In my work, my interactions with people, my poetry and fiction—–in my life in general, I am always exploring the question of culture, identity and belonging. I do this less in an academic way than in a personal way. I have asked myself questions regarding these notions for as long as I can remember—before I could put a name to the activity. I only know what it felt like so long ago, as a young girl. I call it “belonging, “ now, with so much distances, though I would not, nor could I have called it that then. Children feel more, tend not to intellectualize, though even way back then I lived in my head, much as I do now. Because for me, life is guided by a series of questions I ask myself and must answer. And sometimes getting at the answers means coming out of myself. Thus this blog, as just one example.
As I have shared in a previous blog post, my identity is rooted quite firmly in the notion of being Italian-American. But the interesting thing is that I was always so conscious of the identity. I felt it through and through and would have had a difficult time, at best, extricating myself from it if I had wanted to—which of course, I never did.
Thankfully, I did not have to fight for my identity. I did not have to assert who I was. I felt comfortable (still do) in my culture. Others accepted that I was Italian-American. My classmates all “looked” like me, our families had the same values, our mothers and fathers were friends, former classmates, my friends cousins married my cousins. Culture was intertwined and inextricable on so very many levels.
For many years, as I child, I would preface comments to my mother such as “When I was born in Italy,” and my mother would have to remind me that, in fact, I was not born in Italy and where I got that silly notion she had no idea. I wasn’t until so many years later that the reason I thought that way was because I felt that way. I used to proclaim that Sundays, in our home , were “Roman Days”. What that mean , to me, what that the smell of my mother’s “gravy” (Italian-Americans NEVER call it “sauce”) was bubbling on the stove just like every single home in our neighborhood. I was a quiet and inscrutable child , so there was a lot that my parents did not question about me. But, maybe by now you understand what I am getting at: I could not have identified more with my culure if I tried. And I didn’t have to try—–it just was. And as a child, food one just one of the ways I identified with culture.
Much like the age old question “Who is a Jew,” the notion of belonging , at its very essense is being challenged in the European Union as people are on the move, for any variety of reasons, though most of them being economic. People will go where the jobs are , because one must eat and live. “Who is Italian,” is such an interesting notion to me as Italy has seen a burgeoning of immigrants and refugees in the past 20 years. Let me qualify this: if you do not look European, your identity is challenged. And where are most of the refugees and immigrants coming from? Countries in Africa, mainly.
We have our own problems in the United States with “Who is American,” and argument I eschew because it tends to bring out the worst in those who call themselves “patriots.” And yes, we all know that none of us, no matter how many generations our family has lived in the US, is a “native American” because we all came from somewhere, first. But in the United States, the argument is mainly about legality—who is a legal American. We do not question ( at least not according to the law) that the child of an immigrant if born in the United States is a citizen. That does not protect them from taunts, from hatred or hate crimes. But they are entitled to life , liberty and the pursuit of happiness (such as it is), at least on paper. And, for the most part, we celeberate cultures , these days—we do not try to hide who we are. A friend from India once asked me why so many Italian-Americans do not speak Italian. In her family, from New Delhi, India, it was imperative that the language live on through generations. I pointed out to her ( a lawyer) that no one had ever tried to squelch that, to force her or her family to “assimilate” or be discriminated against. Italian-Americans were reviled during the first and most intense waves of immigration and were forced to abandon the language for “American.”
I know of so many stories of bullying and ridicule of those who spoke the language. To speak your native tongue was seen as “unpatriotic.” It is still is a common sentiment amongst many that “If you want to speak that language, go back to your own country!” To which many can honestly respond “This (USA) IS my country!” The controversy over Barack Obama’s multiracial identity would be amusing were it not so sinister in its implications. A black man. A white mother. A Muslim name. And the egregious campaign to accuse him of not even being a natural born citizen of the United States. Culture and belonging are complicated things still used discriminate in ways one cannot even imagine. That the campaign about Obama’s citizenship continued after he was already President speaks to the rabid emotions connected with it. Abandon all intelligence upon entering here.
In my own experience, at home I am perhaps too Italian (to some). In Italy, I am perhaps, not Italian enough. Because, as we know, predjudice occurs with alarming regularity (and cruelty) amongst our own kind. Sicilan vs. Italian. Southern Italian agains Northern Italian. Well, you get the idea. One wonders how anyone else trying to be who they really are, can ever achieve it. Sounds so simple , but really, it is anything but.
At the European Championship, Mario Balotelli, a striker for the Manchester City team, born in Ghana but adoped and raised by Italian parents ,was subjected to bananas being thrown at him by Croats (no strangers to one of the worst kinds of ethnic conflict in recent memory) and racially degrading chants by the Spaniards referring to the obvious: black, but with an Italian name, and perhaps not quite so “evolved.” On the other side, I consistenly read about Balotelli in saintly terms, his benevolent parents raising someone totally out of their culture, etc. And even that grates on me , somehow. To be treated as some sort of “artifact” is less objectional, in my opinion, but objectional anyway. Balotelli’s story is a good and inspiring one, but that is not the sum of who he is. And despite all of his achievements, when the story is told in this way, it seems somehow, well, reductive : what upstanding and wonderful people these Italians were to go against the grain. It says very little about the amazing striker that Balotelli really is. Do you see what I mean?
So what does all of this have to do with immigration? The connections are quite easy to see. Those who are brave enough to leave the what they know, the culture they were born into, to live in another, will have trials seemingly more difficult than the ones they left behind them. Maybe difficult or next to impossible to find work without exploitation, a place to live that has a measure of safety, enough food to nourish the body and a sense of belonging. Being who you are and what you hope to become wherever you may find yourself in the world should not be that difficult. It is the epitome of unfairness that it actually is. Welcome here , there. Welcome anywhere. Welcome to the world as we know it.
Note: I welcome anyone, anywhere , to add your own opinions about your own experience with culture and/or immigration. It is a conversation I would love to have. If you would like to be interviewed about your own experience, please contact me.