I’m on a quest to learn to speak Italian, which has not an easy task. It seems harder for me to learn a new language now that I am in my late fifties. In high school I took Latin, and I easily soaked it up. I still recall so much from those classes; many of the words, tenses, the history and mythology. I even still see a classmate of mine from those days from time to time, and we sometimes call each other by the Latin mythology nicknames our teacher gave us. And I think that remembering so much of the Latin syntax and key words will help me learn to speak Italian correctly.
“What was once lost can be found again”
That class was a lot of fun. Decades later the task is much harder to accomplish given my time constraints and the ever-present feeling of exhaustion that accompanies a busy career and raising a family. But the drive to learn is always there.
I had often wondered why my parents never taught us Italian at home. The only time my parents said anything in Italian was when talking with older relatives around the Sunday dinner table. And this only happened when they wanted to keep something private, like some bad news or the punchline to a dirty joke. My maternal grandmother would tell a joke in English, and then deliver the punchline in Italian, sending the people around the table into fits of laughter. It also sent us kids tuning in from the kitchen on a mad scramble to find the Italian-to-English dictionary. If it was in Italian, we wanted to know what was being kept from us. Otherwise, English was the one and only language in our house.
I once asked my mother why we didn’t speak Italian, and her response was quick and certain: “Because we are Americans”. End of conversation.
Looking back into my father’s past, I found that his mother could only speak Italian, and could not read or write. She was illiterate and yet had emigrated to America for the chance of a better life. She did not speak English, and never learned, having passed away at a very young age. My dad was nine only years old when she died. Her inability to speak, read or write in English clued me in to something my father had knew. It meant that for the first 9 years of his life, he only spoke Italian with his mother at home. He must have been fluent, as his primary caretaker only spoke Italian.
Then why, during my childhood, did my father never mention that he had once been fluent in Italian? Why was my mother so adamant about identifying as an American first? Why did the Italian language only surface in the privacy of our home when an older family member came to dinner?
I really didn’t question it, as I always understood that being an American meant that you had a chance at a better life if you worked hard enough and assimilated into the culture. And part of being American was speaking English, the one common language that binds us together as a society.
My maternal grandparents came to America as penniless teenagers. They met in Jersey City and started a life together. Neither of them had more than a grade-school education. But they worked hard and built a popular restaurant business. They ended up very successful. They had learned English along the way, and their use of English was flawless. There was no trace of accent.
So why was the Italian language practically forbidden for us? A possible reason began to piece itself together when the history of the Italian internments in the United States was revealed. Public Law 106-451 (Signed by President Clinton on November 7, 2000) tasked the United States Department of Justice (USDOJ) with the responsibility of declassifying secret files and producing a thorough report that would reveal the truth and the scope of what happened to the Italian-American people during World War 2. This resulted in a groundbreaking publication called report is called “A Review of the Restrictions on Persons of Italian Ancestry during World War 2”.
This report revealed the many restrictions, including loss of civil rights, employment and assets, as well as possible internment in camps for suspect Italians in America during World War II. This stunning report was the catalyst that brought this website into existence. It became the vehicle to publish our expose & review of the USDOJ report.
With old photos and publications coming online in the 21st century, the vast scope and impact of the restrictions placed on over 600,000 persons of Italian ancestry during World War 2 became clearer.
Posters, such as the one shown here, were put up in public places throughout the nation – it warned people not to speak the enemy’s language: German, Italian and Japanese.
These types of posters were omnipresent, especially in cities that held strategic value. Since both sides of my family lived and worked in Jersey City (Hudson County, NJ), they would most likely have seen these posters every day. At that time, my mother was in High School, and my father was working in the Hudson News stand at the Hoboken train station. They would meet after the war ended. Posters like these had a profound and chilling effect on the Italian populace, as it did on the German and Japanese population too.
We learned how the rest of the story unfolded. Millions of men and women signed up to fight for America, and for freedom abroad. Out of the 5 million people of Italian ancestry in America, 1.5 million joined the armed forces and fought for the United States and its Allies, while 600,000 at home were subject to losses that just piled up: lost jobs, confiscated assets, restricted movement, and carrying alien ID cards. More than 10,000 people were removed from homes near coastal areas. Some were arrested without charge, were refused legal counsel, and many were swept into the internment camp system. In total, 42% of the existing population of Italians in America were either serving in uniform, or under some level of restriction.
My family saw their 9 able-bodied young men (my father, 6 uncles, and 2 cousins) join the military and go on to fight the axis threat. 8 came home. The youngest of the bunch, 20-year-old TSgt Dominick Lanni, never returned. He remains missing in action. Many of the women went to work in the defense industry, producing weapons and goods to keep the men fighting and the country fed. Italian families in America offered up their network of relatives as trusted channels of communication for the FBI and OSS to use in planning their invasion of Italy. Many American men of Italian ancestry had to face the possibility of fighting directly against family members on the battlefield. But they did it. This was the sacrifice Italian-Americans made for America. And our people were vital to the success of the Allies in World War II. And they were proud to be a part of it.
But the damage was done. The shock and pain of economic loss and being a societal outcast was profound. And while this was bad enough, tens of thousands of American families would receive news that their sons, nephews and brothers died fighting for the cause of freedom, while other family members at home may have had no freedom at all. When the war ended, the ordeal was swept up in secrecy, and everyone had to just move on with their lives.
That their language was publicly frowned upon had a tremendous impact on the Italian people of that time. The result was that the language was not passed on, and it may be the primary reason why only 5% of the nearly 16,000,000 people who identify as Italian-Americans are fluent in Italian (roughly 750,000 people). It is a huge cultural loss.
The real takeaway from this article is that the older generations persevered and proved themselves, and the Italian population in America has gone on to be a true story of success, even though key parts of the culture were lost along the way.
But the appreciation of the Italian language can be found again by anyone who wishes to do so. A great way to celebrate such a beautiful heritage is to become fluent in its language. Being multilingual is truly an asset. Imagine how enlightening and fun traveling to Italy would be if you were able to converse there with native speakers. There are so many online resources available now to help someone learn to speak Italian, that I feel any one can learn if they put in the effort. Start learning today.