I know, I know. You hear Italian-Americans and you think Capone and Corleone or The Situation and Snooki. And you are either fascinated with one or both of those lifestyles or couldn’t care less about either. And then you don’t think about them at all.
There’s so much more to Italian-Americans than that.
My heritage is rich and full. Like so many Italian-Americans, we aren’t at the head of a major crime syndicate, nor are we stars of a reality TV show. My family came from Italy because of the same social, political, and economical reasons most families came to America. My great-grandfather came here alone, like so many men did, to find work before sending for his family. Once he was settled in Vandergrift, Pennsylvania, he toiled until he had enough money to bring his wife and son over. And once they were here, he kept working. He worked in the mill and grew his family and continued to provide for them until he got sick and died at a terribly young age, causing my grandfather, the youngest, to quit school at fourteen to support his mother, himself, and six brothers and sisters. And he did it without complaint.
That’s the thing about Italians. It’s all about family. You do for family. No matter what.
So my grandfather became the head of his family at fourteen. And even when I was born, the aunts, uncles, nieces and nephews all still treated him like the head of the family. Because he had earned that respect.
My grandfather isn’t with us anymore, but my grandmother still is. She tells me stories of how the wages were different for Italians then, particularly the dark southern Italians like we are. She tells me how the Italians were beaten in the streets and mistreated by other nationalities who had already settled here. That’s why Italians formed their own communities and started their own clubs and shopped in their own stores. It was a matter of safety in numbers and protecting their own. I’m grateful that it’s a different world today.
My family is almost all still in the Western Pennsylvania area. I’m the only one who has had to leave — much like my ancestors, for economic reasons. We went where the jobs were. We now find ourselves in an area without Italian markets and even the closest church is twenty minutes away. We are once again the minority, but it’s not like before.
And I am grateful.
But I haven’t forgotten my roots.
And that’s what I try to breathe that life to in my writing. So no one else forgets, either.