At the age of 25, I had lived in exactly three cities: Hudson, OH, Chicago, IL and Rome, Italy. When I became old enough to have a driver’s license and debit card with my full name on it, I began to notice a common trend when people would read my name.
“Aye, you’re a Dalessandro. Are you related to Tony Dalessandro?” the cashier/receptionist/doctor would say.
Because I learned quickly that they were probably not talking about my Grandpa’s 80-something year-old brother, Tony who runs the family pizza shop in Pennsylvania, my reply became “I am related to a Tony Dalessandro but I doubt it’s the same one. There are a lot of us out there.”
Every time this happened, it amused me particularly because they almost always asked about Tony. And it never surprised me because I’ve been told that Dalessandro is like the Smith of Italy. The original spelling is D’Alessandro which translates to “Son of Alexander.” When I lived in Italy for four months, I was asked then if I knew Dalessandros which seemed to prove the Smith of Italy theory.
When I decided to move to Atlanta last September, I had no idea how different this experience would become.
“Delllllaaaa,” said the cashier as she slowly started trying to sound out my name.
She tried again, “Delllllaaaa,” but then she stopped and said “What’s that? I’ve never heard a name like that before.”
I replied without hesitation, “It’s Italian.”
To which she stared blankly at me and again said “What’s that?”
At that moment, I realized that I had really never in my life been asked what it meant to be Italian. Growing up in the Midwest, there were certainly stereotypes thrown around but it was pretty common to not be the only kid in the class with a vowel at the end of their last name. Heck, my high school even had an Italian Club. When I met other Italians, it was like we had this unspoken bond. My whole life I had taken for granted that if you weren’t Italian, you at least knew someone who was.
And now, I was interacting on a daily basis with people who had never met an Italian in their lives. These were not 14-year-old kids either; these were late 20/early 30-something adults.
It wasn’t just at grocery store checkouts that I noticed it either; I began to notice it when men would approach me.
They would say things like, “What are you? I can tell you’re not regular white. You’re look exotic. You look like a Kardashian.”
I had never heard the term “not regular white” in regards to my outward appearance before. I’m used to being stared at for my size and the way I dress my body but not for the color of my hair, the color of my skin and any other physical traits that make me look “exotic.” When I told my friend and journalist Britt Julious about my experience in Atlanta, without hesitation she said ‘you’re being othered for your ethnicity.”
She defined it this way:
“Othering is the act of treating a human being as if they are not for things out of their control: their race, their sexuality, their ethnicity or size. It is not just a form of discrimination. Rather, it is othering that causes discrimination. When you view someone as less than a human being, as not, as OTHER than a person, it is easy to dismiss their concerns, voice and inherent humanity.”
I grew up understanding that my ethnicity was Italian and that was something I was extremely proud to be. But as I got older, I also fully understood how white privilege operated. I knew that this was a privilege that my Sicilian grandparents didn’t have. I knew that being the children of Italian immigrants to Ellis Island meant you needed to figure out how to be perceived as white.
Two different family members legally changed their Italian names to more Americanized versions and that certainly isn't uncommon among Italian celebrities either – Dean Martin’s was born Dino Paul Crocetti, Sophia Loren was born Sofia Villani Scicolone Ponti, and the list goes on. Growing up in the Midwest, I knew this was part of my heritage but what I didn’t know was what it meant to be “not regular white” in 2014.
Since it seemed that I was the Italian-American representative to the South, I wanted to have a really good answer to the question “What does it mean to be Italian?” I wanted to draw not just from own experiences but from other Italians across the country so I decided to ask my Italian family, friends and new friends from the Ready to Stare Instagram community what being Italian means to them and here’s what I found:
1) Family is everything.
“My favorite thing about being Italian is that my family always sticks together.” – Jamie Flick, Cleveland, OH
“Don't mess with our loved ones, we will viciously fight for them and we will win.” – Marisa Dalessandro Pisani, Hudson, OH
2) We sweat the small stuff and we cannot keep calm.
“My absolute favorite part about being Italian is definitely how much Italians care about details. Everything in my experience has been "Do it big, and do it right." Every project, meal, party, and major event no matter the size is taken care of from start to finish. That is something I admire about being an Italian.”- Terr Cacilia, New York, NY
3) You will be heard. But it will never be quiet.
“We are straight up kinda people. If we have a problem, it's hard to hold our tongue. With this, also comes constructive criticism. We take it and give it easily, and we appreciate it.” – Alexa Dalessandro, Byron Center, MI
“Being Italian means never a moment of silence – big family, big personalities, big noise.” - Terr Cacilia, New York, NY
4) You will be hugged.
“There is no such thing as personal space with Italians. They will grab you, kiss you, squeeze your cheeks, doesn't matter.” – Rose Dipetrio Mendel, Cleveland, OH
5) Not only can we cook, but we will make sure you are never hungry.
“My favorite thing about being Italian is probably the food. Seriously, every time I visit my family in Cleveland and Pittsburgh, we know without a doubt there will be tons of pastas and cheeses and sorts of meat waiting for us.” – Alexa Dalessandro, Byron Center, MI
“We pride ourselves on being hospitable to everyone. We love to entertain, talk loudly and dance the tarantella.” – Gina Dalessandro, Stow, OH
6) Don’t trust the stereotypes, well most of them.
“People think all Italians are either tied up in the mafia or they are criminals. Not to mention the jokes "Aye so do you know Al Pacino?" Those are the worse. But I'm proud of who I am and they can't change the way I feel.” – Julia Theriot
“No we are not all related to a Mafioso, Yes we are loud...that stereotype is actually pretty accurate. We don't all look like Snooki. Actually most of us don't look anything LIKE Snooki,” - Sara Fouts, Spokane, Washington
7) Being Italian-American isn’t the same as being Italian.
“This is important. Living in Italy taught me that I'm not Italian - I'm Italian American, and that is something different and incredibly special. Our ancestors left Italy (a place many people adored) to make a better life. Through the generations we have become something different, and something Italians would not recognize as Italian. As a student in Italy I wanted to be an Italian. Living there for a longer period I became proud of my status as an Italian American. We've got the best parts of two cultures!” – Jessie Ciraldo, Chicago, IL
“I had a hard time adjusting to the laws and how strict law enforcement is in America. The police would run red lights in Italy, just because they wanted to get to lunch quickly. The main difference would probably be the cooking, but that is because the quality of food in Italy is different from quality of food here, and probably the lifestyle. Italian Americans tend to be a bit more traditional.” – Sara Fouts currently lives in Spokane, Washington but was born and raised in Italy
8) We are pretty damn proud to be Italian.
“My favorite thing about being Italian is all the traditions/food/culture that are passed down and unite the generations in a special way which makes you feel that you are part of something.” – Marla Dalessandro, Hermitage, PA
“Italy is such a small country with so much cultural impact. I just love the heritage and being able to be a part of it.” – Jessie Ciraldo, Chicago, IL
“Being an Italian means PRIDE! Coming from a country with so much history deserves pride.” - Sara Fouts, Spokane, Washington
Thanks to everyone who gave me their input for this post and for allowing me to share my experience!
To me, being Italian is all about talking with my hands, loving the hell out of my family, dressing gaudy and glamorous and never apologizing for who you are.
By: Alysse Dalessandro, Owner/Designer, Ready-to-Stare
Alysse Dalessandro is owner of fashion brand Ready to Stare. A jewelry designer, creator and self-empowerment advocate, Alysse – a Chicago and Cleveland native – recently located to Atlanta where she feels her cutting edge urban designs will have more of an impact. Currently her designs can be purchased at http://www.etsy.com/shop/readytostare.
Follow Ready-to-Stare on Instagram: @readytostare or Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/readytostare
This post was originally published on August 13, 2014.