The Italian American Heritage and Culture Month is a tribute to the impact and the achievements of Italian immigrants and their descendants to the culture of the United States of America.
Established in 1989 and celebrated in October, the Italian American Heritage and Culture Month features events, readings, and movie screenings; its deepest meaning, however, mostly lies in recognizing and paying homage the influence of Italian Americans in shaping yesterday and today’s society.
Whether you have Italian ancestries or you’re just curious to know more about Italian Americans’ values and customs, and how they shaped culture in the U.S., here are some suggestions for you.
Facts and Numbers: Italian Americans, and the Italian Language, in the US
As per 2020, 16,549,022 Italian Americans —i.e., people reporting Italian ancestry— were living in the U.S., totaling 5.1% of the population.
Between 1880 and 1914 alone, 4 million Italians arrived in the United States; overall, between 1820 and the beginning of the current century, 5.5 million Italians immigrated to the U.S, mostly establishing in the Northeast and in Midwestern bigger cities.
Many of them, especially during the Great Arrival (1880-1914) spoke little to no Italian, but rather their regional dialect. And in years after their arrival, for many of them getting rid of anything Italian, language included, was perceived as the only way to climb the social ladder.
This partly explains why, out of over 16 million Americans of Italian descent, only around 700,000 people in the United States speak Italian at home. With time, however, Italian Americans —and the American society in general— have come to better appreciate their heritage.
Movies about Italian immigration in the US
To have a glimpse on why so many Italians left their country from 1880s through 1920s, and the sheer poverty they often were escaping, you might want to watch a few movies.
Awards winning Nuovomondo, a 2006 film from Emanuele Crialese, presents a dramatic, almost dreamlike yet realistic, metaphorical immigration story.
A Sicilian family sells all its possession to reach the New World (Nuovo Mondo, indeed), a land of giant produce, enormous chickens, and rivers of milk, as America was imagined from Europe; after a long and challenging trip they make landfall in Ellis Island, the Golden Door, where they undergo extensive physical and psychological examinations, and where their destiny is marked.
One of the most notable Italian Americans of all times, Martin Scorsese, exposes some aspects of the Italian Americans environment in Mean Streets (1973), set in New York Little Italy, and even more in Italianamerican, a 1974 documentary featuring Scorsese’s own parents.
The Scorseses talk about their childhood in New York City discussing family, religion, values, and their Italian ancestors.
While talking, Scorsese’s mom, Catherine, shows her cooking skills by making meatballs. You can read her recipe at the end of the movie, and why not? You might even try it out.
Break out Your Italian (American) Recipes
In addition to reproducing Ms. Scorsese’s meatballs, another way to honor the Italian American heritage is trying to understand where Italian Americans’ food, recipes, and culinary traditions come from.
Some of the specialties conventionally labeled as Italian American are not so Italian as much as they’re American. The cucina italo-americana is all about memories, family stories, traditional recipes made of ingredients that were often not available —or not affordable— in America.
And so, immigrants simply bent traditional recipes. The most iconic Italian American dish is probably spaghetti with meatballs. While meatballs and spaghetti are very common throughout Italy, Italians hardly have them together (with only a few regional exceptions), and definitely meatballs do not come in that size.
In the U.S spaghetti and canned tomatoes were the basis of the first immigrants’ diets, and meat was abundant. And here comes spaghetti with meatballs.
Years later, when Italian (American) restaurants started to pop everywhere, recipes were, instead, adapted to the native taste (as any pasta dish with chicken can testify,) as it virtually happened to any “imported” cuisine.
Last, but not least: Go Above and Beyond Labels
Italian Americans have been the target of many stereotypes. Their values and traditions have at times been ridiculed and/or overstated.
In reality, Italian Americans have remarkably contributed to the development of the U.S. society in every cultural and scientific sector. In addition to sports, food scene, and cinema, the descendants of those first immigrants have left a mark in science —think, Anthony Fauci, son of Italians from Brooklyn— literature —Don DeLillo, John Fante— and politics —Nancy Pelosi, Mike Pompeo, or back in time, Fiorello LaGuardia, just to name a few.
Some Italians were the firsts in the field of achievement, as Anthony Celebrezze, the first non-native to be appointed to the U.S Cabinet; or the already mentioned Pelosi, the first woman to become Speaker of the United States House of Representatives.
For a long time, Italian Americans have been probably overrepresented in some fields (crime included) and their contribution has been underestimated in some others.
But it’s easy to see how they are come il prezzemolo, “like parsley,” as one would say in Italy, meaning that they are everywhere —and we’re back to food. Buon mese del patrimonio e della cultura italo-americani!
By Claudia Quesito