What Makes Us Italian American?

Virtues, traditions and family light the way as we pass the torch from one generation to the next.

By: Basil M. Russo, ISDA President

Obviously, just having a vowel at the end of our last name doesn’t make us an Italian American. Many people with a vowel at the end of their last name have no clue what it means to be Italian American.

And on the other hand, many people who don’t have a vowel at the end of their name are Italian American through-and-through.

  • That’s because being Italian American isn’t about a name or a label, it’s about our state of mind.
  • It’s about knowing and appreciating our family’s history.
  • It’s about embracing our Italian-American values.
  • It’s about feeling a sense of pride in who we are.

But why is it important that we know and appreciate our family’s history and live our Italian-American values and traditions?

Our Creator chose to bless each one of us with a certain set of characteristics or gifts that makes each of us unique and special. One of the characteristics we have been blessed with is our ancestral heritage and the values and traditions associated with it.

This article first appeared in La Nostra Voce, ISDA’s 28-page monthly newspaper, which chronicles Italian life, culture and traditions. Make the ISDA pledge and subscribe today.

God chose to make each one of us, at least in part, Americans of Italian descent. As a result, it is an important part of how God chose to define each of us. As such, we each have a responsibility to both understand and appreciate our heritage.

The first step in truly being an Italian American is learning and appreciating our family’s history, both in Italy and here in America.

Ellis Island as seen from New York City Harbor.

We should know the villages and regions our ancestors came from, the difficult conditions that forced them to leave, the serious prejudices and hardships they faced when they arrived in America, and the sacrifices they made to overcome illiteracy, poverty and prejudice.

Every family’s history is filled with beautiful stories of romance, sacrifice and accomplishments, as well as sad stories of separation, hardship and prejudice.

What is your family’s story? If you know it, pass it on to your children and grandchildren.

If you don’t know it, learn it.

The second step in truly being an Italian American is embracing our Italian-American values.

We are the descendants of poor but proud people whose values are rooted in three essential elements, namely a deep and abiding sense of family, a strong work ethic and a centuries-long devotion to our Catholic faith.

The first essential element of our Italian-American value system is our concept of family. Family has always been at the very core of the Italian American experience. Our concept of family, more than anything else, defines who we are as a people. Fathers fulfilling their responsibility to support their families. Mothers providing love and stability in the home. And children who are taught the meaning and importance of respect.

Italian Americans have always innately understood that nothing in life is as important as creating and maintaining a strong, loving and supportive family.

The second essential element of our Italian-American value system is a strong work ethic. Italian Americans have always understood that nothing in life comes easily, and if by chance it does, it is not appreciated. We have always taken pride in working hard and appreciating the fruits of our labor.

The third element in our Italian-American value system is our Catholic faith, which is rooted in a 2,000-year history. The Italian peninsula has been the cradle from which the Catholic church has been nurtured and grown. Our ancestors in Italy have produced more popes, more saints and more martyrs than any other country in the world.

Among our most meaningful traditions are the feast day celebrations each village in Italy held for hundreds of years to honor their patron saint or the Virgin Mary, which we continue to celebrate in Italian-American parishes in our country to this very day.

The final step in truly being an Italian American is to feel a sense of pride in who we are.

Pride in our family’s history and accomplishments.

Pride in our values and our faith.

This is not a pride that stems from a sense of being boastful or feeling superior to others. Rather it is a pride rooted in feeling confident and self-assured–in knowing who we are, and in being grateful for what we have been given.

Our Italian-American heritage is one of God’s greatest gifts to us. If by chance you are someone who has lost it somewhere along the way, look deep within yourself and you will find it.

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