From the Old Country to NY: Growing Up Italian in the 1950s

The traditions, rituals and lessons learned from my Italian parents.

By: Daniel Casciano, ISDA Contributor

My father and his family migrated to the United States during the 2nd decade of the 20th century from Santa Croce, a commune (municipality), located in the province of Campobasso. Campobasso is located in the Molise region of Italy. My ancestors were impoverished and were looking to start a new and better life in America, believing the railroad hucksters who were recruiting cheap labor throughout Europe.

These recruiters told them that in America, “the streets were paved with gold.” Initially, the heads of the household left to establish residence, find jobs, and eventually send enough money home to purchase transportation to the new country for the remainder of the family. In our instance, my grandmothers sailed to New York, disembarking at Ellis Island, each with about five children. Many families from the Santa Croce area emigrated and settled in the same neighborhood in Buffalo, N.Y. preserving their dialects, traditions and culture. My uncle would often tell us that he and his siblings were very disappointed in that neighborhood because the streets were in fact mud, not gold, and the streetlights were kerosene lit. He was not happy because the village he left, Santa Croce, had cobblestone streets and electric street lamps.

A recent ISDA article written by Tony Traficante described how his mother performed the ritualistic malocchio (pronounced maloik) to determine if an individual was suffering from a health malady, usually manifested as a migraine headache. Italians had a long tradition of beliefs about luck and things that give either good or bad luck, so the individual with the migraine believed that she/he was being given the “evil eye” and some person was responsible for their bad luck or health problem.

As Tony mentioned, jealousy and envy and speaking ill of others were the usual suspected causes of the health malady. Like Tony, my mother was also chosen to learn how to perform the malocchio ritual, which involved dropping small droplets of olive oil on a plate, containing water, while simultaneously murmuring a number of specific prayers. Depending how the oil spread and the rate it spread on the water was interpreted by her and determined if the suffering person was being given the “evil eye or maloik.” If the outcome was negative and there was no maloik, she would inform that person and that individual immediately experienced relief.

If the result was positive, my mother would have a close relative or friend inform that person. My mother would not divulge her routine because she was sworn to secrecy when she learned the malocchio ritual, which she told me is taught to the second female born into a family on a specific Saint’s day. Sometimes I would watch her and remark that there were many variables associated with the behavior of the oil and water, but she just ignored me and continued murmuring the prayers. I thought that the whole process was ironic because she was a devout Catholic and here she was faithfully performing a paganistic ritual. I used to often ask her if she believed what she was doing had any merit as to predicting a health outcome, she would just give me this blank look like it mattered not; what mattered was the format of the process she was taught and hopefully helping someone in need.

My father, born in Italy,  was extremely proud of his Italian heritage. For a very long time, he would tell me daily that there are only two types of people in this world, “Italians, and those that wish they were.” During my early life, I thought the world consisted only of Italian Catholics. He also would inform me that family was all that counts in this life. As I got older and went to high school, it was a shock to me that Italian Catholics were probably in the minority. Also, since I naively believed his dictums about other people wanting to be Italian, I couldn’t understand the fact that his best friend was Polish, and proud of it. Additionally, since Italians are justifiably described as hot headed and always being right, some of our worst arguments were with family and sometimes brothers didn’t speak to each other for years.

I was extremely fortunate to be born into an Italian family and culture, and could write a book about our unique upbringing. I am not as monolithic about Italians as my father was (I married a non-Italian), and as I invest the energy to understand other cultures, I learn that we have more in common than I may have once thought.

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