“I’m Italian now!” she said. And I wondered, what does that mean?

A common refrain among people who are seeking Italian citizenship through descent is something along the lines of “I’m Italian!” Their enthusiasm is genuine, this recognition serves as a connection to their “roots,” whatever that may mean, but as someone raised in an all Italian-American family never more than a generation removed from The Old Country, I couldn’t help but wonder: Does “Italian” even exist?

Here’s the thing: Although we all sat through the Renaissance lectures about painters, artists, that lecture on The Prince and the Medici family, that… wasn’t my history and it sure as shit wasn’t Italy. You’d still have to wait a few centuries to get to Italy. Italy was unified in 1861 and to about 99% of people being “Italian” was… meaningless. Italian nationalism in the 19th century was the vision of a really small group of people and not some monumental groundswell. This wasn’t the Berlin Wall tear down in 1989 — average people on the Italian peninsula (and surrounding islands like Sicily) weren’t exactly clamoring to be associated with people from what were to them at that time other countries with different cultures, different languages.

The best illustration for this is historian Donna Galbaccia recounting how “Italy was still such an abstraction to Sicilian peasants that when they heard ‘il Mille’ (the 1000 supporters of Garibaldi, who invaded the island) crying ‘Viva Garibaldi; viva L’Italia!’ they assumed ‘Talia’ was Garibaldi’s wife.”

For people whose relatives migrated from Italy in the 1890s (which is a lot of the people applying for jure sanguinis in the United States) guess what? You all probably have a stronger affinity for or sense of loyalty to a centralized Italian state and nationality than they did, especially if they were born and raised in the South.

Shortly after unification in 1862, contadini across the South and especially in the areas around Naples began to revolt against the increasingly difficult conditions they found themselves living under. The briganti and brigantesse who arise after unification made it difficult to distinguish between who was just engaged in criminal activity and who was seriously and concertedly rising up against the new government and piemontese soldiers occupying the South. But in some ways I guess that begs the question: who made the decision that what they did was criminal? All, but especially the women like Michela de Cesare, were people for whom at a minimum there was little to lose by taking up arms against a government that was taking the wealth of their region and moving it north.

But post unification life meant that for the new State it was time to build Italians; people with a loyalty to this developing nation and one of the ways to do that was to establish a national language: Italian. Italian as you know it today is actually based on the Tuscan language/dialect that Dante used to write things like The Divine Comedy. Sicilian, in contrast, is its own language in its own right and as old as Dante’s Tuscan but has long been described as disappearing from common use and dying out. Not taught in school, not typically used in public or professional settings, it’s a language that’s pushed to informal use in the home, among family, friends, and in social settings to make way for the Italian language.

If you’ve seen My Genius Friend on HBO, the second episode of the first season follows the girls’ efforts to stay in school prompting their parents to demand “what is dialect not good enough for you”. Imagine if, like, Napolitano had been chosen as the basis for Italian. Casa Surace is a YouTube channel about southern Italians and fuorisede experience that celebrates their dialects and differences, calling out the beautiful regional and local linguistic differences. Calling current Italian migrants back to their regions and hometowns.

My grandfather arrived in the US in 1947, after 20 years in fascist party organizations and 15 years in the Italian Navy and probably with the most exposure to being indoctrinated into what it means to be Italian. My dad never studied Italian in school he only learned through his relatives, his father, mother, grandparents, cousins. A blend of Sicilian from Messina and Ragusa/Vittoria. I, however, went to school and learned Italian in a formal setting with a grammar textbook. I consumed national Italian media — books, tv, music — or at least what was available back in the old days of dial up.

My dad says “shcuola” when I say “scuola” (though honestly my mouth enjoys the feeling of the “sh” sound and I will 100% say it now). When we were in Sicily together my relatives asked me about what I was doing in… shcuola. Look up the song “Scalea” by Tony Tommaro.

Formal language classes in Italian are so fascinating because as Italian Americans we were raised with this language that was used in the towns where our families originated and the same way that English speakers tried to adapt our names we adapted theirs to suit our mouths. Just listen to the difference between my mom saying “ricotta” and someone non-Italian American from like, Minnesota.

I started my formal language learning of Italian as a freshman in high school and this was my first introduction to the Made Italian. Look, my high school Italian teacher was a fucking nut. My favorite story of La Signora was that she shopped at the ShopRite where a lot of high school students worked. Had it been a restaurant, they surely would’ve spit in her food (I mean, I’m sure waiters did this but honestly no one would blame them). One day, she lost her car keys in the store and, well, they kept them. That’s right, they fucking hid her car keys from her and honestly I’m 99.9% certain that the adult in charge was on board with this. It was well known; a few people in her classes worked at the ShopRite and confirmed it, even bringing in her keys to show off like a trophy. She was the only person in 2001 NJ still driving a Peugeot so it was definitely her keys.

She also had a weird side brownie sale business going on but that’s a story for another day.

Anyway, she hated Southern dialects and she hated Italian American adaptations of words but in a class that was full of us (ranging from 1st to 3rd generation raised in the US) it was like fighting the tide. We banded together, speaking to each other in our bullshit guinea slang words that only we understood forging an Italian American language and identity independent of the Peninsula and uniting the traditions of the towns our parents, grandparents, and great grandparents had all originated from — the same way my dad’s household combined Ragusa, Vittoria, and Messina. Even in the United States, at St John’s University in Queens there’s a Sicilian language advocate who publishes and teachers classes. For some of us, we aren’t even looking for Italian but Sicilian.

In a weird way, actually, seeking out recognition from the central, national government to solidify and assert an Italian identity is the most un-Italian thing and completely contrary to what our ascendants would understand. Take, for example, the Sicilian proverb, “governo, ladro” that equates the government to thieves who take taxes and draft age sons and give back roughly nothing. A deep, cultural distrust of the state perhaps as much as anything else can unify modern day Italians, especially those from the South.

When putting together my paperwork, I wanted to be registered in Messina because Messina is the Sicilian city I spent the most time. Had I applied through my mom’s father, I would have been registered in Puglia and I don’t want to be Pugliese, I want to be Sicilian I want to be Messinese. Being Sicilian was as if not more important to me than being “Italian.” Even now, I have friends whose grandfathers are also from Messina and let me just tell you if your family is also from Messina it’s an automatic in and I will help you out with whatever.

So at the end of the day, when you complete the JS process and you proudly hold up your passport saying you are “Italian,” it’s worth stopping to think about what that means. Does the government control your ethnic and cultural identity? Do you now owe allegiance to the government for having recognized you as a citizen instead of to the small comune where your birth record was transcribed? This is perhaps why I’m very sympathetic to people who rail against the Italian government, arguing that they are being screwed by not being allowed to pursue citizenship through JS. Arguing that the government is stealing from you is perhaps, in the end, the most Italian thing you could possible do.

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