While my history of my mother’s side of the family has been told from a largely deficit perspective, my father’s side was alive with tradition and pride in the past. Up until her death, my grandmother spoke with a strong Italian accent and was known to switch languages when the topics being discussed might not be suitable for younger ears. My father has also noted the central role that food, hospitality and gathering as a family has played across generations. A reverence for the past is also visible in the homes of the older family members as the walls are adorned with photos of past generations. These values have also been passed to me.
Memories of past generations can still be found in our homes. Pictured above, my grandparent's on their wedding day.
However, looking into the family history of my father’s side, there is still a tension between assimilation and maintaining the traditions of the old world. While many traditions have survived both sets of great-grandparents emigrating from Southern Italy in the 1880s, they also experienced the pressure to assimilate into the dominant society.
Early records of my family trying to gain a foothold in America
Sometime around the turn of the century my great grandfather, Salvatore DiGioia, changed his last name to DeJoy. Family history suggests that this was done intentionally in order to gain employment at a time when Italians were being excluded from many job opportunities. Many other members of my family took “American” sounding first names as well. Vinenza became Jenny and Philomena, my grandmother, became Minnie. Yet, while my relatives held picnics at the beach like many families in the 1950s, a pot of pasta could still be seen simmering on the barbecue next the hamburgers; a sign that the old world had not been completely abandoned.
My great-grandmother's home in Auburn, NY. This functioned as the family gathering place and was located in the center of what was then called "The Italian Colony."
After researching the experiences of my ancestors as immigrants, I was able to develop a greater understanding of immigrants in the 21st century. Like my grandparents, older generations must still balance the task of thriving within a new country with the potential for losing culture. However, despite these similarities, it is also clear that my family has entered a position of privilege that many immigrants and people of color do not currently enjoy. While not entirely an experience without struggle and hardship, my family had the opportunity to shed their ethnic identity with a change of a name. People of color have not always enjoyed the same luxury. By changing my last name to something that could go unnoticed amongst members of the dominant culture, I have benefited in my opportunities.
As Howard (2006) notes, the melting pot is not a realistic option as, “Blacks, Indians, Hispanics, and Asians, even when they wanted to assimilate, have always found the color of their skin to be a more powerful marker” (p. 57).
It should also be noted that the Vivenzio side of my family took a lesser approach to assimilation but still felt the need, like many immigrants, to prove their patriotism and status as “real Americans.” This can best be exhibited through the enlistment of all five of my great uncles in WWII. Unlike previous generations, I do not feel the need to prove my loyalty to the US or others in my community. Importantly, I am not considered a threat to the US due to my culture and the country in which my ancestors originated. Furthermore, other than the occasional stereotype in an Olive Garden commercial, there are very few instances in which my culture is minimized or mocked. I also do not have to encounter the visceral language and slurs that my ancestors or immigrants of today have had to endure. For the younger generation of my family, membership in Italian American organizations and even the Catholic Church is no longer seen as necessary for protection, support and a sense of belonging. Where newspaper articles of the early 1900s described my relatives living in “The Italian Colony,” I do not view my culture as under attack or feel the need to amongst other Italians. This is partly because I live within a community in which I am accepted as a member of the dominant culture.
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