To be Italian or American?

By in European Immigration, Immigrant NYC


“I want my daughter to have a better life than me,” Joann Maniscalco said but when asked if keeping the Italian culture or being Americanized was a better life for her daughter she shrugged. Joann Maniscalco came to American from Milan, Italy on September 14, 1974 by plane so that her mother could rejoin with her siblings and parents.  Joann struggled with the language for a bit, she spoke about how her history teacher asked her to read a page from the textbook and Joann didn’t know what to do because she did not know how to read it or speak.  Her teacher encouraged her to try her best and with help from classmates, she was able to learn it.  She married to Vincent Maniscalco and they had their daughter, Antonella.  The three live in Staten Island and are struggling with keeping the culture Joann grew up with and the American culture that surrounds them everywhere.

Italians have been coming to this land since the late 1800s, coming in huge masses in the early 1900s.  As any new group to American soil, they faced their hardships in this land.  Discrimination and the language barrier was the hardest ones they had to face.  If you did not speak the language, there were few people around to translate for you.  This made getting an education hard, which led to very few high ranked official jobs.  A lack of an education left jobs that did not involve much speaking and easy to learn.  Many Italian young women worked in the garment industries and gave every last penny to their families.  Italian wives not only took care of her household but also took in boarders, made artificial flowers, and some helped their husband’s business. Many of these workers took a cheaper pay because it guaranteed a job for them, which took jobs away from the American work force, creating and intensifying the relations between Italians and non-Italians. They have had time to assimilate, so why is there this struggle?

Could it be that the education, although promoted to include everyone, is not equal for immigrants? The family and teachers are forced to play a game of catch up; where students (immigrant children) not only have to learn the English language but they also have to learn everything that a student their age or close to their age (maybe a year or two off) would have learned here in America. For adults, it has been a trend that they come and work in America with little education of American standards, unless they have attended a graduate school and sometimes that is not always a guarantee.  The adolescents come to work for the most part and are enrolled into the education system.  It does not last long before one drops out of school, although the numbers are low it still exists. It tends to become easier for second and third generations because they are exposed to American education but also because their parents will have had an education already.

Could it be non-acceptance of Italians? Or a failure to have as assimilated? In the old days, everything had to be American or they needed to change to meet American standards in life.  To have one’s culture and traditions that were only celebrated by their immigrant group was supposed to be done away with because Americans frowned down upon it.  Italians, however, were a very stubborn group.  They insisted on keeping their language and their culture going strong.  It was not until the 1970s and 80s that they began to assimilate, they left their old neighborhoods, married outside their group, shed their values and customs to become more American. The irony in all of this is that by the time they started doing this; America was falling in love with movies that were based on Italian lives.  Movies like Godfather, Rocky and the sequels, and so on, had maybe not the full truth about Italian lives but they had some basic fundamentals about them that were true. A close family, even if blood did not hold them together, passionate, suspicion of authority, penchant for violence.  They had something that many people were almost jealous of.

This was during the 60s where there were a lot of problems in the country with the anti-war movements, civil rights, and so on.    These movies represented “fantasies of personal authenticity and communal loyalty, rage against state and authority.”  They showed the past lives of Italian Americans, of course with some Hollywood blitz in it, showing the connections that these people had.  Family was very important to Italians and so was their heritage.  These movies showcased those connections and the tendency for violence amongst people, but in reality of the 1970s, the men and women were going to college, were having successful professions, settling in the suburbs and were “mingling with” every culture group that they came into contact with.

It is standard procedure for immigrants for the first generation had the advantage of optimism and ability to take dual frame.  The second generation had advantage of full citizenship and consistent exposure to English and the American society.  As Richard Alba points out, the cultural values and customs of the third generation were indistinguishable from those of white Protestants.  So as the number of generations increases, the amount of assimilation increases.  It is seen in most of the cultural groups, including Italians.

One cannot point at a finger solely at one thing, but people may attempt at answering it out themselves. Joann said that the problem she faces is traditions, which ones should she keep and which ones would she put behind her? What does one find more important about one tradition over the other?  Which ones do you pas onto your children and which ones do you keep to yourself? How can one rank them?  How can one incorporate their heritage and American lifestyle? How?

Today society focuses on keeping our heritage and being proud of who we are and where our families come from.  However, as Joann Maniscalco put it, “It gets harder to keep our cultures.”  For Joann’s family, they try to have the Sunday dinner at two or three in the afternoon but because of work, her daughter’s activities, school and so on, it is great when they can have it once a month.  Another problem that Joann pointed out was that the importance of her culture is not the same as Antonella, her daughter, because she has grown up in America from birth and has been more Americanized than she. When Antonella was younger, her Christmas tradition was to wait to open presents on January 6th, the Epiphany.  How was she supposed to keep that tradition when she saw all her friends opening presents days before? One belief that Antonella was not brought up on, although was taught, was that the la Befana brought presents during Christmas.  It was not old Saint Nick who came, but a witch, who does exactly what Santa does (presents for the good, coal for the bad), was a “Santa.”  It is the juggle of two cultures and how to incorporate them into one.

To be able to at least teach a person where you came from, that is what we should all be able to do.  Once we can establish where we come from and what traditions come from that country, then can one start to formulate their new life’s beliefs and traditions in America. As much as we all want to believe that America is not a melting pot anymore and has become a tossed salad of every immigrant, personally, I’m not so sure about it.  In truth, every group is giving up a small piece, if not the entire culture they had grown up with, to become American and live the American life. How can we find the balance between our true culture and American life?


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