Dropped Vowels and Spaghetti on the Beach A History of the DeJoy Family

For most of my life I have looked to my father’s side of the family for my cultural identity. Whereas my mother’s side was a mishmash of German, Irish, Welsh, and English, my father’s side was predominantly Italian and thus, much easier to connect with. According to Sleeter this aligns with a fairly common practice in which, “people of mixed European American backgrounds simplify their ethnic identity, selectively forgetting some ethnic roots."

However, upon looking at my family’s past, the abandonment of traditional cultural markers and practices cannot solely be attributed to an effort to simplify the narrative. Instead, one also finds evidence of assimilation, both forced and voluntary, as well as what can be viewed as a concerted effort to leave the past behind.

A look back at my mother's side of the family

Having arrived in America on the eve of WWI, my great-grandfather is said to have learned to erase his accent and German identity so that he could avoid the anti-German attitudes of the time and gain employment.

Anti-German propaganda portrayed Germans as warlike brutes. Not exactly the image that many new immigrants found helpful for gaining employment.

Perhaps my grandmother would still have developed a greater connection with her cultural heritage if she had more interaction with her parents. Unfortunately, as the family story has been told, her mother was placed into a mental institution when a neighbor mistook her grief for a recently deceased sister as mental illness. It was not until the deinstitutionalization of mental hospitals in the 1960s that she was released and my mother even learned that she was alive.

This perhaps, also points to another part of my socialization that has been passed down, the repression of uncomfortable aspects that may reflect poorly on the family. With her mother locked away, my grandmother was placed into the care of the Catholic Church from which she received an education and a home. By the time I met my grandmother, the only thing that seemed left from the past was a deep religious faith and an austerity that remained with her the rest of her life. While not as intense, both of these elements have been a part of my upbringing and culture as well.

This is likely the building where my grandmother grew up

For my grandfather, his story began in 1912 when his father abandoned his family. As I have been told, he started working on the streets of Seattle selling newspapers around age 4 and continued working until he reached retirement. Perhaps it was bitterness over his past or in intense drive to climb out of poverty and prove that he had “made it,” but my grandfather brought little cultural memory with him.

As a result, I can link many of my views on race and culture to my grandparents and their experiences. The historical and cultural amnesia that both of my grandparents seemed to embrace has at times left me feeling cultureless. As a result, I have had to adjust my thinking over the years in recognition of the fact that I am prone to ignoring or not being aware of the culture of others.

"As ethnic ancestry diminishes in importance, the concept of culture takes on increasingly simplified meanings." - Christine Sleeter

However, while learning about backstage racism, I was struck by how little of this I experienced when interacting with my grandfather. Unlike the Archie Bunker stereotype of a generation stuck in the past, my grandfather demonstrated progressive racial attitudes and did not make the comments commonly associated with men of his generation. One document that I came across in my research that might shed some light on this was a photograph from his high school basketball team.

What struck me was how ethnically diverse the team was. While Seattle has a history of de facto segregation through restrictive covenants and discriminatory real estate practices, the presence of multiple African American and Japanese students in the photo suggests that the high school he attended was integrated. This, along with his presence on the lower rung of the socio-economic ladder during childhood, suggests that he may have spent more time in cooperation with people of color rather than in a position of dominance. As a result, my own socialization in regards to race is not based around a sense of superiority but, like many white teachers, a “shallow historical consciousness about race and racism and conceptions of culture.” (Sleeter, 2008, p.121)

Like many Italian immigrants, my ancestors on my father's side found their way to Mulberry street.

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.


Harcourt, Bernard E. (2011). Reducing mass incarceration: Lessons from the deinstitutionalization of mental hospitals in the 1960s. Ohio State Journal of Criminal Law, 9 (1), 53-88.

Howard, G. (2006). We can't teach what we don't know : White teachers, multiracial schools (2nd ed., Multicultural education series (New York, N.Y.)). New York: Teachers College Press.

Lareau, A. (2002). Invisible inequality: Social class and childbearing in black families and white families. American Sociological Review, 67(5), 747-776.

Picca, L.H., & Thompson-Miller R. (2015). Backstage Racism: Implications for Teaching. In Banks, J. A. and Banks, C.A. M. (Eds.). (2015). Multicultural education: Issues and perspectives, 9th. Edition (pp. 171-187). New YorkL Jossey-Bass.

Sleeter, C. (2008). Critical Family History, Identity, and Historical Memory. Educational Studies, 43(2), 114-124.

Timm, J. (1994). Hmong Values and American Education. Equity & Excellence in Education, 27(2), 36-44.


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