Sign in | Log in

Non Parlo Italiano: Part 4

Non Parlo Italiano: Part 4

Mary Saracino (May 27, 2008)

Part 4 of a four part essay entitled, "Non Parlo Italiano."



Non Parlo Italiano: Part 4
                                                     by Mary Saracino 
              The language of my grandparents died in the second generation’s coming of age, but their Italian-ness remained vital and strong. Their persistent belief in their cultural heritage survived the ferocious fires that stoked the melting pot. They celebrated Italian holidays and infused American ones with an Italian accent, serving ravioli and Turkey at Thanksgiving, inviting La Befena to fill their children’s Christmas stockings alongside Santa Claus. In American Legion halls, they danced the tarantella at the weddings of their children and grandchildren. They grew grapes in their gardens, made wine in their cellars, cured prosciutto, played bocce in the parks. As their faces wrinkled and their eyes dimmed, their memories of their original homeland faded as well, but the sadness never fully waned.
               Grandma Saracino repeatedly refused to answer when I’d ask her why she left Castellaneta and what her life was like in those southern hills. She’d shrug her shoulders, turn the corners of her mouth into a frown and say nothing. Instead she taught me to make meatballs and breadballs and season the red sauce, choosing to transmit her Italian ways by filling my mouth and stomach with something other than words. Two generations later her Apulian dialect is foreign to me, but I still dream in Italian. And it matters less and less that I don’t comprehend the words.
              I am Italian. And I am American. I am an unexpected hybrid, the evolution of a long-held, ancient aspiration. Now, I search for the understanding that lies beyond the limits of vowels and consonants. I try to understand the losses and sacrifices experienced by my grandparents. I know the sound of their longing by heart; it is mine as well. I see the after-shocks of assimilation in the faces of my mother and father, my siblings, my aunts, uncles and cousins. My generation has risen out of its working class ashes to claim a thicker slice of the American pie. And I understand that this is not enough. Poverty is not pretty, but neither is cultural genocide. The price of rising to a more comfortable class of income and education has left scars. We can pass for white middle class Americans, but the truth lies deeper. My future is as olive-skinned and insistent as my past. I can’t go forward until and unless I reach back and bring my grandparents with me.
            In visiting Italy, I reclaimed a personal fluency, something that my blood remembered even though my tongue did not. I saw the beauty of the country that forced my grandparents to leave. I came to understand that the motherland had abandoned her children, shoved them out the door, told them there were too many mouths to feed. They would have to fend for themselves. It made them stronger, fiercer in facing adversity. But it also made them orphans—vagabonds of the spirit, lost between two shores, homeless, displaced, betrayed. How could a mother do that to her children?
           I have still not mastered the Italian language and so a rich vein of my cultural identity remains in need of excavation. If I’m to claim it home to me, complete and comprehensible, I must be able to articulate my longings, express them in what has become, to me, a foreign tongue. Alien to my ears, it somehow sings to me in spite of everything. I couldn’t speak Italian with the man at the bus stop in Siena, but a different conversation took place, nonetheless. In the caesura of sound, I understood the loss that had long raced through my blood. I ached for what my grandparents’ leaving had taken from me, ached, too, for the grief their leaving must have born in them. So much is left unsaid, buried beneath the soil in western New York, muted by the six feet of ground that covers their earthly bones. If I could, I would ask them, now, not why did you leave, but how did you find the strength to endure?
        I’ve lost their language, but I’ve located the mother lode, the deep artery of memory that’s the enduring legacy I inherited from grandparents who had no monetary wealth to bequeath. In dreamtime and in waking I can still hear their voices, still recall their faces; still remember the lives they left behind, the futures they forged in an unfamiliar land, the gifts these strangers in a strange country held out to me.  
And it is good. 
Va bene!

DISCLAIMER: Posts published in i-Italy are intended to stimulate a debate in the Italian and Italian-American Community and sometimes deal with controversial issues. The Editors are not responsible for, nor necessarily in agreement with the views presented by individual contributors.
This work may not be reproduced, in whole or in part, without prior written permission.
Questo lavoro non può essere riprodotto, in tutto o in parte, senza permesso scritto.

Great story Mary. My story

Great story Mary. My story is the same but different. I am going to include a story I wrote for "Il Progresso" 30 years ago.


“Italian? But where did you get your red hair?”

“Funny, but you don’t look Italian.”

“You look like an Irishman.”

“You must be from Northern Italy.”

Can you imagine living forty-two years of your life with the absolute certainty that not one week would pass without you hearing at least one of these phrases? How does one respond? Do I say that the Romans had brought back people from their voyages to Northern Europe? Or that when the Vikings/Normans were in Southern Italy, they might have planted some seed of red? Or do I just stand there smiling, know that these people really don’t realize that not all Italians are short, with dark wavy hair and little black moustaches?

What I decided to do was to become as much an American as I could, and as much of an Italian as I could—playing both ends to the limit. So, I took up football, basketball and baseball. I went to college, joined a fraternity, drank Bud, grew a nice red beard, and wore preppy-looking clothes. On the other hand, I learned to speak Italian-not dialect, studied my roots in Italy, and traveled extensively there – while visiting my parents’ hometown. I wore a cornetto around my neck, ate as much Italian food as pastable, and in the afternoons, I drank espresso—not cappuccino. I celebrated when Italy won the World Cup, and of course, read Il Progresso and Attenzione. What fun! Can you imagine the faces of people in the subway when they saw this six-foot tall, red bearded man wearing a Harris Tweed jacket and oxford shoes, reading Il Progresso on his way to work in Manhattan? Even better is walking into a salumeria in Bensonhurst, ordering in Italian and having every head turn and look at me. Invariably, some woman will say, “You said that just like an Italian!” well, that’s because I am Italian- more precisely and Italian-American, with the emphasis on both.

Of course this DNA challenge of mine makes me even strange in Italy. My first visit there to visit my 95 year grandmother, two aunts, an uncle and a multitude of cousins produced some quizzical looks, as if to say “where did he come from?” The first day in my ancestral town was greeted with many wide eyed looks. This was, I should add, 1968 and these small southern Italian villages were just emerging from an 18 century mentality. I will never forget the first “passiggiata” that my Uncle took me on, through the one street in the village. Of course, all 2500 inhabitants of the village knew that there was an American “straniero” in the town with his wife, so when we walked, all the old and mid-aged ladies leaned over their balconies to get a look at this American and his wife. Keep in mind that this was 1968 and I was a hippie as were many college students in the States. My hair and beard were long and bright red, I was fair skinned and I was wearing the obligatory sandals of the time. My wife was about 26 years old with straight brown hair.

My uncle, being much more sophisticated than most of the townsfolk (After all he was an accountant in Naples) figured he would play with the gawking ladies and he walked ahead of us shouting in the beautiful dialect of the region, “ mo venu gesu crist con Maria”, translated “Jesus is coming, with Maria”. Jesus in most of the images in Italy is depicted as fair-haired with light skin, not a Semite, as he obviously was. Well, these old ladies thought they were witnessing the second coming. They started feverishly crossing themselves, saying “oh my God it looks like Jesus Christ”. Great fun, but not even in my ancestral village did I fit in.

Perhaps it would have been more desirable if my parents had never left Italy, and I would have been an Italian-Italian. But no—for what was the shame of my childhood (being an Italian with red hair), has became the divertimento of my adulthood; a topic of conversation, an anomaly, a man with two cultures. Quest’e la mia esperienza personale. Viva gli Italiani. Viva gli Italiani-Americani. Pero sopratutto, viva gli Italiani-Americani con capelli rossi.

Non Parlo Italiano

Robert, thanks for your kind words about my essay. I read your posting with delight. My family has a passel of red-heads...from the matrilineal Tuscan side of my lineage. My maternal nonna, my mother, and two of my brothers all had/have bright red hair---and they are all full-blooded Italian. As you so astutely noted, it might have been a result of the Normans, but nonetheless, it is now, also Italian. I know red-headed Sicilian-Americans, too. In what part of southern Italy were your parents born?

ainardi's picture


What a wonderful series!! I identify so much although I am the next generation , third.

It truly is a aching feeling to look to our past to try to find out ourselves.

Non Parlo Italiano

Crystal, so sorry it has taken me so very long to respond to your comments about my essay, "Non Parlo Italiano". I'm glad you enjoyed it. I agree wholeheartedly with your sentiment about the importance of looking to our pasts to find out more about ourselves.