Monday, June 6, 2011

Where Are We From? Part III

See that map? That is the Italian peninsula. It is a collection of towns and regions that are passionate about their own identity. For the past 150 years, it has been known as the "nation" of Italy. Time has brought a certain measure of unity. Everyone speaks the Tuscan dialect (to some extent), which is the "national language." The "Italians" all unite behind the Azzuri  (Blues), the national soccer team, in international competitions. Government? Heh heh. That's, um... complicated.

When I was growing up, I proudly considered myself an "Italian American." I didn't realize that the mix of regions in my family background was a phenomenon that could only happen in America. Almost all Americans of European ancestry are an ethnic mixture. That's clear enough when one has, say, and "Italian" father and an "Irish" mother (a not-uncommon combination in the Northeast urban centers of immigration--in fact, my wife is part Irish). But it is usually true also of those who claim "100%" heritage. Ethnic and cultural heritage in Europe are very compact. The ethnic neighborhoods of America mixed peoples of these compact regions together, because--after all--in the great New World the common elements became sources of subcultural unity. As a result, the second generation saw a great deal of "intermarriage" between kids who never would have met in the old country.

It was something of a surprise for me when I went to Italy at the age of 30 to study. People asked me where my ancestors were from, and I said, "Italy!" They replied, "oh, but where are they from?" Turns out they were from a lot of different places. "Italians" are from Milano or Brescia or Roma or from a foreign country called Sicily. Nobody is from "Italy," at least, not really. Even in New York, it was quite a scandal in my grandmother's Neapolitan family when she began seeing my Sicilian grandfather. Sicilians were not paisani; they were strange, alien creatures.

It turns out that my ancestors are from all over southern Italy. Some of them were probably Greek (which might explain the odd spelling of the name "Janaro" with a "J"--although there are other possibilities; the French were in southern Italy too). In Italy I learned about the long and deep lines of my roots. For Americans, lineage often fades into a mist if we try to seek beyond the first person to land on our shores. But in Europe it is not unusual to stand in places that are over a thousand years old, and it becomes possible to think of one's self as part of a very long line. Still, it is distinctively American to be an intersection of various lines that never would have met anywhere else.

I have my roots in a distinctive historical phenomenon: the New York Italian American immigrant experience of the late 19th century. I am also third generation American born, which means that the diverse socioeconomic backgrounds of my ancestors had time to rise to the level of the middle class families of my parents in the America of the 1950s. In a sense, I am a "New Yorker," and to this day I feel at home in the city of my birth. But I have adopted a new home.

The Shenandoah Valley and Northern Virginia are where I have built my life. I went to school here, and then devoted my career to building institutions here. I established my family here, and it is here that I own the little piece of property that I call my home. This is the place that I miss when I am far away. This is my children's native place. And my parents have lived in this area for 22 years; here in Virginia they have become grandparents.

It is in Virginia that my history, and the history of my family, continues.