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What does it mean to be Italian (Sicilian)

WHAT DOES IT MEAN TO BE ITALIAN (Sicilian)?

Recently, I sent an e-mail to all my family members who have been corresponding about our trip here to Sicily. I asked them to reply to the question above. Below are the responses I have recieved. People have found that this information is very helpful in explaining who we are to others, that it would be good if more people contributed. I invite others who are Italian (Sicilian) to contribute to this page. Send your thought to be at kpinsicily@yahoo.com.

 

Cousin Sam Fedele from Rochester wrote:

What does it mean to me to be Italian?  Off the top of my head, to be Italian is to be sensual.  It is to intimately taste the wine, the sauce, and the ripe olives, as well as the color of the sky, the curve of the coast, and the fragrance of the air, the skill of the sculptor, and the eye and soul of the painter.  It is to feel the pain of humanity, the innocence of a child, the loyalty of a dog.  It means to take care of your family first but to help anyone in need when you can.  It means to drive a hard bargain.  It means to belong to a gene pool influenced by some of the most interesting cultures of history.  It means being horny a lot.
 
Being Sicilian, I suppose, is why though we try to forgive, we can never forget.  We have a low tolerance for pain and a special passion for those who intentionally cause it.  We go the extra mile to do onto others who have done onto us.  We are compelled by nature to enforce the rules of fairness and are frustrated when we cannot.  We’re stubborn bastards.
 
There you go.  Better stop before I get into serious trouble.
 
Love,
- Sam

Cousin Janet Prinzivalli from California wrote:

Hi Kathy & Peter
I’ve been digging around in my memory banks to find my Italian/Sicilian roots and recollections. Thoughts pop up. Like when I was five years old and sitting on our mostly Italian speaking grandma’s lap while she fed me bites of her toast dipped in coffee. I savor the buttery, coffee flavors and the secondary crunch of toast. A feeling of warmth and love accompanies the memory. That toast was the best tasting ever.


Of course, we older cousins remember Aunt Stella’s ravioli, Aunt Jennie’s cookies and sitting around the dining room table, adults and kids, playing cards together. What fun and sense of togetherness. I have to agree with Sam that family and food seem to be the predominate associations. I remember growing up with that protection that Sam mentions. Only for the women of the family, it escalated sometimes to restrictive guarding and an assortment of do’s and don’ts such as responsibility for the caring of the family such as cooking and cleaning but not painting or gardening or staying out late. I am thankful though for my lessons in Italian womanhood and for the encouragement to seek the ideals our grandparents sought in this new land. I’m also happy to see some change and new freedoms.


Another memory pops up - the time that I was at the University of Rochester for a party on the invitation extended to my dental hygiene school. One of the fraternity members ask me if I was wearing a “guinea” cross. Hiding my anger at the slur, I only asked him what he meant. Somehow being Italian was suddenly second-class. Much later, our family visited my husband’s great uncle in Sicily in the coastal town of Three Fountains near their hometown of Campobello di Mazara. There, our children swam in the warm Mediterranean with their cousins, finding instant rapport without the necessity of a common language. In the evening after dinner, everyone got dressed and proceeded to the ‘passeggiata’. As we linked arms and walked with the crowd out for the evening stroll, Ron’s uncle motioned with his arm encompassing the crowd and said these people are your family.


Lastly, my children tell me how different our family is from others they know. How caring for each other and family ties are important to us. Living so far from the majority of you, I’m sometimes surprised myself with your caring and generosity. I shouldn’t be, and I thank you.
Love-
Jan P.

 

Cousin Joanne Barrett from California wrote:

Hi Kathy
I love hearing of your great adventure. I wish I could be there with you just to see what family we have left and hear stories of our family. To me being from an Italian family means Love caring and friendship. We are always there for each other. Maybe we don’t always show it but we all know the love is there. I am twice blessed as you know My Mother and Father were cousins.
Love, Joanne

 

Recently Peter and I had a Sunday dinner with a group of friends who live in Montedoro (Feb. 15). They were all between 30 and 60, and one of the people had lived in the U.S. for some time. There were some children but they didn't contribute. Here are their collective thoughts about what it means to be Sicilian.

  • People stick to their word. La parole é sagra (the word is blood).
  • People are generous
  • Sicilian men are good lovers.
  • Hospitable with big hearts
  • Stubborn and proud
  • Not greedy
  • Jealous
  • Outgoing for others and not necessarily for each other
  • The taste of food is important, lot of pride about how good the food is in Sicily- especially vegetables and fish. Buona forketta (good eating).
  • People enjoy making things by hand
  • There is a pride in taking care of the land that was passed down. They enjoy working the land. They pointed out that this is particularly true of Sicilians, and not necessary true of people from the North like Milanos.
  • Things here are changing because of progress
  • A dowry for daughters is important, and mothers make things by hand for them. They crochet blankets and bedspreads. They particularly like to make something special by hand for first born grandchildren. (When talking to some younger people before this about dowries, they shared that it wasn't important to them anymore and that they had asked their mothers not to make one for them).
  • Parents are possessive of their children - mothers of daughters and fathers of sons.
  • People are also possessive of their things and ideas.

 

Cousin John Falcone from Florida wrote:

I am second generation Italian- American. I grew up mostly isolated from an Italian- American community or extended family, though I do feel that I would not be who I am if it weren’t for the heritage of Italian culture and the heritage passed on by my genes. I am hesitant to lay claim to a culture and history solely based on a second generation or biological association. The culture is so intimidating that I feel pretentious trying to associate myself with it.
Did the generations that preceded me go back to ancient Rome? Is it possible that an ancestor of mine had to fend off the Saracens? Is my love of sculpture predisposed by the exposure of a many generations removed relative to the work of an Italian master? All these connections are possible but not probable.
One experience that is most probable is that some of my ancestors probably took refuge and lived in those caves Cousin Cathy visited and showed on her WEB site. That hardship could have fostered both strength and insecurity, two elements that govern me to this very day.
From Cathy and Peter’s journal it is clearly evident that our modern day Sicilian relatives know the joy of living and strive to protect and promote the cultural traditions that bring them joy. I feel as though I’ve let them down in some way by not striving enough to keep a connection to my Italian heritage. I will however live and die with the Italian national soccer team every four years at the World Cup as they strive to show the world the elegance of Italian soccer and damn those Brazilians, can’t they see the superiority of “Forza Azzurri” and just get out of the way.
I am passionate about living. It is not in me to adopt a stoic and reserved approach. My heritage prevents it. I guess it means being Italian.

 

My niece and Godchild Laura Mirabella Durgin from Plymouth, Massachusetts wrote:

What does it mean to be Italian- Oh it is beautiful to be Italian. I will never forget when my Irish husband first told his mother about me. Among other things he told her that I am Italian. “Oh you are going to LOVE the food”, she exclaimed.
Some will say it is all about the food. I would not argue Italian food is wonderful, rich sauces; savory vegetables; sausage, meatballs and the bread. The kitchen engulfed in the aroma of home made sauce simmering on the stove. The garlic; the cheeses; the pasta – oh what you would miss if you did not explore the Italian kitchen.
Growing up I did not recognize or appreciate the food as I do today. In grade school I was embarrassed to bring a meatball sandwich to lunch while my friends were eating peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. Back then cannolis did not measure up to chocolate chip cookies.

There is much more to it than the food however. Italian’s are amazing people. Being a third generation Italian in America and growing up in the suburbs I was not surrounded by my culture. But when I am in the North End of Boston I feel right at home. You can walk into the North End at 10 pm and the streets are filled with people. We are a social culture, with big families and constant gatherings. The lives of our family members are tightly woven together. And we do not hesitate to give our opinion about how we are each living our lives. What a bother to have so many people knowing your business and giving you their unsolicited advice regarding your life decisions. What a blessing to have a safety net of family and friends under you as you walk the tightrope of your life. The relationships are strong and the people passionate.
I love to listen to my mother tell stories of her life growing up and buying the home my sister and I grew up in. It needed so much work. With a family so big there was always someone who could help. There were uncles and cousins who were plumbers, electricians, and carpenters. The house was filled with family and friends all willing to contribute their talents. My husband and I are fixing up a home now, only we have to rely on the yellow pages and interview contractors who we will never see again. These are the challenges of moving away from my big family.

As I was preparing for my wedding I thought about taking on my husband’s Irish last name. How will anyone know that I am Italian? My whole life people have commented on my beautiful Italian last name- Mirabella. I chose to make it my middle name - I just couldn’t part with it. I joke now that I became Irish in a moment, just by saying “I do”.
I have a copy of an article I found in a newspaper years ago. It begins, “Alice K. (not her real initial) lies in bed wishing she were Italian.” The writer goes on to tell us that Alice believes that the Italians have a way of life that is really living. “American’s live to work and Italians work to live. How much better, Alice K. thinks, to be Italian, to believe in your bones that life is something you live each day not just once in a while on Saturday when you can make time.” And finally the author, Caroline Knapp, reveals that “Alice K longs to explode with emotion and fury and rage, like the Italians. All this would be different, Alice K. suspects, if she were Italian. She would have a fiercely passionate husband, and together they would have a fiercely passionate family of fiercely passionate children and they would sit there at the dinner table over huge bowls of pasta and scream at one another from dusk to dawn.”

My husband jokes about how it takes him 3 days to recover from trips to Upstate New York to visit my family. We stay up late; we talk a lot, eat a lot, laugh a lot and have a wonderful time. He has grown to appreciate, as I have, what it means to be Italian.

My sister Sandra Mirabella wrote:

Hi Kathy & Peter,
I' ll never forget when I was very young, someone asked me if I was Italian, I said
yes, my Father quickly said, Oh No Sandra you are Sicilian, don't ever forget that !
My Mother gave me the best gift of my life, she took me to Sicily where I experienced my true Sicilian culture. The feelings of Love and sharing of families I'd never meet before, how lucky to be born a Sicilian.
Growing up in a predominately Sicilian neighborhood really kept my roots alive.
All my friends were Italian/Sicilian and Catholic.


Our Home was always filled with family and friends. Saturday night my Aunts & Uncles would start arriving carrying there Cans & little money pouches fulled with Nichels, Dimes & Quarters, Cigars & Cigarettes. My Dad would set up his famous Poker table, they would eat Sausage at Midnight, coffee, coffee & more coffee, they played cards til 3 or 4 AM. I remember my Uncle Sam & Aunt Mary leaving and going to 4:00 AM Mass.


Sunday, I awoke to the smells of Sauce & Chicken Soup cooking......
Did my Mother ever sleep? She was still in the Kitchen where I saw her the night before. Family would stop-in all day eating my Mothers delicious food. Katie could feed an Army in minutes. My Mom shared her life Loving people.
While traveling through Sicily with my Mom and Sisters many people would ask us where are your men? I throught back when I was young my Father was very strict about going out beacause we were girls, no brothers to follow our every move. I'm so glad to be third generation Sicilian in America, where Women are equal to the Sicilian Man.
Being Sicilian means you'll never grow old, your culture keeps you young at heart.

Our Dancing, Singing, visiting our families all around the Country, for Weddings, Retirements and Funerals. Watching our new Sicilian Generation grow.
I Love Being Sicilian,
Sandra

 

 

My cousin Chris Huntoon wrote:

I have been thinking over Kathy's question of what it means to be Sicilian/Italian and it has taken me a while to really put my thoughts together on this.
I have been looking at the two sides of my family heritage, my Dad with his Italian/Sicilian ancestry and my Mom's with a Canadian, French, English and Irish background.
The main thing I have come to see is the closeness and commitment to the family as a whole.
As all of you know, Dad's father died at a very young age leaving Grandma with three young children to raise. And raise them she did, with help from her family. She was as committed to her family then as she was the day she passed away. Jennie‚s husband‚s family the Lupinetti‚s has stayed a part of her life and that of Dominic, Jane, Sally and Rick through all these years.

Growing up I spent a lot of time with family and cousins at various gatherings. Especially memorable is Aunt Jean's "farm." No matter when we showed up there someone else from the family was already there or showed up soon after. I never heard Aunt Jean complain about all the company or about all the sauce she had to make. ( Did she really put muskrat in her sauce?)

Being the oldest cousin of my generation I grew up playing with a lot of my Dad's cousins as well as my own. My Great Aunts and Uncles were not strangers to me, as they are to most of the people I know, they were just more family..
The other wonderful difference I see in my two families is food. There is nothing exciting about English or Canadian cooking. A scone is one thing but I'll take a cannoli any day.

My English/Irish husband adds that he always thought he should have taken my last name the day we were married.
Mostly because my family embraced him as one of their own, and the fact the name Jimmy Lupinetti just sounds so cool, and he would never have to wait for a table at the North Side Inn.
Take care,
Chris

My sister Angela Cerame wrote:

I have taken some time thinking about this question. It is many things to me, but first and foremost it is family and community. I felt as a young child the importance of our heritage from our parents, grandparents and aunts and uncles. Not that they encouraged us to speak the language (unfortunately, because now we are trying to learn it better), but that it was important we keep the Italian traditions and that always included family and friends. We lived in a prominently Italian neighborhood, with grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins all living walking distance from our homes. Our Community.
I recently was going through some of my things, looking for information I brought back from Italy when we went with my Mom in 1989. I found a paper I wrote for a college essay. It was a narrative essay and I wanted the reader to reminisce with me on how a typical Sunday was spend in our house when I was a child. It always started out with my father listening to the Italian Music hour on the radio. As we were all getting ready for church Mom would put the sauce on the stove to simmer. I could smell the tomato aroma throughout the house, and could hear the sound of the sauce bubbling along with “O Solo Mia” on the radio. After church we always went to the Italian bakery for fresh bread right out of the oven, and couldn’t wait to get home to add butter so in melted into the crevices of the dough. Almost before we could take off our coats from church there was someone knocking on our door to visit. My father would take out the bottle of anisette and yell ”Katie, put the coffee on”. Putting the coffee on, also meant bringing out her homemade cookies, my mother rolled and twisted with great care the day before. They sat around the table talking about the week’s events, from politics to distant relatives I never heard of. Sometimes the adults spoke Italian: We knew they did not want the children to know what they were saying. Another knock on the door and before you knew it there was a house full of people who all ended stayed for dinner. Our Family.

Family Holidays and Birthdays were a big part of our lives. Mom never would allow a birthday or holiday go by without some kind of celebration. We always had to have a birthday cake or special dinner. She was the happiest when there were people around. Family.

With Michael’s wedding coming soon, it reminds me of the many wedding celebrations in my life. The aunts busily making all the Italian cookies in preparations for the big event. You never left a wedding without Aunt Jenny filling a bag of cookies to take home. I especially remember all the Buffalo weddings of mom’s cousins, 1st, 2nd and 3rd generations (Saia and Tripi) all with ties to Sicily. The summer family picnics in Conseus. There were always gatherings of many generations of family members and friends (paesans).

I know I can go on and on about family and its importance, but this is starting to be more than what I think Kathy wanted. But I cannot end this without saying something about the Perfection and Control issues we are all constantly dealing with in our lives and some of the conflicts it has caused. We have all discussed it and have tried to analyze how we can put it all in perspective. After therapy and our visit to Italy with Mom I feel I understand where it comes from. We met cousins in Sicily we never knew and they had to control where and what we were to do.


Our perfectionism comes from us never doing it right in the eyes of our father, this was put on him and I am sure it was put on to his father. The sad thing for me is that I unfortunately have also put this on my children. I have tried to curtail some of this Sicilian characteristic and hope my children can learn from it and not let it control their lives.
Our children sometimes feel we are interfering or controlling, but we want to always be there for them. I hope we can give our children and their children the true understanding and importance of the Italian family community that was taught to us.


I feel the biggest gift Mom gave us is love and respect. She taught us that family should be first and foremost the most important thing in our lives. We should respect and love each other. She never just preached it, she showed us by her example. She was the gel that kept in contact with all her family. She taught us how to love and respect our fellow man and to treat people well. We are all “God’s children” she would say. She often reminded us to “ Do un to others what you want to do un to you”. It was important to help people in need. I want to believe that this came from her father and his Sicilian heritage. Those that knew him said he was a wonderful man. This has to mean a lot for Kathy to be living in the town he is from. I look forward to sharing this with Kathy, Peter, Carly, Gina and Steve in the next few weeks.

Serradifalco school children’s answer to what do you like about being Sicilian?

I was born here
Sicily has a lot of history
In Sicily there are a lot of historical monuments
It is a land of peace
We have a beautiful sea
It is a beautiful land
Sicily is a friendly region
There isn’t a lot of pollution
Sicilians like foreign people
Sicily is the best in the world
I like to be Sicilian because I like Sicilian Proverbs (he then went on to share one that loosely translated means that you should listen to your mother or you will have problems
I like Sicilian sport teams
I like the beautiful sun, sport, dancing, water and that my mother is a LoBue
I like the historic monuments and team sports
I like Sicily because it has beautiful weather and beautiful music.
I like historic monuments, music and dance
I like the music and dance.
I like the historic monuments, water, and the sea.
I like the sports and music.
I like the traditions
I like the Sicilian traditions.

Elaine Badolato, a friend of my sister Angela wrote:

Dear Kathy,
I hope you don't mind my intrusion and correspondence. I am a friend of Angela's and I have so enjoyed following your travels. Angela brought me to your house a few years ago. I remember the birthday celebration for your daughter: sauce on the stove and great conversation. Angela and Steve are home by now and I promised I would send some of my Italian reflections along. I can't wait to hear about Angela and Steve's travels with you. While my family is from northern Italy I'd like to share this with you. Growing up "Italian" was living in a two family house with your grandparents right on the other side of your bedroom door. It was having my grandmother raise me as my mother. My grandmother has been gone for 23 years and I still miss her. I remember loving those Saturday evenings when my parents and my aunts/uncles would go out and we got to stay at grandma's house. We got to open the cans of tomatoes and use the china cap to grind the tomatoes for the next day's sauce. It was burning the pin feathers off of the chicken and learning how to make meatballs. To this day, my dad is amazed that my meatballs taste exactly like my grandmother's! We'd got to stay up late and drink hot chocolate. Sundays after church were sauce on the stove and music on the radio. It was Sunday dinners with all of my cousins around and grandpa coming home after going to the "club" and bringing us all chocolate bars (we proudly sent him to heaven with a Hershey bar in his hand). Buying new school shoes was an annual event with my grandparents. Our neighborhood was full of other Italian families, small corner stores that we could walk to (and wouldn't dream of allowing our children to do so in this day and age). It was really knowing your neighbors and being part of a big extended family that could drop by at any given moment. My grandfather kept his driver's license into his late 70's and drove each one of us to school at one point or another. We'd joyfully sweat in the backseat as he cranked up the heat because he was so cold because of his circulation. It was and it is above all else: family. As I prepare for my second wedding in two short weeks there will be very little family missing. My fiancé (who is not Italian) is amazed at the closeness I have with my cousins. They are my family but more than than that, they are my friends. It's orange soda toasts in honor of our grandparents at each of our weddings. We always had orange soda with our Sunday spaghetti so we honor that tradition at our weddings. My aunt and uncle owned a beauty salon and we all had our first haircuts done by them. And while the salon is long closed, my aunt continues to do the first haircut for her grand nieces and nephews. Being Italian is meeting Angela through a business relationship and developing a good friendship. She is a wonderful woman and I am glad to know her and Steve. Growing up Italian and being Italian is passion. It's the excited tone in one's voice, the hands in motion and the intensity of feelings in everything you do. It's warmth and opening yourself and your home to others. There is always a place at the table. I wish you blessed and safe travels the rest of your time in Sicily. Elaine Badolato