How I Became Italian: A Performance Piece
When I moved to Minneapolis, I became Italian. Not suddenly or explosively but gradually, like a good sauce that has to simmer all day, its flavors slowly building, garlic, onion, olive, tomato, into some orgiastic crescendo by the time it’s dusk.
When I moved to Minneapolis, I became Italian. Walking into a room where almost everyone was white and that whiteness was blond without bleach or brown that comes after the blondeness gets older, with skin that carried pink as the only back hue. I became Italian as I started to hear about lutefisk and cross-country skiing, when ice fishing was something that people did instead of wrote postcards about.
I became Italian when I came out as a lesbian at 27. I became Italian when I started to get my bachelor’s degree at 29. I became Italian when I got involved with a Jew. I became Italian again when I fell madly in love with a Brazilian butch.
I became Italian when I moved to Minneapolis. I had been Italian before but with a small “i”, something that came up when people asked me where my name was from or, checking out my body language, my hair or my eyes, where I was from. You know the question I mean, the puzzled look on the face, eyebrow furrowed, and then, sometimes subtly sometimes directly, “you’re not from here, are you?” Followed by, “So where are you from?” Being white being light I don’t have to deal with the “no, where are you FROM?” when I say Cleveland. My right to be American is never questioned. But there is a pause and then, “Where are your folks from, what’s your ancestry?” It never occurs to me or to anyone in my family to refer to my mother’s blood line when answering that question. Her maternal German line, the pork chops at the table and the many generations of factory workers in Cleveland, they just were. Her paternal line, my grandpa, well he was an Indian who told everyone he was French Canadian. By grandpa’s choice and the metís of his skin, he defied race into something called passing. Tattoos and muscle, my mother’s father was a good white Catholic man who tanned well even in winter with an alias that had eluded the FBI for years. No, when anyone asked, I was Italian, an Italian that was my father and the name he left me and my brother. When people asked us what we were, my brother and I kept my father alive, his memory explaining the olive, darker on my brother, lighter on me, of our skin.
I am about four-years-old. We are sitting in our apartment, my father and me. He is huge, 6’ 4” tall and big bones, I can still feel the size of his arms around me. We are sitting on the floor in front of the TV. The moment is solemn. Music is playing faintly in the background. Arranged in front of us are a jar of hot peppers, a plate of bread, a glass of water, and some kind of white cheese. “You are Italian,” explains my father. And he pulls a pepper out of the jar, the juice dripping into his cupped palm as he moves it toward my mouth. I know this will be hot, it will have spice and maybe make my eyes water and my face turn red like it does for my father when he eats them, loudly and with gusto, tears pouring down his face and his belly bouncing with his laugh. This first time, this early ritual, all I do is lick with the tip of my tongue, sneak out and get a drop of juice before my father pulls the pepper away, gives me bread and cheese and some water to drink. This ritual will be repeated, I don’t remember how many times, until, just before his death, I could eat a bite of pepper without a quick bite of bread to ease the heat in my mouth.
My father died when I was young, before he could teach me much about being Italian. The taste of hot peppers, lemon ice in the summer, and knowing with pride that Italians make good jazz musicians. I looked like parts of his family, had ways in the world that he gave before he left, but his culture, his being Italian as easy as he breathed? He took that with him when he died.
I moved to Minneapolis and became Italian. I became something that was more than my father’s memory. For the first time, I started to take my own memories and weave them along with what I knew of him, Peter, Pietro Raffo, growing up in Queens, New York, summers as a child spent at Villa Raffo, the house in the Catskills where the mafioso went when the heat was on in the city. My father with the darker skin, the man who went south in the early 1960s to register Black voters because he knew it was right, because in the summer in rural New York with his hair shaved close to his head and his skin at its darkest he had been called nigger and he knew that it was only his Italian parents, their parents before them and his last name that stopped the racism directed at him from sinking past the summer color of his skin and settling into his bones and his dreams for the future. I moved to Minneapolis and became Italian. My memories entwined with my memory of my father and in my dreams, he rocked me in his arms.
“What’s your name from?” he asked me when we were both in the sixth grade.
“It’s Italian. My dad was Italian.”
“Oh yeah?” Even though we were both in the sixth grade and supposedly pre-sexual, I knew what was coming next. It had happened before. “I know all about Italian girls.” And he grabbed my arm and tried to pull me behind the white barn where the fast kids made out, each one taking turns to watch out for the teachers.
It made sense to me that this should happen. I knew that being Italian meant being watched and wanted. No matter what I did. This happened again and again and it wasn’t until I was much older that I learned this happened to many girls many women who walk willingly on public streets. I took it more personally, thinking there was something about me, something I couldn’t hide like the swell of my breasts or the fact of my legs. My uncles. Men on the streets. Boys at school. Ghost memories that hid behind my eyelids, not to materialize for many years, memories of men grabbing me, a man taking me, his whispers telling me I was different, I had dangerous blood. Poisonous. Toxic. The first time my mother’s father whispered this to me, dangerous blood you gotta watch it, he said, dangerous blood’s gonna show, I knew he was talking about something Italian, the taint of my father riddling its way through the blood of my heart. He didn’t have to tell me, his eyes on mine and his hands lingering, that dangerous blood had something to do with sex, the musty places where sex like blood long dried hid away from the melt of the sun. Did grandpa ever pull the words together for me — Italian dangerous blood sex poison — I don’t know but I began to tie this belief to the whispers that men aimed at my girl and then my woman, their whispers generally focusing on pussy pussy girl pussy girl come sit on my face but I heard Italian slut. This being-Italian meant that others, that men, saw something under my skin, something invisible to me but desired by them. This I believed, they could see something dangerous.
My father’s mother, my proverbial Italian grandmother, didn’t visit us much after my father died. She came once a year when we, her grandchildren, were still young. I remember missing her, even when she was there. Distant and watchful, she started to cry at the mere mention of my father’s name. In the course of eighteen months, my grandmother lost her mother, her husband, her first-born son and her first-born grandson. Her tethers to a past and a future were cut and let loose. Those of us still remaining held the frayed ends and tried to weave together some kind of history.
When I asked my grandmother for stories, she cried. Sometimes she was angry. She once told me in a rage that other people looked down on her family because they were Neopolitan, Napolitano. “Someday I am going to go back to Naples,” she would tell me. “Naples is a beautiful city of old squares with fountains in the center.” It is one of the few memories I have to trot out as a calling card when folks ask me to talk about “being Italian,” something that sounds legitimate, that has nouns and cultural placing. Once I tried to tell my grandmother that Naples had become a polluted industrial city with a port hanging over a coast line of sewage. She wasn’t interested.
It has been 27 years since my father and brother died in that car accident, 28 years since my grandfather, my father’s father, died. My grandmother lost the line of her history, something that she had been holding in her fingers, olive skin crocheting her way between Italian and American. She will not be sorrowed and when I told her on her eightieth birthday that it would have been good for me to hold her, to share with her the feeling of that loss, she told me I was pazza, that what was past is past and what is now is now.
I close my eyes and I can feel my father’s arms around me, I am so small, so much smaller than this grown up body can be. I was my grandfather’s favorite, Eugenio Raffo, I was first born and he wanted me to have a good Italian name but my mother liked Susan. I was his favorite and I have pictures and the ghost of a memory, we are in Miami, the city of sun he has moved to, and he holds me up to feel the fronds of a palm tree, his bald brown head glistening with sweat, he makes me laugh.
I moved to Minneapolis and became Italian because the first seven years of my life began to assert themselves through the second seven. It is not coincidence that when at age 29 and 30, I began to remember being raped four times, twice by family twice by friends, it was my father’s arms who held me, big and strong, held me and rocked rocked rocked me as I cried. Memory seeping out of liver and bile and moving from the shadows that had collected around my heart, my father held me and let me be small, when I moved to Minneapolis, I became Italian.
I am 34 years old. My father died when he was 31. When I turned 31, I was living in Minneapolis and I became Italian. In my dreams he is bigger than I am but when I put one foot after another, forward into a string of tomorrows, he recedes gently into staying younger. A few months ago, in the midst of tears and feelings of bone deep loss, I turned to my lover and started laughing. “Oh my god, Raquel,” I said, “I have conflated my father and God!” She responded with a loving, “Duh.”
When I feel small and frightened, my father holds me in his arms and he rocks me. I begin to understand why Catholicism, the Southern Italian flavor of Catholicism I grew up with, saints in rich robes and sobbing aloud in church, something in which Mary is everywhere present, strong woman mother to us all, Jesus is her son, the one the priests talk about but the people remember only in Church, and God Lord Father of us all God is someone you rarely see, with all of this I stop and rest, my fingers aching for the touch of communion, my knees remembering the hard leather, kneeling bowed head. I can not let go of traditions that long ago stopped including me. Mary watches and her image is kept by my bed and on the walls of my apartment but God, my father, I can’t see him and when I am sad and feeling small, he rocks me in his arms, gently gently, rocking me to sleep.
When I moved to Minneapolis I became Italian because my father reached out and claimed me. His arms took my body that was melting into something invisible and made me solid. My father, breath of memory, I can not smell the salt of his skin, but when I moved to Minneapolis and no longer knew who I was, my father took my hand. He walked with me as I turned 29 and 30, I can feel the calluses on his palm, and at 31 stopped and stood still, side by side, my body slowly pulling away into a place where his cells had long ago stuttered into something more holy.
I am Italian. I live in Minneapolis. My father has died and his family, they live in New York and Arizona, in San Francisco and they write me sometimes but they are people who keep their ghosts shut outside the doors of their American dreams. I came to Minneapolis to become Italian and things have changed: I am not afraid of sex and I am Italian. My father took my hand and brought me here. I am not afraid if you desire me and, truthfully, I hope that you do and if you do, I will work it. This body with its dangerous blood hungers for your touch, the light of your eyes on my body, I want you to look at me and I will not be afraid, memories long rested into settled dust. I am Italian and I have Italian family here, family not connected by blood but by something that doesn’t wash away. This family loves me and when I tell them I am afraid, their arms pull me against them and claim me as their own.
I am Italian. I live in Minneapolis. In the apartment that Raquel and I share, Mary watches from every corner, her eyes are visible and they know how I love my lover. In the apartment that Raquel and I share, my father sits at the table even as I can’t see him. His forearms rest on the solid wood, its color warm and light, we picked this out with my mother the last time she visited us. In the evenings, I sometimes put out bowls of peppers, platters of bread, and blocks of white cheese. I drink water and wine. He brought me here, my father, my God, my cells, and the lilt of my soul. I am Italian. I live in Minneapolis. When we are tired or on the edge of afraid, my lover and I, our bodies sometimes melting fire sometimes worried stone, when we are tired or when we rise, urgent hands, smooth skin insistent touch, hands that take and come, in our bed as Mary watches, my lover and I, we rock rock, we rock ourselves to sleep.