#WhoIAm: Reveling in Italian American Heritage Month

I promise you, we’re more than pizza, garlic and the mafia.

Not to say those aren’t important -- because they are. The Godfather trilogy is recorded on my DVR at home at all times, in case my mom and I have a craving. But the “Big Three” of Italian American culture isn’t all that you should be aware of.

See, the Italians of America are an entirely different breed. Italians born in Italy shun us (seriously, just look at the replies on any silly Italian American culture tweet), and there’s something about us that doesn’t fit into the rest of the American cultural molds. After all, we’re ethnic; for some reason there’s this idea that white people can’t be ethnic, but we can. But we’re also… White. It’s a conundrum at its finest.

My family hasn’t lived in Italy since 1906, but like many other Italian Americans, we were centralized in a tight-knit set of towns in the New Jersey Metropolitan area for nearly 100 years straight, allowing the traditions to be passed down and developed into their very own, distinct immigrant culture. Being biologically Italian and being a part of the Italian American subculture are two very different things, and The Cake Boss might be the only Italian American you know, and that’s okay! I’m here to tell you about us in honor of Italian American Heritage Month.

Gravy. Oh man. You probably call it pasta sauce or maybe bolognese, but the Italians of the Northeast call it gravy -- not to be confused with brown gravy, which you put on your turkey on Thanksgiving. Every family has a very different process for making it. We tend to be very brand-loyal when it comes to the tomatoes we buy, and there is to be no mixing.

Traditionally, gravy is made on Sundays, and in bulk. Some Italians have stuck to their Roman Catholic roots, like my mom; others have decided that religion isn’t their preference, like some members of my family. Meanwhile, others, like me, have found a different denomination or religion that works for them. Regardless, for many Italian Americans, Sundays still serve as the feasting, Roman Catholic sabbath, and during holiday seasons like Advent and Lent, the traditions remain Catholic.

I live in a two-person household, just me and my mom, and she makes gravy to feed an army. I miss it like crazy, now that I’m away at college. That’s another thing I love about being Italian American -- eating is love. Breaking bread together stems from the Catholicism that runs through our veins, but there’s something about feeding that is compulsory to our culture. Almost every time I call her, my mom asks me if I’m eating enough because the true tell of many Italians’ mental health is whether or not we’re eating -- if we’re not eating, there’s something wrong.

There are so many more intricacies of our culture that I would love to explain. Our familial structures and dynamics have a very specific eccentricity to them that impacts the way we learn and grow. The role of grandparents in an Italian American household is both variable and integral. We tend to be louder, and our fights are a bit more dramatic, but our love is shared on a wider scale. If you’re loved by one of us, you’re a part of the whole family.

There are harder parts too. Most Italian Americans born in the mid to late twentieth century can speak of xenophobic incidents. Most of our last names were changed by Ellis Island -- or by ourselves because many businesses wouldn’t hire Italian Americans. Sitting in Italian 101 on the first day of class, I remember my professor said that any word starting with a Y in Italian was foreign -- I looked at my last name, Yannotta, and sighed. Our hair texture is different than that of other white people, frizzier and curlier with far more texture, and it has a tendency to warrant commentary, as it doesn’t fit into the standards of what a white person should look like. Still, online today, I see jokes made about Italians by clearly non-Italian white people, labeling us as obnoxious and trashy, slicking our hair back with grease, as if this was a stylistic choice, not comprehending that the “grease” we’re known for began as an attempt to smooth our hair back to mimic Anglo-Saxons. 

Sometimes, I get weird looks for being so proud of my heritage, but I’m always happy to explain. As a people, Italian Americans fought assimilation and oppression on our own level -- many of us lost our language and our names in the process, but we kept our strong sense of family, our loud voices and our loved ones’ bellies full.