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The Importance of the Italian American Identity: A Meditation

3 Jul

Claiming the identity of Italian American is important to me for many reasons. I claim this identity, because people often “other” me based on my outward appearance. Individuals I meet often mistake me for Hispanic, or “mixed” (black and white). This has been interesting to me, but also frustrating, as I can’t claim these cultural/racial identities. I often am asked, “What are you?” This question is also frustrating, but I tend to reply with, “I am Italian,” because I know this will satisfy them, and leave me be. If I were to say, “I’m part this and part that,” more questions would be asked. I am not 100% Italian—only my paternal grandfather’s side is Italian—but I claim this identity, because I feel that it represents who I am, physically, spiritually, emotionally, and mentally. As Italian American poet, Rachel Guido deVries writes,

I come
from centuries
of Calabrese women
heads hard as stone
I am shaped by Calabrese women
who breathed near the sea
who are in me
what is in me

(deVries, 11)

My Calabrese ancestry shapes me. I also claim this identity, because my full name is Italian. My first name translates from Italian to “the female Christ,” which I think is fitting, not because I am “Christ-like,” but because I am a strong, feminist woman. My last name means “Greek person” in Italian. I used to dislike my name. People misspell my first name, often, which I struggle with. The issue I have with the misspelling and mis-capitalizing of my name is that, by writing “LaChrista” or “La Christa,” it removes my ethnicity and identity. I am not “LaChrista” or “La Christa.” These names do not match who I am. These names erase my cultural identity.

I question if I am sometimes treated differently, because people may see me as non-white. I acknowledge the privilege of my whiteness, though I do not necessarily self-identify as white. My skin is darker than many of my white friends. I acknowledge that I am generally considered white in society, and I understand the privilege this gives me. The various Women’s and Gender Studies courses that I have taken have aided in this acknowledgment and acceptance of privilege.



27 Jun

(Amy Tornabuoni)

The car is packed yet again
for yet another unknown destination
another place I’ve never been.
Another town where there are only two Italian restaurants:
very expensive
and Olive Garden.
Wouldn’t it be nice to just…
live somewhere?
Maybe longer than a year?


10% doesn’t seem like such a big number until you’re part of it,
and your mother handing you a cup of coffee
“Don’t worry, you’ll find a job.”
Every day,
for months,
while you notice the coffee getting weaker.

And “you can’t eat beauty,”
Zio said.

My mountains are in my heart
just like the sea
which I’ve never laid eyes on.

Coal mines
combine slowly in my mind’s eye
with tomato stands
with Olives
and Ford trucks with their Firestones
with the donkey
stereotypically assigned them.

My mountains
and the burnt out factories I pass
where Nonna came
to make fire-safe irons from asbestos…
driving by
the open sea
waves beating me back
as I seek
My own Golden Door.

Rebel Grrrls: Italian Women’s Resistance Strategies to Domestic Violence

26 Jun

“…and the almond ripens with pain.” – Roberto Roversi

Domestic violence has been around for centuries, yet only discussed publicly in the past fifty years. It continues to be a taboo subject throughout the world. Many women continue to go without help. Even today, domestic violence is difficult and uncomfortable to discuss for many, especially in Italy where the Catholic religion is the dominating force. Italian Activist, Anna Costanza Baldry states, “The Catholic religion…has played a central role in considering the family scared and keeping violence within the home an isolated, private problem rather than a social one.” CEDAW (Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women), of which Italy has signed and ratified, continues to be concerned with the country’s treatment of women. At their 2005 session, CEDAW stated:

The committee remains concerned about the persistence of patriarchal attitudes and deep-rooted stereotypes regarding the roles and responsibilities of women and men in the family and society. These stereotypes undermine women’s social status, present a significant impediment to the implementation of the Convention, and are a root cause of women’s disadvantaged position in a number of areas, including in the labor market and in political and public life. The Committee is also deeply concerned about the portrayal of women in the media and in advertising as sex objects and in stereotypical roles. (CEDAW, Concluding Comments, 5)

CEDAW has also stated concern with Italy’s domestic violence, noting, “The Committee…remains concerned about the persistence of violence against women, including domestic violence, and the absence of a comprehensive strategy to combat all forms of violence against women” (CEDAW, Concluding Comments, 6). During CEDAW’s pre-session, they commented that “The Special Rapporteur on Violence Against Women has noted with concern that Italy has not yet devised a comprehensive, coordinated and concerted strategy to address the problem of violence against women” (CEDAW, Pre-Session, 4). All of this suggests that Italy is falling behind in their treatment of women.

Baldry states, “In the Italian culture, violence within the family is viewed as a normal way of dealing with conflicts and keeping the social status quo. It is therefore accepted and often condoned” (Baldry, 60). This culture of abuse must change, but how can it when the Prime Minister, Silvio Berlusconi, makes comments on how abuse and rape will not stop until there “are as many soldiers on the streets as there are pretty girls” (The Curvature).

In Italy, at least one in four women will experience domestic violence (RT). Baldry, states, “…there are no specific laws or acts that address domestic violence [in Italy]. The criminal code on which the Italian criminal justice system is based goes back to 1930, and it is inadequate to face the problem of domestic violence directly” (Baldry, 56). This is a disturbing find. According to Sabrina Franca, director of the Maree Antiviolence Center in Rome, “Violence is a cultural problem. Men were not punished if they were sexually abusing women. Until 1996, we still didn’t have a law against sexual violence…For example, according to an old Italian legislation, a man could kill his wife, if she was cheating on him” (RT). Old laws like this are horrendous and allow domestic violence to prevail, as the culture’s mindset has not changed. In 2009, it was found that approximately seven million women were survivors of domestic violence (RT). Something needs to be done.

When we speak of “resistance,” what do we mean? It’s difficult to pinpoint one definition that crosses all borders. Resistance is the idea that one can have agency, even when it appears that they don’t. The role of “Resister” allows a person to regain their sense of agency, when it was unrightfully taken away. Ann Russo states, “When we move from an exclusive focus on victimization to one that celebrates and encourages collective resistance and self-determination as well as social responsibility, we expand our vision of a socially just society free of pervasive violence against women” (Russo, 29). Commonly, scholars on resistance write about how it is “…material or physical, involving the resisters’ use of their bodies or other material objects” (Hollander & Einwohner, 535). The act of resisting can mean many things. For example, someone can be labeled a “resister” if they use violence (physical/verbal/mental), or nonviolence “feigning sickness, wearing particular types of clothing, or stealing from one’s employer” (Hollander & Einwohner, 536). Some may not consider this resistance, but it definitely can be. Many scholars have attempted to answer “the question of whether resistance requires recognition by others…” (Hollander & Einwohner, 541). Scholars on the subject seem to be split on the answer. The point is, resistance is not a universal experience for women, and should not be treated as such. Women throughout the world resist in different ways, and have for centuries.

Italian Women’s Strategies of Resistance
“Si viju lu diavulu non schiantu (If I see the devil I do not run).” – Calabrese women’s song

Italian peasant women in the 1800s used various ways of everyday resistance. For example, these women “’exercised considerable indirect social power, arranging marriages, assigning reputations, helping one another to give birth, and when necessary, to abort’” (Guglielmo, 23). Also, these women often became in charge when their husbands or fathers would migrate to America. With various long-term absences of men, “migration caused a greater separation between and autonomy within ‘female’ and ‘male’ spaces, and women often occupied the center of the family, which was the heart of community” (Guglielmo, 23). This matriarchal/patriarchal family structure has continued to current time. However, one must differentiate between Southern and Northern Italy. Southern Italy is less industrialized and more traditional in some ways, compared to its Northern counterpart. There are also many contentions between the two regions, which further complicates the country’s overall handle of domestic violence.

In the 1800s, these women were often abused by the men in their family, but they had many ways of resisting. The ways in which Italian women resisted were: acquiescence, silence, retaliation (verbal and/or physical), running away, suicide, murder, divorce, accessing women’s organizations/shelters, and using women-only spaces. Women in Italy today continue to use these areas of resistance. In this paper, I will discuss and analyze three strategies of resistance in which Italian women used to combat intimate partner violence. The strategies I will explore are: women-only spaces, verbal/physical retaliation, and accessing women’s organizations/shelters.

Women-only Spaces
“The husband is like the government at Rome, all pomp; the wife is like the mafia, all power.” –Italian Proverb

Historically, Italian women have used women-only spaces as a way to resist domestic violence. Guglielmo states, “Women crafted their social circles with those they could trust and rely on the most, which were often a combination of kin and neighbors” (Guglielmo, 17). Women spent a lot of time in the cortile, “the semienclosed courtyard at the center of adjoining houses” (Guglielmo, 18). The cortile was an area where women could talk to each other about what was happening at home, while they prepared food together. These women shared stories and sought advice. Though the cortile of the 1800s no longer exists, women today will meet in piazzas to get out of the house and to get support when they need it. These “daily labors necessitated strong social networks, which also upset narratives of female passivity and isolation” (Guglielmo, 20).

Women’s ability to be in the public sphere more often has indeed been a great area of resistance. However, researchers on the subject have found that “men have historically attempted to exert more control over the women in their lives as power relations and social systems are shifting and women are gaining more independence” (Guglielmo, 23). The ironic thing about the cortile, the epicenter for women’s bodies and voices, is that often a beating would occur there. Public humiliation would be an addition to the physical violence against women. Guglielmo states, “…the man who broke his wife’s arm did so in the center of town and paid the doctor for her other arm too, announcing that he was paying in advance for the next time she spoke back” (Guglielmo, 24). This type of public display of abuse doesn’t occur as often as it once did, but women are also allowed to be outside of the home now, too.

Italian women have historically been able to resist domestic violence by their ability to exist in public spaces with other women outside of their family structure. These spaces have been a safety zone, and a place of rest and recuperation for battered women. Though the actual cortile is more of a memory, it continues to exist in different forms.

Retaliation (Verbal/Physical)
“I am a rebel who rises up against all these inequities, and I also invite you to the struggle.” – Maria Barbieri

Women-only spaces have been an indirect way of resisting domestic violence, but one way in which Italian women resist directly is by verbal and/or physical retaliation. In the 1800s, if a young wife were being beaten, the woman would go tell her parents. Then, the truly miraculous part happened, “…the brothers, cousins, and other male relatives of the beaten girl would go, led by the old mother, toward the home of the girl. And there they pounced upon the husband and beat him up. In a kind of procession the mother and her kin returned home” (Guglielmo, 25). This example demonstrates women’s strength. Though the example is more indirect, Italian women have also slapped, hit, punched their abusers, as a way to resist. A woman from Potenza (a Southern Italian town) states, “As a young wife I was no angel. I was obstinate and revolted against my husband, whose ideas seemed to me crazy. I was much stronger than he was. Whenever he tried to hit me I was ready to hit him back. This was in our home. But he had it on me for he fixed me many a time on the street. There on the street I didn’t even think of resisting him. If I did that I certainly would disgrace him” (Guglielmo, 26).

This woman’s admittance to hitting back showcases her strength, determination, and resistance. The strategy of hitting/talking back is often the least likely used. Researcher Margaret Abraham says this could be “that a woman feared that taking a more aggressive defense tactic such as hitting back might exacerbate the violence against her, with a greater chance of jeopardizing her own life” (Sokoloff and Pratt, 259). Historically, Italian women didn’t practice violence as a resistance strategy, but this form of resistance has been used presently more often, as domestic violence has come into the spotlight.

Accessing Women’s Organizations
“Eliminating violence requires urgent policy and practical responses.” – N. Livi-Bacci

Another form of Italian women’s resistance is by going to a battered women’s shelter. Italy’s first battered women’s shelters opened in Bologna and Milan in the 1980s, but now there are about 100 centers and hotlines throughout the country (Livi-Bacci, S65-66). Italy’s battered women’s movement has been strong and vigorous, “not only in providing direct service delivery, but also in seeking multiple avenues for impacting change, lobbying for legislative action and other appropriate activities to improve the community’s response to all abuse women” (Livi- Bacci, S65). Many shelters now exist all over Italy and women are using them. One woman who has utilized the shelter as a way of resisting domestic violence is named Suvanda. She states, “’I married an Italian man, it was 12 years ago. I was treated badly, with violence, both physical and psychological…I have three children with him. We were all locked in a house and nobody could help us. And then I found out about this social center. I was told that they could help here. I was lucky—I grabbed my children and fled…’” (RT). Suvanda fled to the Maree shelter in Rome, which only has room for twenty-five women, thus, it has quite a long waiting list. However, shelters like this are open all over Italy, and are continuing to open. Women have been accessing shelters for the past ten years, at least.

Because of the somewhat recent cultural shift in acknowledging domestic violence, the use of shelters has been growing. Baldry states, “In Rome, from 1992 to 1998 there was an increase of over 100% of women who contacted a shelter” (Baldry, 60). The author continues, “In Bologna, the average number of women who annually get in touch with the shelter is over 300; in Milan, over 1,000; and in Palermo, during 1998 over 400 women contacted the shelter” (Baldry, 60). These statistics are distressing, but at least abused women are seeking support from their local women’s shelter. Hopefully, there will come a time when these shelters are not needed.

“The child inherits from the mother the blood and from the godmother the bones.” – Italian proverb

Italian women’s resistance has come in many different forms. Each area of resistance that I have discussed and analyzed proves that Italian women are resisting domestic violence. The strategies of women-only spaces, retaliation (physical/verbal), and the ability to access battered women’s shelters, are all excellent strategies of resistance. Though there are many contentions in what constitutes resistance, I have found the above three to be definite possibilities for women if they so choose. I don’t believe one can, or should, judge another on their strategies of resistance. All of us are different and will inevitably utilize varying strategies when resisting. Most often, resistance is thought to only include physical acts that stop an incident. This doesn’t have to be the case, and isn’t in many situations. A woman who chooses to resist in other ways, such as running away, is not acknowledged as a resister, but a victim. This language can be extremely important, especially for a woman who has been abused. To live forever in one’s victimization is isolating, depressing, and stunted. Ann Russo states, “…identifying women who’ve experienced abuse as only or predominantly victims and survivors of abuse, violence, battering, and rape eventually reinforces our status as victims by reducing us to what someone else did to us” (Russo, 28). As Ann Russo’s conceptual framework suggests, we must continue to move between victim<–>survivor<–>resister at our own time. Women who have suffered abuse can then be given agency once again. Italian women have done this, and continue to do so.


24 Jun

(Amy Tornabouni)

“When your cousin gets here, can you ask him to move some chairs to the garage?”
Wait ‘til Nonno leaves
Move some chairs to the garage

“What are you talking about?” I had expected this to go differently.
“Maybe it’s the machismo we grow up with…”

“We’re Catholics.” I am so confused.
“Remember when Zia met your Great Grandmother?”
“No.” I hadn’t been born yet.
“She hugged her. She said ‘Good for you’.”

“You’re such a stereotype,” she says
when I light up my cigar.
I admit,
I feel a little ashamed…

Not so!
because I’m a girl
and cigars are a boy thing
like being named about your great-grandfather
like I would have been
if I were a boy

But then she got sick
and I made eggplant…

So I suppose she’s right.

Visual Silencing: Italian Women’s Identities and Visual Culture

23 Jun

During my undergraduate career, I had been actively interested in American visual culture and its affects on American women’s identities. The issue of visual culture’s influence on identity was always a contentious one for me, as I think it is for many young women. How can it not be when you’re constantly bombarded with images of unattainable beauty standards? As my research on visual culture accumulated, I began to wonder about visual culture in other locations. Because of my Italian heritage, and the opportunity to study abroad in Rome in 2006 for five months, I knew immediately that I wanted to talk to Italian women about visual culture and how it may or may not have influenced the shaping of their identities. I interviewed women from various backgrounds and ages.

“[Italian women] feel how American women felt in the 50s,” said Angela, a 34-year-old architect and Ph.D. candidate in 2006 living in Rome. This response was startling to me. Angela continued, “When my friends and I go see American movies, we see how brave and independent the American women are. Even though it is better for Italian women today, we still haven’t reached where American women are.” Antonella, a 35-year-old manager in Milan echoed this sentiment, when I interviewed her recently. She said, “To represent the current woman, who lives in 2010, I suggest discussing the working woman, who has a lot of dreams, ambitions, and hobbies. When I say dreams, I don’t mean wedding dreams, but dreams for themselves, like career, travel, and why not a new sports car?” Both Angela and Antonella felt pressure from their society’s expectations, usually expressed through visual culture.

When I questioned how Angela felt about Italian advertisements, she commented, “Of course I’m affected by it to some extent. I think everyone is, but you can’t follow it—you’ll go crazy.” Likewise, Antonella said that she didn’t feel like Italian visual culture represented her. She stated, “Unfortunately, women don’t speak or say anything special in most of Italian advertising. They often appear bare-ass, from food advertising to car advertising.” This is, of course, similar to representations of women in American advertisements, however, in Italy many ads involve nudity. The billboards I saw in Italy typically presented half-dressed women, occasionally nude, in poses that seemed all too explicit for the general public. This had the effect of overshadowing the commodities being sold, to the point that many of these billboards seemed to be simply selling women. The production of this visual culture is entirely for men by men. Nudity is generally more accepted in Italy than the U.S., which is, in some ways progressive, but can border on exploitative.Italian media was new to me, though I was used to seeing the unattainable aesthetics that went into most commercial media. The television shows I watched in Italy exuded a fetishized, commodified female sexuality constructed for the male gaze; stronger than what I had seen in the States. Women in scantily clad garments passed on the screen with gyrating hips. The women were generally there to act as decorations, or ornaments. One young woman I interviewed found this to be problematic. Elisa, a 22-year-old student in Milan said, “Of course, I’d like that this purely ornamental function had an end; women are not only objects or bodies that can be shown, but they are also people endowed with intelligence, with their own thoughts and opinions. This effort should be taken upon media, but also upon women themselves, and public opinion.”

The women represented in visual culture, at the time of my visit, were often blonde, blue-eyed, and waif-like. Even Miss Italy (in 2006) exhibited these traits. For the Italian women that I spoke with, this felt confusing since these models were not representative of them. In Italy, most blondes are seen as non-Italian. They are considered “exotic.” There is a definite hair-color hierarchy in Italy. Blondes are seen as sexy, easy, and exotic, while brunettes are common and prudish. When I would walk around with my blonde-haired, blue-eyed friend, she would receive more attention than I would. We would be at a café or in a clothing store and my friend would be helped first, whereas I wouldn’t even be spoken to on most occasions. However, sometimes this hair-color hierarchy had its downside. For instance, since many blondes are stereotyped as “dumb” some Italians wouldn’t talk to my friend, because they assumed she wouldn’t understand them, whereas because I’m Italian American and look as such, they would often ask me for directions and/or help. This inconsistent behavior was confusing and annoying. I would often wonder, “How will I be treated today?” I began to feel ugly and unimportant in Italy, as I was constantly reminded that I was “average” and looked like everyone else.

One woman, who definitely stood out to me during my stay was Marilena. At the time, she was a 64-year-old single woman who had never been married and never had children. She dressed like she was in her twenties, had a tanning bed in her apartment, dyed her hair blonde, and kept numerous framed photos of her younger self throughout her apartment. When asked if she was affected by visual culture, she stated, “No, I am not fixed on it.” For me, it was difficult to let Marilena get away with this comment when it was all too clear that she was extremely affected by the imagery imposed on her. This was evident by the things in her apartment. As I spoke with Marilena further, she began to state her insecurities: “I don’t think I was beautiful. I’m not sure of my beauty.” She continued, “My mother, father, or grandmother never told me I was pretty.”

The last four interviews I did were with young women in their twenties. I spoke with Erica, a 23-year-old student in Milan, and when asked what she thought of American women, she replied, “I think they are like Italian girls, but maybe more opened mentally. Although, I see that the problems they have in America are similar to the problems we have.” I questioned Erica on what she meant by this and she said that she believes American women to be more susceptible to letting visual culture bleed into their psyche. When asked how she felt about representations of women in popular culture, Martina, who was 21-years-old, said, “The women are introduced like empty containers.” Women in visual culture are completely devoid of voice, strength, and retaining any sense of authenticity.

Alice, a 24-year-old, discussed the dominance that American culture seemed to have in Italy. She said, “[In Italy] it says that in America the girls are all wonderful, like Britney Spears, Christina Aguilera, Hillary Duff, and Paris Hilton…One thing that seems taken very seriously is their physical appearance.” The women I spoke with all discussed their dislike of the current visual culture that was being presented to them. When asked how she would change this, Paola, a 24-year-old office clerk, said she “would change the image of the [woman as] object that is presented exclusively on television programs and commercials. To begin, the woman would no longer be insufficiently dressed and she would speak.” Women are repeatedly silenced through visual culture. When will it be our time to speak?

None of the women I spoke with were able to identify with the commercialized representations of them. I’ve spoken with other women from various backgrounds informally about this as well. The response is generally the same. We don’t feel that our physical and/or intellectual selves are represented accurately in today’s media. Each woman I spoke with was aware that visual culture shaped her identity to some extent, and still does. The women I interviewed all stated that these types of advertisements were detrimental to their physical and emotional health.

I often question, “Will things ever change?” And if yes, when? Visual culture has only increased its ability to alienate and silence women. Those who continue to produce these advertisements seemingly don’t care.

Women must be heard. They must be allowed to speak their own culture and identity.

(originally posted on GirlDrive)

Everybody Loves a Sicilian Girl

20 Jun

(Amy Tornabuoni)

I wish I could still
spend hours in her kitchen.
Espresso stains on the pages
of sketch paper sprawled before me.

Flour adrift
A cloud over my vision
and settling on bowls of ricotta
the god among cheeses

I wish I could still
hear her shout
“Mangia! Mangia!”
as though we needed the coaxing
to partake of the breaded veal
and mounds of meat sauce smothered ravioli

or explain the reality
of our own Palermo story
to this third generation
that hardly smells
of fish and olives any longer
and so desperately longs to

So Tony can travel there
He has the money
And Lindsay can date someone a little more “ethnic”
With darker skin
That perfect nose
An unaltered last name
And Michael can pretend to be a gangster all he wants
Pin-stripe suits and machine guns in his Halloween and senior pictures

Instead, I shall
bury my nose in a dictionary of a Tuscan vernacular
tote my Mario Puzo novels
make Biscotti Regina the way she used to
and make up my own mind.


20 Jun

The day I was born
he said of me,
“We don’t have girls
in this family.”