by Frances Bartolutti (They/She)
It’s fascinating how literally wearing your culture on your sleeve for a day can open up a can of worms you’ve never considered. This fall, the school where I work on the West Side of Chicago had a Cultural Heritage spirit day for our Homecoming week. As a teacher, I try to participate in all the school-wide activities I can, so I wanted to go all out for Cultural Heritage day. I dug my Italian flag out of the closet and wore it as a cape for the entire day. During my 3rd period class, one of my students told me that I was the first Italian person he’d ever met. While I seriously doubt that since I know at least three other Italian-American staff members at North-Grand, his statement stuck with me, and not for the reasons you might suspect. His labeling me as an “Italian person” felt pretty ironic since, at this point in my life, I didn’t feel Italian anymore. Growing up, I felt like I had more of an Italian identity than I really did. As time went on and I expanded my worldview, I realized that there is more to culture than the bare remnants of what was passed down in my family.
My Italian roots stem from my great-grandparents on my father’s side of the family. My great grandfather, Giuseppi Bartolutti, immigrated to the United States in the early 1900s from a small village near Venice. Once established in the U.S., my great-grandfather immediately faced discrimination for being an immigrant. He was forced to fight in World War I or face deportation. He and his wife (my great-grandmother, who was second-generation Italian) were harassed for being Italian (and Catholic). The term “WOP” is burned into our collective family consciousness as fighting words, its meaning and hatred passed down generations. My great grandparents later moved from Chicago, where my great-grandfather worked in the steel mills, to Hamilton (now Montreal), Wisconsin, where he took a job as an iron ore miner. There in Hamilton, my great-grandparents were some of the only Italians. This trend continued down the family line with the Bartoluttis always being some of the only Italians around.
My great-grandparents made it clear to my grandfather and his siblings that assimilation into the greater U.S. culture was their goal. They wanted to get the target off their backs and start our family anew. My great-grandparents did not speak Italian at home and they did not talk about the homeland. Not much was passed down the line except for blood, a few odd family traditions, heirlooms and the occasional recipe. Just like my grandfather struggled to learn anything from his father, my dad had to interrogate my Pupa for information. Eventually, he gave up. It just wasn’t important. My dad took Italian in college, later forgot most of it, and that’s about it. In this way, I view my family’s tale more as a story about immigration than as a hallmark of Italian identity. I grew up with more of a Midwestern (specifically Wisconsin) cultural identity. I was constantly surrounded by beer, cheese, Sunday night Green Bay Packer football games and Friday night fish fries. My family and I have the accent, colloquialisms and attitudes of true Wisconsinites because, well, that’s what we are. My family has more Wisconsin cultural traditions and views than Italian.
Growing up, I didn’t see myself as different from the rest of my peers. I am from Madison, the capital of Wisconsin. Madison is a predominantly white city, with roughly equal pockets of Asian, Black and Hispanic families. In middle school, my white peers with traditional English names teased me because of my last name. This was my first time (though certainly not my last) being singled out. They called me FARTolutti. Their name calling was hurtful and embarrassing and it drove me to start going by Bart in school and on my soccer team, where the coach insisted on calling everyone by our last names. He was relieved about that; he had a really hard time pronouncing my name anyway. The same peers who laughed at my last name, would also laugh at the names of my Hmong classmates. I was able to escape my name-based harassment eventually in high school; my first name, Frances, was English enough to avoid scrutiny, and my classmates grew out of their middle school humor. My Hmong classmates though weren’t so lucky. For them, the weird looks and double-takes at their names never stopped. I suspect this is because they were not white.
This brings us really to the crux of the matter: who is able to assimilate into the greater fabric of the U.S. and who is rejected. I believe that race plays the biggest factor. In the United States, white culture is a monolith. Ethnic traditions that come from white people are generally accepted into the greater U.S. culture while non-white cultures face at best scrutiny and at worst outwards hostility. As Italians, our culture has largely been accepted within the U.S. Granted, this did take time. I would like to recognize the discrimination Italians faced in the U.S., prevailing in some places into the second half of the twentieth century. In fact, for much of the Italian-American experience, Italians were not considered white at all. This being said, Italian Americans and our culture now have been brought into whiteness and thus do not face the obstacles that non-white Americans and their cultures experience in this current day. There are a plethora of examples of non-white peoples and cultures facing rejection. The United States participated in the forced assimilation of Indigenous people in residential schools, resulting in cultural genocide and an unfathomable loss of life. Even after over a hundred years of this horrendous practice to supposedly integrate Indigenous people into U.S. society, Indigenous people are still othered. Some Mexican-American families can trace their ancestry to the American Southwest before the US took that land from Mexico. However, these same Mexican-Americans face alienation from the U.S. mainstream even though their families have been in the United States longer than a lot of white American families. There is an outright rejection of African cultures from the American fabric. Using injera (a spongy flatbread) to eat your meal is a staple of Ethiopian culture. This practice, when performed by Ethiopians is seen as uncivilized, whereas no one bats an eye at Italians practicing scarpetta.
Thus, it is a great privilege to be able to assimilate or be accepted into the U.S. mainstream culture. By being a part of the United States’ mainstream (read white) culture, we avoid persecution and alienation. No one has reason to be afraid of being Italian in the United States now in the twenty-first century. We do not face systemic oppression, unlike other non-white people. This privilege is, of course, gained at the expense of these racialized others whose identities are barred from being accepted, or even fundamentally allowed to peacefully exist. In fact, Italians and Italian-Americans have done our fair share of actively perpetuating this harm. Racism is rampant in Italy as well as in Italian-American communities. We have a responsibility to be accountable for this, to do better.
While assimilation comes with this great privilege, I would like to also unpack the great loss that also comes from assimilating. Assimilation comes with weakened cultural ties as you either give up your culture to join the mainstream or your culture morphs into something that can be claimed by the majority. I think the best example is actually the simplest: food. The Americanization of Italian food, like pizza, is widespread. There is Chicago deep-dish or the New York slice. Both of these cities have a claim to and pride in their pizza; it is no longer just Italian. Pizza now has an American identity, decentralizing it from its Italian roots. A deeper example of this loss actually comes from an activity I did with my students. We were examining intersectionality to get in touch with our identities. I put together a four corners activity with different identity categories around the room: ethnicity, race, gender identity, sexual orientation, socio-economic status, religion, country of origin and ability. The point of the activity was to reflect on the many aspects of our identities as well as consider which parts of ourselves we hold most central. When asked questions like “what identity do you think the most about,” “what identity do you have the most pride in” and “what identity is celebrated the most in your family,” the grand majority of my students (all of whom are Hispanic or Black) chose to stand by ethnicity or race. The marginalization of their non-white cultures by the dominant U.S. mainstream has, for them, created an intensely powerful ethnic or racial identity that is a source of immense pride. Enduring and existing in a society stacked against you is resistance. After participating in this activity with them, I realized that I did not have this connection to my ethnicity. When I participated with them, I stood by ethnicity maybe once, choosing to go to sexual orientation and gender identity far more often. I have come to accept this as a reality of my experience, of my family’s experience, but I can’t help but think of what a shame it is.
So, is there anything that can be done? Is it possible to undo whiteness and reclaim our unique heritage from the white monolith, or are white ethnic identities too compromised to redeem? I think that it is possible; it will just take effort on our part. In order to undercut whiteness, we must undertake active reflection of what it really means to be Italian and what it means to have an identity. It might not be possible to reclaim concrete aspects of our heritage (food, art, music, traditions, etc.) that have been co-opted, but what we can reclaim is the feeling. The same loss I felt realizing that I probably would never have the same strong cultural ties my students did was alleviated by the feeling of accepting what I do have. To break the white monolith, we need to accept that there is nuance in identity and that leaning into that nuance, is the only way we can truly break free and embrace all parts of ourselves. I will probably never be “Italian-enough” for some people, but I am realizing that I am Italian-enough for me. Through writing this piece, talking with my family, participating in active reflection, and while reading through Pummarola, I have felt a spark of pride in my ethnicity for the first time in years. I can see that feeling, that acceptance, embedded throughout Pummarola as we collectively wrestle with what it means to be Italian American. You cannot go through life ignoring parts of yourself, both those aspects that hold privilege, and those that face marginalization. Only by going through an ongoing process of being conscious of all your parts can you find understanding and acceptance.
Frances Bartolutti (They/She) is a queer high school social studies teacher in Chicago Public Schools. Frances was born in Madison, Wisconsin, to parents of Italian and German descent and moved to Chicago for school where they now teach and live with their partner and two cats. Frances received their BSEd in Secondary Education and their BA in History from Loyola University Chicago in 2021. Frances teaches with a culturally relevant pedagogy and aims to use education as a revolutionary agent of change.