On Growing Up Italian American, and Embracing Your Superpower

As a nation, we’ve grown weary of the violence and chaos that often is a front page headline – just recently we can point to Sutherland Springs, massive carnage in Las Vegas, and another terror attack in New York City.

I’ve been immersed, in the last couple of years, in what author/podcaster Tim Ferriss coined the Low Information Diet – erasing the influence of national/ local news and other distractions from my life.

It’s not that I don’t want to stay informed – some believe it’s without question your duty as a citizen – but I would prefer to accelerate the aging process with child like wonder and curiosity rather than see my world with a perpetual black cloud over it. To believe the world may be a wonderful place – as it once was.

For those of us who want to turn back the clock, retreat into a previous time – well, if you’re an aficionado of the news headlines, you could hardly be blamed. I consider myself one of those people – for good reason.

Not so many years ago, my life was filled with the influence of Italian immigrants. Calabrian and Sicilian immigrants, to be precise. Men and women with grit, determination, and a love of their adopted country.

There’s been a lot of attention paid by the aforementioned news machine concerning the plight of the modern immigrant. However, it’s not just the current administration in the White House that has issue with select groups of immigrants. As columnist Rosario Iaconis stated:

February 19 marks the anniversary of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s infamous Executive Order 9066. With the nation at war against the Axis powers — and still reeling from Pearl Harbor — FDR promulgated a directive that branded 600,000 Americans of Italian descent “enemy aliens.” Over 10,000 on the West Coast were forced to relocate, and more than 250 were placed in internment camps in Georgia, Maryland, Montana, Oklahoma, Tennessee and Texas.

In an earlier historical misstep, president Calvin Coolidge stated he thought Italians to be “an inferior race,” notably southern Italians.

An unfortunate series of events. If only presidents past and present could embrace the power of the immigrant. There are so many in my own life that should be deemed worthy of a spotlight for what truly makes this country great. I’d like to introduce you to some.

IMG_3970Some of you have already read, on more than one occasion, a series of posts about my grandfather’s brother Dominick. He was a hero to his adopted country of America, being killed in action in World War II, right before the end of the war. His loss left a gaping chasm in my family at the time, and he is still a hero to us today.

My cousin and I recently had crafted a military banner in his name, with his image flying high and proud in the city where I live, where he lived as a proud American citizen. As long as our family is here, we will never forget.

But Dominick was far from the only member of his family that emigrated to our shores. His brothers came here as well, and they were special in their own right.

My grandfather himself (Sebastian, pictured below to the right) has long been a featured topic on this site, with several articles that remain my favorites. He was one of the toughest guys I knew, and this was just not my opinion – the other men he knew, whether family or friend, verified his relentless nature and resolve.

The image I love – one that stays with me like it happened yesterday – is of him during one of our tragically brutal winters, shoveling snow with a steel handled shovel and no gloves to protect his hands. Dressed in an overcoat and fedora.

Over coffee on a recent Sunday morning, my cousin Mary told me a story that I didn’t know about my grandfather – or “Pop,” as I would call him. My cousin said that a fire had started in their first floor flat, in a living room area that was quickly getting out of control. Like, within minutes, all was going to be lost.

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Instead of the fire department coming to the rescue, “your grandfather came flying down the stairs (my grandparents lived on the second floor) and put the fire out – with his bare hands.” She added, almost as an afterthought, “I think he used a couple of small, wet towels. Or a blanket or something.”When I had thought I heard it all about my grandfather, I sat there holding my coffee cup, my mouth agape, mind in disbelief.

“Ho. Lee. Shit.” was all that I could say.

IMG_3975Another brother was Antonio, who I referred to as “Uncle Tony.” As tough as my grandfather was, Antonio’s brute strength stood out. Capable of tilling huge gardens and planting trees and bushes with the most rudimentary tools, he was as powerful a man as they come. He personified his Calabrian roots with his farming ability, and was responsible, along with his brothers, for planting much of the food that we would later eat.

He would make a point, after his work was over, to rough house with whichever one of us kids was within striking distance. If he said, in his broken English, “come over and give me a kiss,” you did. And got your youthful face scraped by a bearded stubble that felt made of steel.

Mariano, who to us kids was “Uncle Mario,” always captivated with his infectious smile and hearty laugh. If my grandfather was the quiet one – which he was – Uncle Mario was the talker, coming to my grandparents’ house for frequent visits, sitting at the kitchen table for an hour or more to dole out life wisdom and stories from the old country.img_3366

He was the man who taught you how to correctly prune the grape vines in the yard. And when the grapes were down, he’d make a homemade wine that after a glass or two would put you on the couch.

Although he was polite, always well dressed, and soft spoken, turns out Mario was a warrior in a previous life. Fighting for the Italian army in World War II (he didn’t make his trip to America until the early ’60s), he wound up becoming a POW during the war – later escaping and trekking hundreds of miles to freedom.

Hearing that was another “holy shit moment.”

And that’s just the men. The ladies in our family from that generation were even more influential. Working outside the home, but creating the ultimate space for us to grow up in – spending much time making sure the atmosphere was filled with love, warmth, security, and a sense of community. It was an amazing time.

“God, it’s such a drag when you’re living in the past” – Tom Petty

Italian American Podcast co-founder Dolores Alfieri said something while interviewing a guest that immediately hit me like a ton of bricks, stating her feeling about being raised Italian American:  “It was almost like I had a superpower.” 

As much as I would have to disagree with the Tom Petty lyric quoted above (I get a kick out of frequently visiting the past), I agree with Dolores without hesitation. It was a super power. You were safe, secure, surrounded by strength, integrity, passion, and values. You were loved.

It was a feeling, at times, of invincibility. You were bulletproof.

You can tell me that’s in the past. Those days are over.

For the most part, you would be right. The past is gone.

But those super powers remain. Ready to be summoned at any time, to serve you and those around you as well. It may not be like mine – being raised as an Italian American by a family whose best interests were your interests – but you have your own. You just have to call on it. Or discover it, if you have not yet.

In this time of violence, vitriol, and what some may call “a graceless age” – it would be great for all to believe – friends, family, children, the people that mean the most to you.

It’s especially for my kids. I want my son and daughter to know they have it as well. Although they’re both at an age where self doubt can creep in like an insidious force, they can call on their superpower. Like Superman type strength, or Flash like speed, they have it.

It’s the Sicilian in them, the Calabrian. It courses through their veins.

You can, in the finest moments, feel invincible. Unstoppable.

I know you can because I still feel it myself. In my heart, mind, and best of all, my memory of the past.

Like this article? Please share on your favorite social media channel. Or better yet… read some more, with the related content below. What’s your “superpower?” Let everyone know by leaving a comment!

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2 thoughts on “On Growing Up Italian American, and Embracing Your Superpower

  1. Amen to all of it. We’re from Calabria, too, and we have the same stories of strength, fortification, determination, and loyalty. I wouldn’t want to change a single thing about my heritage. I love your family stories, Joe.

    BTW, Theodore Roosevelt had similar feelings about Italians. When the largest lynching in America occurred—and it was Italians who were killed—Roosevelt said this to his sister:

    “Monday we dined at the Camerons; various dago diplomats were present, all much wrought up by the lynching of the Italians in New Orleans. Personally I think it rather a good thing, and said so.”

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