Gambino - From Blood of My Blood

Gambino - From Blood of My Blood - 208 Richard Combine My...

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Unformatted text preview: 208 Richard Combine My uncle came to the railroad station with me, though I begged him not to. His eyes were moist as he embraced me and, I suppose, he sensed my discomfort, my disillusionment with him. “I’m just a foolish old man," he said, “fumbling my way through , life. I wanted to show you, to tell you. . l . Well, no matter. You’re the last of my people I shall see, and so forgive me my tears . . . my inade— quacy. I‘ve always wanted to help others, you know, and I’m afraid I've never been much help.” . Then, as I was about to board the train, he grasped my arm. “Try not to hate him too much, Daniele,” he said. ”At one time many of us loved him. Surely he’s not abandoned God completely. I know God has not abandoned him.” . He seemed a pathetic, lonely, bewildered figure as I last saw him raising his hand in a final good—by gesture, and I was filled with a sud— den remorse for the estrangement I’d imposed upon us during the latter part of my visit. It was I, after all, who had forced him to tell me of my father, and because I was unwilling to accept the implications of my dis— covery, antagonistic to his attitude toward the man who becamevmy fa— ther, was it fair to release my antagonism upon him? , The trip back up north was long and depressing, and by the time I arrived in Trieste, I knew my period of atonement was over and I went to visit Madalena. Richard Gambino , (do From Blood ofMy Blood: The Dilemma of the Italian-Americans Although I tried to explain the basis of familial devotion, she seemed psychologically incapable of understanding such feelings. Thus the irony, an Americano of Sicilian ancestry explaining the ways of the not so distant past Mezzogiorno to an uncomprehending native Italian, even if a Northern Italian. Little wonder, then, that to most Americans the Chinese character is probably more scrutable than that of millions of _ their own countrymen who are Italian-Americans. _ This background of the ordine della firmi‘gh‘a helps illuminate the confused situation of Italian-Americans today. As all of us are con- ! fionted with the conflicts of our loyalty to a sovereign state vs. our cos— ll‘iclhard Combine 209 mopolitan aspirations, so the Italian-American has found himself In the dilemma of reconciling the psychological sovereignty of his people _ with the aspirations and demands of being American. -- j~ j To the immigrant generation of Italians, the task was clear. Hold to“ the sovereignty of the old ways and thereby seal out the threats of the s new “strangers,” the American society that surrounded them. The com-‘k‘ plicated customs and institutions of la famiglia had been marvelously at; fective in neutralizing the influence of a succession of aliens in the Mezzogiorno. In the old land, the people survived and developed their own identity over centuries not so much' by their periodic violent re;- 3 bellions, a futile approach because of the small size, exposed loca'ion',‘ and limited resources of Southern Italy. Instead they endured and built their culture by sealing out the influence of strangers. i The sealing medium was not military or even physical. It wasat once an antisocial mentality and a supremely social psychology, for it formed the very stuff of contadino society. It constituted the foundation and hidden steel beams of a society that historically had been denied the luxury of more accessible (and vulnerable) foundations or superstrw ture. This is a reason for the contadino’s famous pride. L’ordine della _' famiglia was a system of social attitudes, values, and customs that had proven to be impenetrable to the sfmttamento (exploitation) of my stranieri, no matter how powerfill their weapons or clever their devices ' But like all defenses, this life style had exacted costs in the old land. These were the vexing social and economic problems that Italians still lump together under the terms problem: del Mezzogiomo or question: meridionale, meaning “the Southern problem.” The problem became catastrophic after the founding of the Italian nation in 1860—1870(And [. . .] millions of contadini were forced by the specter of starvation to immigrate to other lands. \ ' , Because it had worked for so long in the old land in providing them with stability, order, and security, the ordine della famiglia was held to tenaciously by the immigrants in the new country. Thus theimhligants were able to achieve their twofold goals. One, they found bread and work. No matter how dismal and exploitive, it was better than them— vation they fled. And, two, they resisted the encroachment: of, la via nuova into their own lives. In their terms, their audacious‘advenmre has to be judged a success. But the price in the United States was Very high. It included isolation from the larger society. , . . The irnmigrants' children, the second generation, faced a challenge more difficult to overcome. They could not maintain the same degree of isolation. Indeed, they had to cope with Mexican institutions, first schools, then a variety of economic, military, and cultural environments. 210 Richard Gambino , I In so doing, what was a successful social strategy for their parents be— came a crisis of conflict for them. Circumstances split their personalities into conflicting halves. Despite parental attempts to shelter them from American culture, they attended the schools, learned the language, and confi'onted the culture. It was a rending confrontation. The parents of the typical second- generation child ridiculed American institutions and sought to nurture in him la via vecchia. The father nurtured in his children (sous espe- cially) a sense of mistrust and cynicism regarding the outside world. And the mother bound her children (not only daughters) to the home by making any aspirations to go beyond it seem somehow disloyal and shamefiil. Thus outward mobility was impeded. The great intrinsic diEerence between American and Southern Italian ways was experienced as an agonized dichotomy by the second generation in their youth. They lived twisted between two worlds, and the strain was extreme. The school, the media, and the employer taught them, implicitly and sometimes perhaps inadvertently, that Italian‘ways were inferior, while the immigrant community of their parents con- stantly sought to reinforce them. Immigrants used “American” as a word of reproach to their‘chil— dren. For example, take another incident from my childhood. Every Wednesday afternoon, I left RS. 142 early and went to the local parish church for religious instruction under New York State’s Released Time Program. Once I asked one of my religious teachers, an Italian—born mm, a politely phrased but skeptical question about the existence of hell. She flew into a rage, slapped my face, and called me a piccolo Amer- icana, a “little American.” Thus the process of acculturation for second— generation children was an agonizing aflair in which they had not only to ”adjust" to two worlds, but to compromise between their irreconcil— able demands. This was achieved by a sane path of least resistance. Most of the second generation accepted the old heritage of devo- tion to family and sought minimal involvement with the institutions of America. This meant going to school but remaining alienated from it. One then left school at a minimum age and got a job that was “secure” but made no troubling demands on one's personality, or the family life in which it was imbedded. ' Another part of the second generation's compromise was the rejec— _ tion of Italian ways which were not felt vital to the family code. They resisted learning higher Italian‘culture and becoming literate in the lan— guage, and were ill—equipped to teach them to the third generation. . Small numbers of the second generation carried the dual rebellion Undone cameme or the other. Some became highly “Americanized," giv- Ricli'ard Combine 211 ing their time,- energy, and loyalty to schools and companies and be— conung estranged from the clan The price they paid for siding with the . American culture in the culture—family conflict was an amorphous but strong sense of guilt and a chronic identity crisis not quite compensated for by the places won in middle-class society. At the other extreme, some rejected American culture totally in favor of lifelong immersion in the old ways, many which through time and circumstance virtually fos-' silized in their lifetimes, leav'mg them underdeveloped and forlorn. T he tortured compromise of the second—generation Italian-American left him permanently in lower—middle-class America. He remains in the minds of Americans a stereotype born of their half understanding of him and constantly reinforced by the media. Oliver Wendell Holmes said a page of history is worth a volume of logic. There are few serious studies lof Italian-Americans, particularly current ones. It is easy to see why this has left accounts of their past, their present, and their future expressed almost exclusively in the dubious logic of stereotypes. ‘ V In the popular image, the second-generation Italian-American is ' seen as a “good employee,” i.e., steady, reliable, but having little “initia- ' tive” or “dynamism.” He is a good “falnily man,” loyal to his wife, and a loving father vaguely yearning for his children to do better in their lifetimes, but not equipped to guide or push them up the social ladder. Thus, Americans glimpse the compromise solution of this generation': conflict. But the image remains superficial, devoid of depth or nuances. We come, thus, to the compound dilemma of third— and fourth— generation Italian—Americans, who are now mostly young adults and children with parents who are well into their middle age or older. The , difference between the problems of the second generation and those of the third is great—more a quantum jump than a continuity. ‘ Perhaps a glimpse at my own life will serve as an illustration. I was raised simultaneously by my immigrant grandparents and by my parents, who were second generation, notwithstanding my father’s boyhood in Italy. So I am at one time both second and third generation. I learned Italian and English from birth, but have lost the ability to speak Italian fluently. In this, my third-generation character has won out, although I remain of two generations, and thus perhaps have an advantage of dou- ble perspective. ‘ My grandfather had a little garden in the back yard of the building in which we all lived in Brooklyn. In two senses, it was a distinctly Si- cilian garden. First, it was the symbolic fulfillment of every contadino’s dream to own his own land. Second, what was grown in the garden was a far cry from the typical American garden. In our garden were plum tomatoes, squash, white grapes on an overhead vine, a prolific peach 212 Richard Combine ace, and a fig tree! As a child, I helped my grandfather tend the-fig tree. Because of the inhospitable climate of New York, every autumn the tree had to be carefully wrapped in layers of newspaper. These in turn were covered with waterproof linoleum and tarpaulin. The tree was topped with an inverted, galvanized bucket for final protection. But the figs it produced were well worth the trouble. Picked and washed by my own hand, they were as delicious as anything I have eaten since. And perhaps the difference between second- and third—generation Italian— Americans is that members of the younger group have not tasted those figs. What they inherit from their Italian background has become so dis— tant as to be not only devalued but quite unintelligible/to them. It has sheen abstracted, removing the possibility of their accepting it or re— belling against it in any satisfying way. I was struck by this recently- when one of my students came to my office to talk with me. Her problems are typical of those I have heard from Italian-American college students. Her parents are second-generation Americans. Her father is a fireman and her mother a housewife. Both want her to “get an education” and “do better.” Yet both constantly ex— press fears that education will “harm her morals.” She is told by her fa— ther to be proud of her Italian background, but her consciousness of being Italian is limited to the fact that her last name ends in a vowel. Al— though she loves her'parents and believes they love her, she has no irr— sight into their thoughts, feelings,.or values. She is confused by the conflicting signals given to her by them: “Get an education, but don’t change”; “go out into the larger world but don’t become part of it”; “grow, but remain within the image of the ‘Iiouse—plant’ Sicilian girl.” In short, maintain that difficult balance of conflicts which is the second- " generation’s life style. When the third-generation person achieves maturity, he finds him— self 1n a peculiar situation A member of one of the largest minority groups in the country, he feels isolated, with no affiliation with or afiin— ity for other Italian-Americans. This young person often wants and needs to go beyond the minimum security his parents sought in the world. In a word, 'he,is more ambitious. But he has not been given fam— ily or cultural guidance upon which this ambition can be defined and pursued. Ironically, this descendant of immigrants despised by the old WASP establishment embodies one of the latter's cherished myths. He rationalizes his identity crisis by attempting to see himself as purely American, a blank slate upon which his individual experiences in American culture will inscribe what are his personality and his destiny. But it is a myth that is untenable psychologically and sociologically. Although he usually is diligent and highly responsible, the other ele— - Americans, the kinds of work they have avoided, and the types 06 work ‘ Richard Gumbino 213 ments- needed for a powerful personality are paralyzed by his pervasive identity crisis. His ability for sustained action with autonomy. initiativq. self—confidence and assertiveness is undermined by his yearning for cats. integrity. In addition, the third generation’s view of itself as a group of atomistic individuals leaves it unorganized, isolated, difident, and dill: _ powerless m a society of power blocs. ' . i1 To Italian immigrants and their descendants today, work involves more ‘ than questions of economics. Work is regarded as moral training for the ' young. And among adults, it is regarded as a matter of pride. To work is to show evidence that one has become a man or a woman, a full mem. ’ her of the family. So strong is this ethic that it governs behavior quite , apart from considerations of monetary gain. There is a dialect saying! heard among the people of Red Hook that is indicative: Poucn' 3i,” perthé lagnusi? (Poor yes, but why lazy?). I have often since heard Italian.» Americans repeat the gist of the saying, even those who no longerreé p , member the old language or who never learned it. It is a moral wrong “ not to be productively occupied. Even the unemployed should find , something to do, something to care for. Like all Italians, the contadinb . enjoyed relaxation—the feeling of dolce far niente internationalized Ky _ ' , modern Italy’s jet set. But relaxation only in the context of first having pulled one ’5 weight, and preferably more. The sense of pride for something done by oneself and {be than}. family, whether building a brick wall, a small business, or making glint: meal, is essential to the Italian—American psychology. It cannot be m looked if we are to understand the kinds of work done by m in which they have not succeeded They have avoided work mid-I: product or result is abstracted, removed fitom the worker. m, I"; group, they have been conspicuously unsuccessful as COW m- utives, as “team men. ” They have sought a proximate relation Wen the individual and the end result of his labor, whether it’be m a ditch, running a restaurant, nursing a patient, playing a mlflicfl imam ment, filling a pharmaceutical prescription, or teaching achild. Inshort, the pride that comes from seeing and feeling one’s 1550113 and skills min" gled with some result. The Italian-American seeks to do something the result of which he can demonstrate to his family. Herein lies another important component of his pride. “With these bands I built that wall" “This 15 my restaurant. ” Etc. _ The rewards of modern corporate life are abstract, ambiguous, anonymous, transcending any one individual. Indeed it is because 214 Richard Gambino corporate life oflérs so few basic human satisfactions, and in fact de- mands service to the company to the exclusion of other personal satis- factions such as family life, that it compensates by offering great monetary rewards. The modern executive, as the sayings go, is “wedded to his company," and his “career is his hobby." Following their traditional values, Italian-Americans have sought work where the rewards are more palpably human. This involves their sense of dignity, and it has nothing to do with keeping 'one’s fingernails clean or even necessarily in “pride of craftsmanship.” In an America where leisure’and corporate status are prime Values, and where the pride of the craftsman is nostalgically remembered, the Italian-American val— ues instead his sheer labor first and-his individual share of it as much as his skills. There is satisfaction felt in swinging a longshoreman’s hook, or laying bricks, and feeling the relationship between the ache in one’s arms and back after a day’s work and the benefits from it to one’s family. In work as in all dimensions of life, pride among Italian—Americans is much more visceral and passionate than sublimated and abstract. The Italians replaced theiIrish as the target of anti—Catholic hatred, Americans neither knowing nor caring about the diflemnces in the Catholicism of the two ethnic groups, or that the American Catholic Church was in many regards unfriendly to the Italians. The ways of the Southern Italians were totally incomprehensible to Americans. In the twisted logic of bigotry, they were thus flagrantly “nu-American.” And Italians replaced all the earlier Immigrant groups as targets of resentment about the competition of cheap labor. The strain between Italians and the huge Know-Nothing sentiment in America came to a climax in a sensationally publicized series of inci- dents that took place in New Orleans in 1891. Italians were being re— cruited to labor on the farms of the American South. In particular, they worked in Mississippi and Louisiana during the sugar cane cutting season which Italians called la zuccamta after the Italian word for sugar, zucchero. Many of the immigrants settled in New Orleans, some tem— porarily, others permanently. Because the system of regionalism or companilismo was transplanted to the New World, Italians tended to settle among other Italians from the same regions of Italy. In New Or- leans, 93 per cent of the Italians were from Sicily. In a crime that remains unsolved to this day, New Orleans Police Superintendent David Hennessey was assassinated. Fueled by wild ru— mors that the clannish Sicilians belonged to a then mysterious secret criminal society called the Mafia, or, as it‘ was then more commonly \ v' Richard Gambino 215 called, the Black Hand, the city’s Sicilians were made scapegoats. Hun- dreds of them were arrested without cause They were treated to beat- ings in and out ofjail[.. .]. The die ms cast. From the early days of immigration fitom the - Mezzogiorno until today, the nativistic American mentality, born of 1g- norance and nurtured in malice, has offered Italian—Americans a bigoted choice of two identifies somewhat paralleling two imposed on blacks. Indeed, among the oldest epithets hurled against Italian-Americans Was “black guinea," or “black dago," etc. Italians were considered an inferior race, as were blacks. Racists insist that blacks must be either childlike, laughing, Uncle Tom figures or sullen, incorrigible, violent, knifeh wi...
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