By: Marianna Gatto, ISDA Contributing Editor
“My family is Italian,” one of our visitors commented as I welcomed her college class and their professor to the Italian American Museum of Los Angeles this past June. As her peers meandered through the museum, the student, 21-year-old Olivia, stood in front of the permanent exhibition screens watching projections of turn-of-the-twentieth-century images of peasants in the Mezzogiorno and Italian immigrants arriving at Ellis Island.
She seemed genuinely moved. “What part of Italy did your family come from?” I asked, sensing her greater-than-average interest. “One side came from somewhere in Sicily, but I’m not really sure about the other side…Calabria maybe?” she responded.
Olivia shared a bit more about her family. Her great-grandparents had immigrated to the United States in the early 1900s, but they had died before she was born. Although her grandparents spoke Italian as children, neither of her parents ever learned Italian, and most of her family’s Italian American identity was connected to foodways. Olivia recounted how her family had visited Italy two years earlier and toured Rome, Florence, and Venice. They had not ventured farther south, to the towns from which her family had emigrated a century earlier, however.
Olivia is representative of many Italian Americans I meet, not only the Millennial generation, but Boomers and Gen Xers as well. Yet for some reason, the image of her, standing silhouetted in front of the projection screens, remained in my head for days after her visit, and I found myself analyzing why this was the case. Working in the field of public history, and specifically as the director of a cultural museum, I am charged not only with communicating and preserving history, but also with making history relevant to diverse audiences. It occurred to me that for Olivia—who was born in the late 1990s—the photographs of Italian immigrants and peasants could just as easily have belonged to the Civil War era as the early 1900s. They were, simply put, old photos of an era more bygone to her than to many of us. The preponderance of Italian Americans have, or at least had at one time in their lives, a direct connection to an immigrant relative, myself included. Olivia did not.
As time marches on, and our living immigrant ancestors grow fewer in number, Italian Americans become progressively removed from the immigration journeys of their families, not unlike other groups of hyphenated Americans. My exchange with Olivia left an impression on me, I realized, because she represents the future of Italian America. I found myself wondering, “What will Italian American heritage, and Italian American Heritage Month, mean a generation from now…or two generations from now?”
That is, how can we, as Italian Americans, act as good stewards of our heritage? This is where the conversation returns to relevance, education, discovery, and the transmission of culture.
1. Pick up the Phone
Among the things I hear over and over when discussing the topic of family histories is, “All my older relatives have passed on, and growing up, I never thought to ask those questions.” Having lost my grandparents at a very young age, I can certainly relate to this. There are many questions I would have loved to have had the opportunity to ask. “My grandparents/parents didn’t talk about those things,” is another oft-repeated remark. Encouraging certain generations to speak about events and experiences can be challenging. (Actually, this is true for people independent of their generation!) But sometimes, getting a relative to open up is simply a matter of conveying interest.
Italian Americans frequently cite the family unit as the most cherished element of their culture. Family history comprises a critical part of our identity, and without it, we are like trees without roots. Discovering the history of our ancestors helps us gain a greater understanding of the challenges they faced; it builds resilience and inspires love and compassion. For young people (and all of us for that matter), learning about our ancestors’ experiences encourages us to take a step back from our lives, acknowledge our blessings, and recognize that we are not alone in our trials and that turmoil and disappointments will, in time, pass.
Before the opportunity is lost, arrange a time to sit down with your great-aunt, parents, or grandparents. They have stories to tell, and recording them is easier than ever. If you are the matriarch or patriarch, now is the time to share or otherwise memorialize your family’s legacy.
2. Make the Pilgrimage
Italy is home to the greatest number of UNESCO World Heritage Sites in the world and half the world’s art treasures. Rome, Milan, Venice, and Florence are among the cities in Italy that everyone should visit. However, there is no shortage of cultural patrimony—not to mention family history—to be discovered outside the major tourist destinations. The overwhelming majority of Italian Americans—75 percent—hail from Italy’s southern region, yet when Italian Americans visit Italy, they typically skip the south entirely. This is comparable to visiting New York City to understand your origins when your grandparents were born and raised in Wellsboro, Pennsylvania.
Italian Americans are not alone. Less than 15 percent of tourists venture to southern Italy, despite the region’s temperate climate, picturesque towns, magnificent historic sites, outstanding food, hospitable people, inexpensive connecting flights, and exceptional charm. Visiting the south provides a different perspective of Italy. One of the greatest gifts the region offers is the opportunity to walk in your ancestors’ footsteps, connect with family members, and become acquainted with the geography that is quite literally in your bones and seared into your DNA. It is a transformative experience.
3. Support the Preservation of Italian American Culture
For many of us, Italian American Heritage Month is a time to recognize the many achievements, contributions, and successes of Italians and Italian Americans in the United States. There are many organizations that carry out this mission year round, however, and they need your support. If the preservation of Italian American history and culture is important to you, consider demonstrating your pride by supporting institutions—including cultural centers, universities, museums, and community-based groups—whose programs or missions are organized around this purpose.
-Marianna Gatto is a historian and the cofounder and executive director of the Italian American Museum of Los Angeles.