This woman is unmistakable, she has been featured in several photos and films, her jewelry glistens against her olive skin. She can be found in the kitchen, yelling for her children to come in for dinner, as she hangs out the window of their apartment. She cares for her husband and their big family of which she is so proud. Her handsome boy and her beautiful girls. Her house is clean, her kids are respectful, and her husband brags about how his wife is an amazing cook. If she’s not in the kitchen, she is an elegant movie star, short black hair and olive skin with dark eyes. Gina Lollobrigida, Sophia Loren, Marisa Tomei, Asia Argento. Whether she is setting the table or the stage, she is always beautiful. She is the Italian woman and she is exactly what I wanted to be growing up.
I am second generation Sicilian who grew up with three things: God, Food, and Family. The three cornerstones of Italian culture, as most people will tell you. When people think of Italy, they brush it off as a western culture, like America. While that is largely true today, it was not always this easy. I grew up in a rich, tight-knit culture, my parents always made sure we knew right where our family had originated. Imagine my shock when I learned that not every child knew not only what country, but what town. Alia, province di Palermo, a Sicilia I practiced under my breath growing up in anticipation of when someone would ask me where I was from. I was taught to only say my mother’s family, as my father’s family is based in Corleone, the town made famous by Mario Puzo’s iconic novel The Godfather. A great piece of literature but rather hard to live down when your family can be traced back there.
Sicilians do not like most Italian people except other Sicilians, Sicily is a very rural society, so when the Italian north took control over the southern part of Italy, it made life significantly difficult. The north took a more industrial approach, which proved to be counterproductive to a community who made their living on mostly farmland. Soon, there were not a lot of jobs available, hence the wave of Italian immigrants in the 19th century to Ellis Island. With them, they brought their possessions, their children, and a new identity to figure out. For the Ellis Island generation, the best thing you could be was an American. An American meant opportunity. It meant school for your children. A better life overall. The mothers who brought their daughters along were already sure of their role in life. However, their daughters had a clean slate ahead of them: they got to be American girls! Being an American Girl did not come with a recipe book or a series of steps to take to improve their image.
In Elizabeth Ewen’s Immigrant Women in the Land of Dollars, the struggles of Italian immigrants were many. Not only was there a language barrier that they had to push through, the women were suddenly in a position where they had to work in order to feed others. They could not live off the crops they grew off the land, they had to cram their big families in those infamous low-income apartments. The women who stayed home were subjected to social workers barging through their doors and telling them how to raise their children. Workers telling them how to swaddle their babies, what to feed them, and what were the right medicines. “The tension between immigrant women and the representatives of industrial culture was not over the need to change external conditions of motherhood in an urban slum environment, but over how and what knowledge needed to be incorporated into the rhythm and patterns of daily life” (Ewen 139).
After living in a world in which the Italian women were trained to cook, clean, and care for her husband and in turn raise their daughters to do the same, coming to America meant that she was then thrown into the work-force, particularly those who stayed in New York. To keep their family in the shelter, both parents were required to work. Not always having a trade to go on as their husbands did, many immigrant women ended up being cooks, maids, and laundresses. Domestic tasks were all they knew, and so they chose to market their domestic skills accordingly.
After the first generation got settled, the number of Italian-American women who graduated college skyrocketed among immigrant communities. An education for women proved to be imperative, an education meant a pathway to a better life. Especially for the daughters of immigrants, it was understood that America was a different ball game. These women had more options now, they did not have to resign themselves to being wives and mothers, they had the opportunity for more advancement in their lives. According to “Gender and Precarious Labor in a Historical Perspective: Italian Women and Precarious Work between Fordism and Post-Fordism,” the Italian woman, along with her immigrant counterparts, were subject to ‘sex-divided labor’ (maids, cooks, nannies) and the practice of sexual discrimination being less likely to get hired because the process of maternity leave, this proved to be a huge problem for the incredibly fertile lifestyle of the Roman-Catholic families.
The American Woman spends her money on herself of her own accord. She lives with her. In Ewen’s book, daughters were expected to contribute to the household in any way that they could. The daughters born in America were used to being different from the other girls, having nothing to go on they looked to magazines and film stars like Marilyn Monroe to be the perfect American woman. Marilyn wore lipstick and perfume and had more aspirations than keeping a house and running a big family.
Given the new generations choice to not to have as many children if any at all, was making it so they did not have to do the same laborious work as their mothers did, which after all came of these families wanting to build a better life for themselves and their children. As for the generation after the Ellis Island days; the first generation of girls to be born in the late sixties in America. Women like my mother who were the children of immigrants, tasked with having to navigate their girlhood and their identity in a foreign land. At least their mothers had their past and their memories to hold on to, the children born with a clean slate. They faced pressure to succeed and to assimilate in both American and Italian cultures.
My mother, Patrizia, known as Patti, joked that it was “more exhausting” being an Italian mother rather than the white bread stereotypical mother in the commercials wearing a sweater set. “I never felt like an outsider per se, but when I was a little girl, you know, I did not speak English for a while, because who was going to teach me? Your grandparents barely knew it. They had enough English to get by but at home, it was their prerogative to speak Italian to all of us.” My mom sits in front of me; her hair is freshly done and she shows me her pink manicure. We are sitting in the kitchen in the house that she bought and made into a home with my father, Gino. It is almost impossible to tell that my mom struggled to speak English as a small child.
I was always proud of my mom for making sure she knew where we came from. “Not only did I make sure I knew where you guys came from – you know exactly where it is too!” she joked. Knowing our roots was always the quintessential way in our family. The school setting proved to be crucial for my mother’s generation. Once the language barrier had been conquered, they realized that they were in a situation that could educate them in American culture in a way that their parents could not. It was where they learned about how to dress, how to act, what to eat and what games to play. They were “exposed to American concepts of democracy and individualism” that their parents may have learned through their jobs but were ill-equipped with the baggage of the ways of the Old World still on their shoulders (Albright and Moore 37).
We knew what the environment in Sicily was like, and what it was like before my great aunt and my grandparents came here in the early sixties. The story of how my grandparents met in Sicily at City Hall planning to go to America but ended up going a bit later than either of them had planned. My mom and her sisters went in the summertime after they graduated from high school to see our family. We found it important to nod to the past, then look to the future. It was always so important to my mom that her kids marry Italian, should we choose to get married. My mom provides our cultural foundation around us, giving us the freedom to be more progressive. This type of environment gave us the freedom to carry the past in our pockets rather than on our backs; so long as it was with us we would do well in America.
“I always thought it was better to marry into our culture because it helps to have someone with a similar background as you. Sometimes it makes things easier to be with someone who knows what all that is like.” Mom’s implication is someone who knows to eat spaghetti with a spoon and a fork and knows to dip their finger in the holy water and give the sign of the cross the second they set foot in a church. The difference between the two of us and the generations before us is that we were taught to treat marriage as a choice. It stopped being a career option in my mom’s generation and it seems like a luxury to mine. By the time my mom was an adult she had the luxury to get married because she wanted to, something our older relatives just did not have at the time. In the span of the previous generation’s life the women who were raised as the first generation got to take matters into their own hands when it comes to men.
The land is going to be different for each generation, the women that grew up with my mom decided among themselves that they will not raise their sons to be helpless. The early seventies were when the cultural shift began, men in Italian families were suddenly expected to do more than find a job or trade. Their fathers and grandfathers were upstanding hardworking men but seem to find domestic tasks such as cooking their own dinner and doing their own laundry. As they fought for autonomy, they fought for equality. The women were changing and as a result, the men had to as well.
Mom tells me the story that she “married the boy next door”. I have been hearing this story my whole life. Corleone and Alia are about an hour apart. Growing up with my grandparents meant that sex and puberty were just not acknowledged. Italian culture is strongly Catholic, with the Vatican holding a significant presence in society. The concept of sex was for marriage and only for marriage if this rule was broken the girl was an automatic social outcast. Pushing heteronormative and abstinence-only ideals only made it so that the girl would fear her own body. Telling her repeatedly, that no good man would want her if she was not a virgin. This just painted her virginity as a dowry or a piece of collateral proving to be regressive. The sexual revolution that began in the late sixties and early seventies helped shape the American woman’s image as someone who had sex with a man before she was married and was praised for it no less.
“Tell me about the first time you got your period, how did Nonna handle that?” I asked.
“She didn’t,” my mother said flatly. “one of my friends from school told me. I thought she was lying imagine my shock, I was about ten, and then I just woke up today and there it was. My mom’s experience was common. Luckily she has two younger sisters whom she helped out once their time came. “The contingencies of biological necessity, interwoven with sexual taboos, appeared to create a shame-generated system of internalized rules and boundaries that governed everyday life inside and outside the home,” (Albright and Moore 23).
“Daddy said it was Eve’s fault for eating the apple,” I finally told her.
“That was the attitude,” my mom admits.
Sex was talked about discreetly in our house, general terms and quick answers to questions. My dad gets squeamish at the table when my sister and I talk openly about our periods and our significant others are never allowed to sleep over. “That’s something I never understood about these Americana families,” mom said to me. The thought of adult children acting like adults was something she could never wrap her head around: “there was no cutoff, you are in our house you abide by our rules, it didn’t matter how old you were.” My father will not even entertain the idea of his daughters moving out before we get married.
We each have our roles, this the type of culture that abides by the gender binary. Our father worries about my brother more so because he one day has to support a family while my sister and I have to raise one. “I always thought it was different. I just think a lot of parents these days, in general, try so hard to be their friend, not their parent. I never did that, nor did my mom, you girls could always talk to me. All my kids like to be around me, but that’s because most of you are grown up now. I was not your friend, I was your mother. It was my job to turn you into someone who could respect herself.”
As of 2000, a census done by Eloisa Betti states that women in America, particularly those of Italian ancestry, seek out their bachelor’s degree or higher at an increase of thirty-eight percent than their non-Italian peers. To be an American woman means to seek one’s own independence, to get the education that was never available to one’s mother. An education means a better job, in a world where a single-paycheck household is no longer an option, a better paying job was a must. After a generation of precarious work, the next generation could stand on her own two feet.
The Italian woman kept her husband happy and her many children fed with homecooked meals made from herbs she grew herself. The American woman relied on quick dinners, her pearls, and her two children with her white picket fence. The Italian-American woman got to pick whichever was good for her. She did not have to get married if she did not feel that was in her plan. If she did she could have as many children as she could afford, and finally, divorce was an option. While there is no shame in this society when a marriage breaks apart. In Italy, it was a different world, one just did not get divorced, harkening back to the religious beliefs that were so glued to the culture. Divorce was an abomination in the Catholic church it would make the wife a social pariah, there were no benefits for a divorced woman in Italy. The American woman could be on her third marriage and the most she would is a few looks.
In love, much like in their new country, there was yet another language barrier they had to break. Women were taught to show love by feeling and delivering acts of kindness to their spouses. The way men expressed their love for their family was to do what they could to ensure they had food on their table. “For some women, another source of marital conflict, is the incorporation of the double standard into the marriage relationship, contributing to the maintenance of a power imbalance in which women are required to take major responsibility for preserving the marriage bond and managing the risk of the husband’s sexual infidelity and emotional abandonment” (Albright and Moore 27).
My privilege in this world is that I am of a generation in which I get to pick and choose pieces from my culture I choose to keep in my life. I do not have to be the American Woman and I do not have to be the Italian woman either. I can make my family proud in ways all on my own. No one can tell me who to be, I can be the loving Italian mother and the fiercely independent American woman. My heritage does not suffer if I do not go by tradition, the Italian woman and the American woman is not a dichotomy, the Italian-American woman can do as she pleases and it took a long time to get her there.
Albright, Carol Bonomo, and Christine Palimidessi Moore. American Woman, Italian Style. Fordham University Press, 2011. eBook.
Betti, Eloisa. “Gender and Precarious Labor in a Historical Perspective: Italian Women and Precarious Work between Fordism and Post-Fordism.” International Labor and Working-Class History (2016): 64-83. document.
Ewen, Elizabeth. Immigrant Women in the Land of Dollars. New York City: Monthly Review Press, 1985. Book.
LoIacono, Patricia Guccione. My Mom Helped Frances LoIacono. 11 October 2017.