My Muddled Heritage
I’m like that drab sort-a gray that occurs when two colors mix. I’m neither black nor white. I’m like this great flavor that’s been watered down with another ingredient so you’re not really sure exactly what the taste profile is. For years, I’ve struggled to understand my identity. My father is 100% Italian, and my mom is 100% Puerto Rican. Both cultures permeate strength — mentally, physically and through characteristics. And my sister and I land squarely in the middle of these two culture clashing. As a child growing up in this mixed home, I always felt the push/pull of both sides of the family – equally jockeying to dominate the other. Both grandmothers were the backbone of their families (physically and emotionally); both had family-centric cultures with plenty of cousins and extended families to love and love me in return; both shared a strong love for their native cultures; and both had wonderful cuisines that would envelop our home.
My Italian grandparents have interesting stories. My grandmother (or Nonna in Italian), was northern Italian and hailed from a small town (and I mean really small because I’ve actually been there) outside of Pisa called Vicopisano. Her parents were both Italian immigrants, and even though she was born in America in 1911, she had traveled by ship with her two older sisters to visit her grandmother in Vicopisano when she was just 2 years old. But World War One broke out, and forced her and his sisters to live with their grandmother in this small, poor town for seven years. That’s seven years without her parents, who went on to have plenty of kids in America while she lived in Italy. And that’s seven years of getting a fig or orange in her stocking for Christmas. That’s seven years of dipping bread into 1 egg yolk for breakfast, which she had to split with her sisters. That’s seven years of having to draw water from a well and walking the bucket up and down the hills of Vicopisano, while wearing shoes made of wood. When finally she could safely make the journey across the Atlantic back to America, she sobbed as they dragged her away from her grandmother – the only mother she really knew and as the story unfolded, the only mother she would ever truly love who loved her unconditionally. She came to this country as an American citizen but couldn’t speak or write in English. And although a citizen, she was forced to endure the hardships as so many before her, sailing into Ellis Island. When she entered the school system, she was called a Whop and a Dago and profusely made fun of because of her accent. Yet she was a citizen.
My Italian grandfather (or Nonno), was quite different from the woman he was destined to marry. His parents were immigrants from the island of Sicily, and he was born on American soil. He was without question an American with little Italian accent. In fact, I’m not sure he could speak Italian because I seldom heard him speak it. Let’s say he didn’t seem to speak it as fluently as my grandmother. His parents were poor but seeded in him a deep, religious faith to be grateful to God for everything. In his heart, he wanted to be a priest. It was his passion. But the Catholic Church in the 1920s was different than today. While attending school to become a priest, he was dismissed when the Church uncovered he was, in fact, a bastard. His parents had immigrated to America as a married couple but never actually got married because my great grandfather was legally married to someone else in Italy when he left. Talk about the sins of the father affecting the children… I also find it fascinating the Church was tremendously successful at tracking down my grandfather’s lineage – which is pretty good in 1920s –but couldn’t/wouldn’t piece together the decades of sexual abuse children sustained at the hands of priests who were no better than animals. After receiving the crushing blow, my Nonno opted to attend school to become a bookkeeper, which earned him a nice living. He went on to meet my grandmother and asked for her hand in marriage. My grandmother’s father and mother, however, said no because they considered my wonderful grandfather a dirty Sicilian. A man, who’s first love was Christ, was deemed not worthy to marry my grandmother. It boggles my mind. It seems times really haven’t changed that much when you think about it. But my grandparents went on to get married without her parents in attendance at the wedding. And my grandfather became devoted in service to a local Catholic Church in Richmond. In fact, he spent so much time at the church that my grandmother grew to hate and despise that church. Jealous much, Nonna? The Church was, after all, his first love.
Their story ends when my grandmother died unexpectedly on 12/31/2003 and my grandfather, who was very sick, died 1/1/2004 – different decade, less than 18 hours a part. That’s what real love looks like, folks – 67 years of enduring good and bad times but hanging in there to get the sweet fruit at the end.
That’s 50% of me.
The other 50% is just as complicated and fascinating. My Puerto Rican grandmother (or Nana as I called her), has such a complicated past that I could write a novel about it. I’ve always thought of her as our family’s strong matriarch yet that were something fragile about her. She was born in Puerto Rico, but her parents were immigrants from Spain. Although I’ve always considered her Puerto Rican, she had different physical characteristics than other Puerto Ricans I’ve met that I could never quite figure out. She had 1 failed marriage that resulted in two beautiful girls, whom she had to give up when she left the abusive man, who was also a local police man. Times were different in Puerto Rico in the 1920s and 30s. I don’t think they had a strong internal affairs department. She went on to meet my grandfather, whom she fell madly in love with. She gave him 3 children, including my mom. My Nana, who thankfully passed on her ability to cook amazing Puerto Rican food to my mom, couldn’t speak much English. In fact, she was very shy around new people because she was never confident about her skills to speak English. She didn’t say much, but when she spoke, they were always powerful words that spoke to your heart. She suffered from congestive heart failure and rheumatoid arthritis. I don’t think she weighed 100 lbs soaking wet. Nana was always calm, pure and genuine. I only saw her cry once. It’s when she told me the story of having to give up her two girls to save her own life.
My grandfather (or Papi) is another interesting figure with a checkered past. Although there’s some question about his lineage, based on my mother’s research through Ancestry.com, it looks like he may have been part Taino Indian (native to Puerto Rico) and part African American (a legacy from the slave trade back in the 1700/1800s). Like my grandmother, he too had been married and had 2 boys with his first wife. When they divorced, he took his boys, met my grandmother, and they got married. My grandfather was in the military, so he was transferred from base to base all across the world, taking his family with him. He served in 2 wars, including World War II and Korea. He died when I was only 10 years old, so I have little memories of him. But of the few I do have, he could make anything; he could fix anything; and he had a green thumb. This can also describe my mother to a tee. Genetics are strong and undeniable. He was a man of few words, but when he spoke, he commanded respect. I can still hear him telling me in a firm and gruff voice to “Opaga la luz!” when I left a room – translation – “Turn off the light.” He loved his beer and his cigarettes, which eventually caught up to him in the end. He was the dominate force in my mother’s house growing up, but when he died, my grandmother found her voice. She stepped into the role of matriarch like one steps into a new pair of comfortable shoes.
So am I more Italian? Or am I more Puerto Rican? How do I fill out those damn surveys and applications when it asks for my race? Am I Caucasian or Hispanic? And am I American? My mother preached to me growing up that not a drop of American blood courses through our veins. She took great pride that her offspring weren’t American.
You can see why I’ve lived in a confused hybrid state. As I get older, I reflect on my ancestry and find myself less focused on which nationality I am reflective of (Italian, Puerto Rican, American) and more focused on the pride I feel that I confidently know all three cultures are deep down in my core. The truth is some days, I look, feel and act more Italian; the next day, I look, feel and act more Puerto Rican, and the third day I find myself firmly entrenched in American cultures. Although I know I’m a half-breed (I say very lovingly), I’m so incredibly proud of my roots, the cultures they each have, the stories each has imparted to me over the years and the tradition each culture carries. I rejoice in my ability to seamlessly cook Nonna’s rigatoni or my mother’s rice and beans. I celebrate those moments when my Puerto Rican temper gets the best of me when I need to defend my family member’s honor. I secretly laugh when my Italian side comes through as I plot my silent revenge on someone who’s committed an atrocity against my family.
Although the cultures that burst out of me are different, the 1 commonality they share that I most revere is their love of family. Putting family first is the one constant tradition that my nationalities have taught me. It’s what my grandparents demonstrated over their lives, and it’s the one tradition I’ve seen come through strong with my sister, cousins and extended family. In the end, it doesn’t really matter if I’m more Italian, more Puerto Rican or more American. The truth is I’m all three in equal parts. And its more than just my blood. It’s my heritage. And I’d like to think I reflect the best of each culture.