Italian American Folklore

8 04 2010

Coming from a family that immigrated to this country, assimilation has always been a subject on my mind. For those who live or grow up in ethnic enclaves, the question always arises as to how one becomes integrally connected to the societal whole. This is not a question of “if”, but a question of “when” and “how”. Perhaps most interestingly to me, I have always wondered what the process was of making a specific ethnic group, such as the Italians, into your basic run-of-the-mill WASP’s that have last names ending in vowels.

Frances Malpezzi and William Clements wrote a book entitled Italian American Folklore: Proverbs, Songs, Games, Folktales, Foodways, Superstitions, Folk Remedies, and More. The title pretty much sums up the book. In a lot of ways, the book is unique in that it shows “Old World” traditions in the state of transition and decline. How does a culture that has existed unchanged for centuries alter itself when faced with a new language, a new political order, and a new societal ethos? And do such conditions in the end lead to the inevitable decline of that cultural identity?

The first point that the authors want to get across is the obvious point that not all Italian immigration was the same. The differences between parts of Italy, and even specific regions, could be quite stark. One must remember that when this immigration began in the late 19th century, Italy had not been a unified country for very long. Most immigrants perhaps had not traveled outside of a ten mile radius from the place they were born. People had to reconstitute some form of community in a country thousands of miles away from their homeland.

Predictably, at first they would only associate with people from the same village and region. The authors even document how intermarriage between people from other regions of Italy was frowned upon. It was only after a couple of generations that a distinctly “Italian American” identity began to form. In this process, certain traditions, mannerisms, and beliefs survived, while some gave way to more dominant forms. And of course, American ways began to penetrate and mingle with the ways brought over from the “Old Country”.

In terms of “folk supernaturalism”, Italian American beliefs often went against the grain of even the Catholic Church in the United States. There were of course the myriad of beliefs regarding actions and objects that would ease the pains of the cycle of life and death. Babies often had their ears pierced very young so that they could wear gold earrings: something that would ensure good fortune. On the way home from a funeral, one should not go straight home, but should go to a store or other public place so that the contamination of death would not enter the home.

The flavor of Catholicism of the immigrants was largely divergent from the hyper-clericalized faith of the mostly Irish church in this country. Such festivals as the building of the giglio (seen above) in honor of St. Paulinus of Nola that still continues in Brooklyn were foreign to the interiorized, private religion that even Catholics were used to. Commenting on one a patronal procession, a Protestant clergyman wrote:

Thousands of persons are often in line, curious and sometimes vulgar expressions of religious emotion occur, and large offerings are often made to the saints.

Another Protestant clergyman recorded his experience with certain Italian Americans in regards to their church-going and religiosity. When asked if she went to Mass on Easter, one woman replied:

“I go to church on St. Anthony’s Day. He is my favorite saint and is more powerful than Christ, for he has performed more miracles than he. Besides, he is so handsome.” The most amusing part of it all is that if a saint by misfortune does not grant the request of his follower, the latter does not hesitate to curse him as a good-for-nothing.

This does not even include all of the other beliefs such as belief in mal ‘occhio or the evil eye, which seems to be very common folk belief amongst Italians from most regions.

Of course, this kind of Catholicism did not receive a warm reception from the predominantly Irish and German American clergy, and no love was lost on the part of the Italian faithful either. For many years, Italian American Catholics were as anti-clerical as many Latin American Catholics are today. With increased education, assimilation, and loss of ancestral custom, these people were brought more and more into the heart of the American polity and Church. In most places, such beliefs and practices have long passed into the status of distant family memory.

As I pointed out at the beginning of this short essay, all of this was inevitable. Nevertheless, there are still small pockets of Italian folkways and beliefs that may continue into the distant future. The first church I visited on my recent trip to the St. Joseph’s altars here in New Orleans had a small group of Italian grandmothers sitting in front of it, chatting. Although they were very much assimilated, speaking in a characteristic New Orleans accent, it was clear that the ways of their ancestral Sicily still formed part of their identity and world view. I have a bunch of lucky St. Joseph fava beans on my own private altar to prove it.


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22 responses

14 06 2010
Robert

I’m Italian-American and as raised in the Italian “folk-brand” of Catholicism. It definitely is very different from the kind practiced by Northern Europeans, particularly the Irish, French, and Germans. There is a real warmth and fervor of faith in Italian (and any type of ethnic religion) that one is hard pressed to find among the mainstream, garden variety type of American church goers. To begin with there is far less emphasis on following rules and regulations in order to get to Heaven and more emphasis on experiencing Gods love and mercy right here on Earth (Although their certainly is a more mystical, spiritual component to the Italian/ethnic Church then one finds in America and other Nordic countries.
In trying to recapture the Italian devotional ism of my youth, I mad the big mistake of getting hooked up the with traditional Latin mass type of Catholics. The old Latin liturgy was really beautiful, but the way the average “trad” practiced their faith seemed more similar to old fashioned, puritanical Calvinism then to the warm piety and faith of the Italian and other ethnic Catholics. I’m glad that I’ve recently discovered a good Italian parish in my area to go to so I’m no longer adrift in the sea of secular, liberal Christianity on one hand and the fundamentalist, hard liners on the other.

BTW, Young Fogey, I do agree with you that Greek Orthodoxy is very similar in its devotion and piety to Italian Catholicism then the cardboard, convert brand of Orthodoxy that one finds in the “de-ethnicized” Orthodox parishes across the U.S. There is something very devout and authentic about the way an ethnic Christian worships God from the bottom of their hearts with a true love for Him, and not either a plastic formalism or an outright fear that you so often find in the other types of religious expressions I’ve mentioned.

God bless the Ethnics and keep those churches open at all cost. Once they go, the faith goes with it!

9 04 2010
Daniel

For many years I assumed that “good Italian Catholics” were regular churchgoers. The story about St. Anthony suggests to me that many Italian immigrants during that period were not all regular churchgoers. My dad had an ambivalent, at best, but mostly antithetical attitude toward the church. He basically never went to mass. I’m told that my uncle was the same way until he got married. The marriage changed everything. But the bottomline is that practically all memory of Italian folkways have been wiped clean from our family memory – except the ones that had church approval. I may be the only one ever tempted to banish my St. Anthony statue.

9 04 2010
Agostino

Vito,

You’re right, it’s not northeast Ohio. More specifically Dayton and Columbus.

I’ve only met two Italians from northeastern Ohio, and they’re both from Cleveland. One was an OC/IC priest who decided to “come out” as a drag queen last year (not making this up, which is the disturbing part). The other guy seems pretty cool, though, which has me curious to go up to Cleveland sometime and see what the community up there has to offer.

9 04 2010
Vito

Agostino, I wonder where in Ohio you moved to where “seeing every trace of culture, speech, and even mentality completely wiped away, just made me want to find out what could’ve gone so incredibly wrong.”? It certainly couldn’t have been Northeast Ohio.

9 04 2010
Vito

Here in the Youngstown Ohio and western Pennsylvania area the Italians had to defend themselves against the cross-burning Ku Klux Klan.

9 04 2010
The young fogey

Which goes to show you the government sucks.

9 04 2010
Vincent

I know Vito the list goes on and on. Did you ever read about the lychings of Italians in the south. 11 in one year in one state. Two of my mothers cousins disappeared in the south. Its not in our make up to claim victimhood for ourselves and I personally am proud of that. That’s why I did not go into it. Look up the story of senator Mario Biaggi and how he went after the souther gentelman who had a dead italian hagging in his garage and the people would come to look at him. This went on for years until Biaggi went after him. And that was in the 60s. Well we are as the man said the most popular ethinic group. But once again we stand on who we are and not on some victim status.

9 04 2010
Agostino

Vicent, I mostly agree with you here. Leaving Catholicism for Orthodoxy wouldn’t be my first choice, either, either in terms of tradition or in terms of theology. But at the same time, I’ve personally known people who have left Catholicism and gone to Wicca claiming similar reasons (when I first heard this, I didn’t get it, then I couldn’t help but laugh because the whole premise was so screwy). So I’d have to say that puts the whole Orthodoxy thing’s really not that bad by comparison.

8 04 2010
Vito

By the way–they were citizens.

8 04 2010
Vito

The local authorities came to confiscate my grandparents’ shortwave radio as my father was fighting the Japanese in the jungles of New Guinea.

8 04 2010
Agostino

How do the midwesterners think they’re Italian but aren’t?

I’ve been trying to figure that one out for years. They have Italian blood, they have last names ending in vowels. But culturally they’re no different from WASP’s. I could speculate on the causes all day, but I really don’t know the history of this part of the country well enough to give a straight answer.

8 04 2010
Vincent

There is plenty of natural traditionalism here in NY. You find it Amoung not only the Italians but amoung the Puerto Ricans and the Polish. I have always felt very comfortable around the old school Puerto Ricans. As for leaving the church for the Orthodox is is troubling for a number of reasons. There is more to tradition than just liturgy. There is the connection one feels with ones past. The ages of Catholicism that run through ones history and ones veins. Break communion with the church well maybe, but with ones family that stretches throughout the generations! That is a hard matter. And it is about what one believes. Orthodoxy is not Catholicism. It may be traditional but its a different tradition. Give me my rosary and image of the sacred heart, bury me amoung my fathers. That is traditon enough for me!

8 04 2010
The young fogey

Vincent: I know but the man I mentioned in my first comment learnt to talk in Brooklyn during WWII but is a first-language Italian-speaker; that was the language of the house! He also speaks perfect Brooklyn English.

The US government interned Italian citizens for only a few months in 1942; public outcry put a stop to that because of the big Italian population and its widespread acceptance by non-Italians, thanks to celebrities from Joe DiMaggio, whose father was harassed by the feds, to Frank Sinatra. (Italians were the No. 1 ethnic group in the WWII US armed forces.) My other friend, the one who became Orthodox, told me somebody in his family had his radio taken away. The government did that to Italians if they weren’t citizens; many immigrants never bothered to become citizens, hence the problems.

A lot of the putdowns of Hispanics you hear today are the same as putdowns of Italians 60-100 years ago.

I know Pope Benedict is doing a good job – I’ve been to a couple of the newly traditional churches near here – but if you want the natural traditionalism that Arturo writes about, you don’t have to look far among the Greeks to find it. Of course I understand your objection.

8 04 2010
Vincent

There are some very good reasons for the loss of language. If your family arrived prior to WW11 like mine they were taught not to speak the language of the enemy. My Father grew up in NYs Little Italy and even there they were discoraged from speaking Italian which is what my Grandparents spoke. The progressives were having their way and the school system would make American’s out of all these WOPs. My father also told me that they were not allowed to own a radio during the war and were told to write letters home (to Italy) supporting America. A long way from todays beautiful mosaic. You were to be American and so were your children. I love when the hispanics talk about predjudice when their kids can have bilingual education and their “heritage” is encouraged. Italians were also sent to interment camps and you had the earlier Palma raids and all that. Good reasons to teach your kids to be Americans. As for leaving the Church for Orthodoxy in order to recover the beauty that is missing in the current church, bad idea! There are still very traditional churchs in America I am lucky to live 5 blocks from one.

8 04 2010
ochlophobist

Arturo,

I was reminded of you last night, and this post is on theme.

I was at the Memorial Service of a 30 year old woman, my wife’s brother’s wife’s sister. She died on Monday. Funeral was today. Esther died due to complications from childbirth and a bad infection. The baby is fine. Esther was married to Luis, from Peru. Imagine the setting, a large convert Antiochian parish packed full like it was Pascha – half Orthodox (mostly converts, a few Greeks and Arabs), and half Peruvian-Americans.

After the short memorial service (shorter even than usual because it is Bright Week), we all walked up to the casket for the last kiss. These Peruvians are not the sort that would end up in Opus Dei, if you now what I mean. Quechua faces, hard but with such soft eyes. In line, it was mostly convert Orthodox who went up for the kiss at first. Careful and discreet kisses on the cold forehead. The man in front of me was the first of the Peruvians in line, 50+ years old, large mustache, tears running down his face. He kissed Esther on the lips, hard, and when I went to kiss her (on the forehead, I am what I am) his tears were still on her face.

When I got back to my place in the back of the nave, I noticed that most of the Peruvians kissed on the lips, and the converts on the forehead. As I watched the whole affair, I thought of the two groups present – both were sincerely grieving, but that was manifested via one group being present to the idea of what you do when death happens, and the other group being present to the living and to the dead.

8 04 2010
The young fogey

P.S. Before he landed with the Greeks he went to a whitebread convert parish and thought it was a creepy cult.

8 04 2010
The young fogey

BTW another Italian I know, not a New Yorker, found something of the traditional church that was taken away from him by converting to Greek Orthodoxy and going to a Greek immigrant church not a convert one and is very happy there.

8 04 2010
The young fogey

The language always disappears by the third generation unless you self-segregate like the Amish or Hasids. If you don’t need it, you don’t learn it! Among the Italians I know, the second generation is perfectly bilingual but the third generation knows only food words. About the same goes for the Russians I know.

One article on Italians puts it something like this: immigrants were Italians, the second generation Italian-Americans, the third generation American-Italians and the fourth generation Americans.

How do the midwesterners think they’re Italian but aren’t?

The legacy of faith, love, and family continues.

You know it’s only us that still live like this, family and faith; that’s why I love you Italians.

True.

8 04 2010
Vincent

My mother’s family also comes from Calabria Vito. What you said is true. I am Italian on both sides and most of my family was born in Italy. There is much that has faded interms of tradition but being Italian and seeing the world in that Italian way has never left us. In some strange way I feel it inside. It is a part of you that never dies. It is not until I am around non italians that I even realize it is there. Those values of faith, family and love are the strongest and I would say the most important elements that have survived my families assimulation. I reciently spent the day at a party with some Greek friends down the block. My friends father turned to me and said “you know its only us that still live like this, family and faith that’s why I love you Italians”. I am sure others still live the same way but it was nice to hear it.

8 04 2010
Vito

My parents came to the US in 1934–other family had come much earlier. They came from Calabria–one of the poorest regions. I grew up in a family led by parents of great religious faith. They continued their devotions based on their homeland (example: St. Francis of Paola) while at the same time adapting to the changes following Vaticn II (with some grumbling), but following my father’s retirement they attended daily morning mass. I feel so fortunate also to have had my grandmother living with us. In dialect she told us all about her life and she was a skilled storyteller. I could go on and on about the richness of our simple lives, but let me end by saying that many of the cultural aspects die with each succeeding generation; however, the legacy of faith, love, and family continue.

8 04 2010
Agostino

I think we should call Rue and get her in on this. Might be fun. But anyway. . .

“. . . basic run-of-the-mill WASP’s that have last names ending in vowels.”

LOL. Sounds like the epithet I use when describing midwestern so-called “Italians.”

An interesting side-note to the assimilation, though (and to me the saddest part of it), is that once they assimilate, they’re not even aware of it. For example, every midwestern-born “Italian” I’ve met isn’t even aware that they’re not even remotely culturally Italian, but they will actually try to defend their perceived italianita when you point it out to them; they’re that totally clueless. Now the assimilation’s not just so bad that it’s about lost folk practices or religiosity, and not even that parlano solamente inglese, but it’s to the point that they don’t even know how to cook; that should give you some context of what we’re dealing with here.

But I think that’s why assimilation’s also a subject that’s had my attention for several years, too. Having been born into a place (Queens) that has a large Italian community, then later moving to Ohio and seeing every trace of culture, speech, and even mentality completely wiped away, just made me want to find out what could’ve gone so incredibly wrong.

8 04 2010
The young fogey

The Italians I know came from greater Naples (Caserta) in the ’20s, settling in Brooklyn, and haven’t really practised the faith in 40 years (when they left Brooklyn), even in a homey devotional way; church is for family/rites of passage and that’s it. But they’d never convert to anything else. The culture is still very much there. The dad is second-generation, Italian-speaking and a great cook. But of course it’s weaker in the kids and the grandkids.

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