“Nothing shapes values more than overcoming adversity, having to build success rather than being just given it and knowing - and being proud - not only of where you are but where you come from.”
RCMP Commissioner Giuliano Zaccardelli
“My Italian family journey”
About three years ago, I watched “My Big Fat Greek Wedding” just to appease a friend. I didn’t even expect to enjoy it, since I find most North American comedy movies annoying. It was not only humorous, but I also identified to the protagonist, Nia Vardalos who played the central role and wrote the screenplay herself. Vardalos stars as Toula, a Greek woman questioning her culture's expectations -- the conflict between her collective family culture versus her endangered personal growth.
The Portokalos family express their worry about Toula. She is shy, rather plain. Her aunts, uncles, and cousins regularly encroach in the most personal details of each other's lives. Her family believes Greek women marry Greek men and many other Old World views. If she doesn’t get married, she is expected to work the family business. Toula, however, dreamed much more than her family had planned for her.
Many elements of the movie were autobiographical and therefore reflected reality. It was an authentic portrait about the disparity between first generation Greek immigrants and their children’s divergent ways of thinking. The movie was a lively and light-hearted parody of gratification/pain contradictions. Writing this family memoir has allowed me to contemplate my own gratification/pain contradictions coming from my own Italian immigrant heritage.
As a child, I had looked at my Mom and Dad’s wedding photos many times, but not once did I ever notice that my father was not in any of the wedding photos, except one… and just one. My parents met in Canada for the first time after they had already married. You don’t have to reread that sentence. My parents met after they were married. As impossible as it is to believe, they married without ever having met even once -- only having seen each other in photographs.
My parents knew one another only through correspondence, through my mother’s aunt who was also my dad’s sister. My mother was only 18 years old, facing a bleak existence in Catanzaro, Calabria where everyone was talking about how the streets of America were paved with gold and how people lived a good life there. My father was already living and working in Canada when my parents began to write one another. Somewhat similar to the effects of e-mail today, my mother constructed a dream of somehow living a happier and more fruitful true-North-strong-and-free life.
My father proposed marriage to Mom, but he said he was not able to return to Italy, so my parents married by proxy. A proxy marriage is a wedding ceremony where the parties are not physically present or in the presence of each other. During the marriage ceremony, based upon the authorization of a priest, the brother of my maternal grandfather acted on behalf of my Dad. Wedding vows were exchanged by means of a long distance phone call between Calabria, Italy to Toronto, Canada in 1956. I did not know this until I was an adult.
From 1880 onwards, 25 million Italians migrated from their homeland to the New Worlds struggling to achieve a better future. After WWII the shortage of labor made Canada receptive to Italian immigrants. Almost 70% of Canada’s postwar immigrants were Italian. Poverty, overpopulation, and natural disaster prompted several million Southern Italians to immigrate to Canada, mostly from rural areas. My father came from a rural small town on the coast of Sicily called Capo D’orlando, while my mother was a city girl from the mountainous Catanzaro, Calabria.
Upon entry, Italians were made to feel unwelcome in Canada and the U.S., labeled as ignorant, poor, unskilled and lazy. My father often spoke about this kind of discrimination while my mother was able to integrate with other cultures and thus to transcend these injustices. My mother was comfortable socializing outside of her own culture, though she liked to also socialize with other Italians too.
An Italian Immigrant once said,
“I came to America because I heard the streets were paved with gold. When I got here, I found out three things: first, the streets weren’t paved with gold; second, they weren’t paved at all; and third, I was expected to pave them.”
Most Italians worked from the bottom of the occupational ladder and in the worst kinds of jobs, such as shoe shining, sewer cleaning, and construction. Many were miners or built railroads. They worked in low status, but not necessarily low paying jobs. My father was a stock keeper all his life while my mother advanced from a bank cashier to a bank supervisor. My father’s employment stagnation contrasted with my mother’s increasing promotions and salary increases.
In spite of the cultural and interpersonal obstacles, my parents learned to be resourceful, inventive and creative amid the demands of adjusting to a unfamiliar setting. They were models of a strong work ethic and emphasis on family and family values. Also, my parents were lively and did not have to work hard in order to have a good time. They enjoyed music, food, dance and lots of laughter. This contrasts with the Canadian culture that is informal, reserved, and generally lacks expressiveness.
Italian Growing “Pains”
As “My Big Fat Greek Wedding” had illustrated, so too the Southern Italian culture is composed largely of people who are typically loud, extroverted, hard-hitting, intrusive, paternalistic and not very reflective. My family was no exception, and yet in the midst of this dominant personality trait, I was born: someone who was so different: introverted, inconspicuous, quiet, and reflective. I also enjoyed reading and developing my writing. These kinds of interests worried my family.
I was stigmatized for being different. I was not a party person either while most everyone else in my family thrived on social gatherings. I preferred to be either alone or with a few friends than in a multitude. My relatives were good at telling me how bothered, and disappointed they felt. When a loved one celebrated a birthday, baptism, first communion or graduation, everyone was expected to visit in large numbers to show their support and warmth. Food, music and dance were the center of all our family events.
Like the Greek comedy, my parents also witnessed the distancing of their two children from the traditional norms of Italian values, but in their case they saw nothing funny about it. My sister Rosa and I had adopted Canadian values and this brought many heart breaking moments to my mother and father. For example, Rose and I had left the Catholic church and were converted to the Evangelical faith. This was a hard blow since Italians profess to be strong Catholics even if they deny many of the practices. Our leaving Catholicism generated lots of criticism from our relatives.
“Memory is a creation people reshape and reformulate throughout life.”
Orsi states that Italian immigrant parents are excellent at conjuring up images of their homeland as a tool for social restraint. Southern Italy’ was viewed as a mythical place with supreme parents, obedient children, and submissive wives, and the Old World was contrasted to ‘ North America’ where everything had gone wrong. Obsessed by the fear that their social order would give way to the new world, parents used memory as a form of ‘coercive collaboration’ – a contradiction in terms yet this worked to maintain traditional values, and to quash individualism.
My father had an exasperating habit of singing praises to Italy and Italian history. He would say, “Did you know that so-and-so is Italian… This was Dad ‘s sermonizing mode, but none of the second generation believed him and (our many cousins) openly expressed inconformity to this improbable utopia.
Except for my mother, the majority of my family was from a rural background and therefore less inclined toward much reflection but more inclined toward social activities or financial achievement.
Members from an Italian Immigrant home are integrated from birth into strong, cohesive groups that throughout their lifetime continue to protect them and demand unquestioning loyalty. A strong sense of obligation to family and family events: Whenever my parents attended any of the family events, they would later criticize the way things were done or what was said. Acts of extraordinary generosity and hospitality were typically tied to high expectations that the generosity would be rewarded.
My mother also had always been the intermediary so all family events were inevitably coordinated through her. My father, sister and I got so used to her taking the initiative, that we still show passivity in this area. I tend to be solitary and usually leave it to my wife to initiate social contacts and activities.
I had visited Italy three times during my summer vacations. During my first trip at age seven, the relatives seemed so united and happy. On my second and third trip (age eleven and sixteen), I saw the other side, where many of the relatives were divided and had cut off communication.
Reflection as a result of my family journey:
Looking at my Italian roots is intrinsic to my life and it has proven interesting and challenging to think about the ways that being Italian has affected the course of my life. Today I value conversing at a profound level and wish that my relatives could have shared this joy. Unfortunately, my relatives were illiterate when it came to being communicative. Even today, when I visit Toronto, some of my relatives receive me as if I had never left Canada or ever lived in Costa Rica. There is rarely any curiosity. I see this as a bit of a contradiction, because my family and relatives possessed wonderful qualities such as passion and love for life, family, food, art and music, our distinct brand of humor, liveliness and intensity.
I suppose conversation means so much to me because I had so little of it during my childhood. Among the thousands of Immigrant Italian families in Toronto, conversation was not part of the menu. If only someone had stopped to ask, “What’s going on in your heart? Perhaps I would not have grown up as a stranger to my Italian heritage. My relatives simply repeated the customs and patterns of their own ancestors. I think part of recovering my Italian heritage involves the art of conversing, because we not only become aware of the strengths and flaws of our family roots, but validate each other and are saying that the persons we converse with are worthwhile and interesting to us.  While my parents (and other first generation immigrants) continue to keep close contact with relatives in Italy, my sister and I (second generation) did not establish nor maintain any such contact.My parents embarked on the most difficult, almost unimaginable journey any of us can think of – immigrating to another land. They left their familiar world of sunny Italy to settle in the cold northern city of Toronto. Although I accompanied my parents as their story unfolded - experiencing it in my own way - I don’t think I can ever really understand the courage it took for them to take that fateful decision. If I had to name the most powerful effect upon me, it would be the impact of watching an Italian community carve out a new life, for themselves and their children.