Friday, 13 May 2011

Growing up Italian-Canadian and what to do about it

*A glossary of terms is available at the bottom of this post.

I saw them while driving to my zia's house, the young Punjabi family, four children and two moms watching over them as they ran around the tree laughing in the sunshine.  Sometimes I see these new immigrants in much larger groups in front of their houses, just hanging out, being family.  Is that how we looked 50 years ago?  Were there really that many of us standing in the driveway?  Playing soccer, eating pizza, getting yelled at for not stopping long enough to give un baccieto to the zii who just dropped in.  Such pride. Much pain.  And so many pensieri.

We were Italian immigrants and we travelled in packs.  Our parents had come to l'America (Canada in this case) for a better life.  For insurance, my Sicilian grandmother-- always dressed in black--  blessed our home and each new car with handfuls of Sifto salt to keep il m'alocchio away.  My Ciociare grandparents came and went with nocchere and other fine foods.  Our English neighbours kept their distance.  There was a definite "us" and "them" mentality.  Were we all afraid or was it just a matter of not understanding one another?

Though they never explained it in words, our parents' sacred-immigrant work ethic unfolded daily:  we work hard, and take on as much work as we can handle.  We buy our own homes and polish them until they shine, for that was what we lost before we came here.  And you must stay in school and choose a career so you'll never know la miseria we lived through!   This was the mountain before us.

In those early years, we held onto each other as we would life preservers in the middle of an ocean.  Aunts, uncles, cousins, nonni, we were a city unto ourselves.  We'd crowd the airport for every new arrival, organize convoys to Niagara Falls, and congregate in High Park on Sundays (the only campagna we knew then) with enough food to welcome The Pope.  Our fathers were stunned when nearby picnickers called the cops on us once.  Wine was not permitted in the park?  No worries.  Questi non sono pensieri. A large glass bottle emptied of Coke would hold what we needed.  Just cork it and cover it with a little tinfoil.  No one will ever know.  After all, homemade wine was as necessary as aria fresca-- and anyway, what's a picnic senza vino?  Never heard of such a thing!

As we explored our young city, my nonna never left the house.  Every morning she'd sit on the front porch waiting for the postman.  We translated.  No, there was no mail from Italy today.  No, he didn't know when the next letter would come.  I was too young to understand how much her heart must have ached for her homeland.  She had lived through enough miseria to worry about what Wonderbread would have meant to us.

Our parents had a house, furniture to pay for and growing children so off they went a zappare early each morning.  Hunched over sewing machines working piecework on Spadina, our mothers sewed their fingers to the bone.  Our fathers sweat blood laboring in construction, or worked long hours delivering milk and bread or selling goods to grocery stores opened by entrepreneurial paesanos.  The bills were never ending.  Our mothers split pennies in two.  We ate enough pasta to build a CN Tower full.  And many of our fathers built the real CN Tower, too.

As kids, despite our parents' good intentions, we struggled with feelings of shame.  Who were we?  As children of immigrants, many of us felt displaced even though we were born here.  We hid our thoughts so as not to hurt them.  I still feel paralyzed when I remember the English kids laughing at my grade-three hands clutching two thick pieces of pizza stuffed with rapini.  Heavenly Father, please help me live through this sangwich and 'til the end of the day. Amen.

By the time we reached high school, many of our parents were fluent in English and we had survived by learning to laugh at ourselves and the world around us.  Transcending years of humiliation, we shared gelato and side-splitting stories with amici at La Sem, one of the first popular Italian cafes on St. Clair near Caledonia.  The English were now mangia-cakes (mangia-twinkies on our more hilarious days) but there was more.  The plastic on the couches, the madonnas on the front lawn, the homemade vino that could strip furniture.  The shoe in the head.  By our university years, some of us were exploring the rightful place of Italese.  (Is baga a real word?)  Then we weren't so sure.  Today, there is no doubt.  We studied the socio-economics of it all within the larger context of the globe and debated passionately with dear friends far into the night.

We rarely hear stories of la miseria now.  And we don't travel in packs so much.  I have a fondness for the front-lawn madonnas who witnessed our struggle that surprises me.  One step at a time, between rounds of Mannaggia al'America and Signore ti Ringrazio, we overcame huge obstacles-- our language, the stigma of the tomato garden, even the rapini stuffed between two pieces of pizza.  While he was still alive, my English father-in-law used to tell me the story of how people in his hometown of Ottawa would laugh at pizza when it first came to town.  What was this crazy thing?  It seems inconceivable now. 

We have the education our parents so desperately  wanted for us.  We're working professionals and business owners with houses and gardens of our own.  Some of us still make thick pizza and drink homemade wine, though it's come a long way from its turpentine days.  And yet, to me, it all seems so bittersweet.  For the truth is, when you climb a mountain as high as Everest, you're bound to be transformed by the time your reach its peak.  Don't get me wrong.  I'm thankful for the luck I've had and all I've worked hard for.  And I pray we never come face to face with la miseria again.  But I feel the journey has changed us.  Is it just my impression, or have we forgotten where we came from?  I capture bits of it when I see driveways packed with young immigrant families.  I long to pass them handfuls of salt to keep il m'alocchio away.  And I think to myself, God bless these new people for they have known la miseria and have such a challenging mountain to climb.  I wish them every success and the strength to hold onto their pride.  May we all stay humble so we can help those who come after us.  For in the end, despite all our pensieri and the success we will achieve, that is what counts most.


  1. What a beautiful story. It is actually from conversations with you, that I have a new appreciation for immigrant families. Thank you for your insight, and I'm looking forward to your next post.

  2. Wow!
    What a beautifully written story. I too, look forward to future posts.
    Can this manga cake get some help with some of those Italian words? Maybe a glossary as a side bar item...just a thought.