Do you know what your ethnicity is?
I didn’t really know what mine was until I hit the age when every girl starts to think about their appearance and make comparisons. I’d say it was 5th or 6th grade, for me.
That was the year that I started to pay waaaayy too much attention to my dark hair and “hairy arms” that didn’t match how the “popular girls” looked. I started to ask about why I looked the way I did, and then I found some answers.
Growing up in Pittsburgh in the 90s, it wasn’t uncommon to have some trace of Italian blood in your veins. A lot of our grandparents and ancestors had come “straight off the boat” from Ellis Island, and landed there to work in steel. My grandparents were no different. My grandmother came “off the boat” from Gamberale in the 1930s. My great-grandfather (paternal grandfather’s father) had done the same from Pizzoferrato years earlier. They all wanted to find work that was consistent and paid better. At the time, Italy wasn’t providing that. Oh, and they did become US citizens too. I’m going to guess that it was easier to do that at that time.
These Italian roots are what gave me my dark hair (although, my English mum has dark hair as well). I think because this appearance was so “common,” the “popular girls” ended up being ones who “stood out” and developed earlier. They were the 12-year-olds going on 22. They got their hair treated and dressed “older.” I was average. There wasn’t much “special” about me.
I wouldn’t appreciate my ethnicity, and the struggles that my ancestors faced to get here, until I was in college. It was then that I realized I wouldn’t have had the opportunity to even think about college in America if they didn’t risk their lives on that boat ride. Google it. It was risky. They would’ve killed to be doing what I was doing.
In a way, I was honoring them by taking advantage of the opportunities that they didn’t have. While they slaved as farmers, I was able to tactfully choose classes that would (hopefully) land me on a career path that I chose because I wanted to embark on it. Not because my sole focus was survival.
After watching Living Undocumented on Netflix, I was reminded again of how grateful I am for their struggle.
Today, being third generation Italian-American means that I better be doing my best in this country. It means remembering that I could’ve easily had never had those opportunities that I have today. It means loving and honoring your family, and doing what’s right in your community. It means nurturing each other, and lifting each other up instead of tearing each other down.
This is what our ancestors did in their villages. This is what being third generation Italian-American means to me, today.
What does your ethnicity mean to you?