly Southern Italian dialects. So I was hardly ever able to use the Italian I was studying though I could read and write it with some facility. Then, one summer in college, while working at the Berkshire Hotel on Madison Avenue in Manhattan, I overheard Italians speaking. I was told that they were from the magazine L’Uomo, preparing for a fashion show. From Milan. As if my ears were suddenly activated, I was startled to discover that I could understand what they were saying. First just the words, then the sentences. It was a miraculous experience. I hid behind a curtain and listened as if I had been deaf all my life and could now hear.
Imagine hearing a language all of your life that you can’t understand? Imagine privately experiencing a culture all of your life that is perceived and portrayed very differently in the public eye.
When I was about ten, I gave my grandfather a plain Hallmark card for his birthday. When you opened it, it read “You’re the best grandpa ever.” I signed it “I love you” and drew hearts on it. This man, who was tough as nails, read the card and started crying, wiping the tears from his eyes. He then got on his knees to get at my level and hugged me. As resilient as he was all of his life, for his family, he was defenseless in that moment. I didn’t understand why he cried. Seeing him break down for a moment was like watching a door to his soul burst open.
This is a very Sicilian and in general a very Southern Italian predicament. Since the time of Shakespeare up until the present day, we’ve been portrayed as tough clowns. Sometimes we’re the mafia killer with dark pock marked skin, greasy hair and fancy clothes. Sometimes we’re depicted as the cold blooded capo. Despite the fact that he talks like he has rocks in his mouth, the cold blooded capo dresses well and is ruthlessly cunning. Sometimes the tough clown is a loud wife, cooking in the kitchen, threatening her children with cooking utensils, “Wait until your father comes home, you little sons a bitches.” And we’re supposed to laugh at ourselves along with other people laughing at our expense.
People still laugh, or trivialize. I’m still surprised when I have to defend the fact that there is prejudice against Italians. I’m especially surprised when I have to defend this fact even to my liberal friends. Sympathy for Italian-Americans is an outlier phenomenon. Let me explain.
About two years ago, I worked for a large organization. Like all large organizations, I worked with people from all over the globe. And like all employees, I had to take compulsory cultural sensitivity training. It’s easy to miss queues or lack understanding due to cultural differences. After all, most of the employees had a business or technical background and didn’t study anthropology, history or other liberal arts subjects.
One time, I walked into a meeting room in New York City surrounded by a table of people from all over the world: India, China, Russia, Ethiopia, France, and from all over the United States.
As I walked into the room, I was greeted by the Director of North East.
“Hey, oh, yo’ Mikey,” he said. “How you doin?” he added, imitating Italian-American movie speech. His salutation was met by a flurry of chuckles.
I have to admit internally I was shocked. Externally, having experienced this many times over, I did what I’ve always done, what my grandparents and parents had done, what most Italian-Americans still do. I ignored it. It wasn’t so much that I was insulted, it was more of the fact that a high level director with dozens of reports, felt it was ok to do this in front of a room of international peers. Why didn’t I report him to human resources right away? I had a room full of witnesses. Keep your mouth shut, do your job.
As Italians, we are taught to accept this kind of behavior in our workplace, amongst friends and even amongst people we’ve just met. Even from people with master’s degrees, from educated backgrounds. And why not? There are countless movies and television shows depicting Italian clown tough guys with rough ugly faces who spit when they speak. As if the industry would entertain other stories or portrayals, they instead shuck off accusations of bias saying many of the shows and films are written by Italian writers and filmmakers.
I’m ok with mafia films. I’m ok with portrayals of tough guy clowns. They exist. Show them. But now it’s time to write our own stories. Stories that also depict Italian-Americans as regular Americans and as regular people. Stories about the great Italian-American jazz players. Stories about the Italian Bel-Canto singing style- from Caruso to Sinatra- that launched American music worldwide. Stories about your uncle who was a gifted piano player.
The curious dismissal of Italian-American prejudice is as much a mystery now as it was in the time of my grandparents. Until we are vigilant in our watch against all prejudice, until we listen to each other and sing our own stories aloud, racism will persist for all.
Mike Fiorito lives in Brooklyn, NY. His stories have appeared in Narratively, Mad Swirl, The Good Men Project and Brownstone Poetry. He is the author of a short story collection Call Me Guido, published by Ovunque Siamo Press. He maintains a website for the book here.