In the unusual spelling of my family name lies a significant aspect of North American Italian culture. Schembri is the original spelling of my name, as it appears in the birth record of my grandfather in the nineteenth-century municipal record book in Bivona, Sicily.The vulgarization of surnames is, of course, typical among North American immigrants. It happened often for obvious reasons: simplification of foreign names and mistakes. But it is hard to believe that there was not a more fundamental motivation that allowed a family to obliterate its lineage and its very identity. The pressure to assimilate that nearly all immigrants experienced must have been a strong motivation.
For both immigrant and first generation Italians such as my grandparents and parents, they were often under a different kind of influence, one that separated them from other immigrants. In the first place, many Italian immigrants did not necessarily feel “Italian,” though they may have felt, as Richard Gambino tells us in Blood of My Blood, nostalgic towards their village. In America’s pre-World War II neighbourhoods they were more inclined to identify themselves as Sicilians or Calabrians than Italians. What could “Italian” have possibly meant to peasants who did not speak standard Italian or share a common identity with people from Florence or Milan? Italian, I suspect, was a term, like some others, that was used by their bosses or teachers to describe them: dagoes, wops, or “Eyetalians.”
As my grandfather’s few remaining documents indicate, my last name underwent an odyssey before it took its current form. Was the misspelling a mistake? It probably was, since my grandfather could not read or write well, though it appears he could write his name. But why didn’t he care enough to get it right or at least ask others to get it right for him?
Part of the answer to that question is revealed in my father’s attitude towards Italy. Some of my first encounters with anti-Italian sentiment was within my own family. My father, born in Texas, never failed to condemn Italy’s betrayal of his father and the immigrant class. “What did Italy ever do for us?” was his question whenever Italy was mentioned. His opinion was reinforced by one of my immigrant uncles who was fond of saying that the only crops he ever harvested from the unforgiving Sicilian land were onions and rocks.
When I announced plans for my first trip to Italy to visit relatives in our ancestral villages, my father was dismayed. Upon my return from that first trip, as well as from my many subsequent trips over the years, he never betrayed any interest in my Italian travels. He had never visited Italy or Sicily but, no doubt from his father, he knew all he needed to know: no jobs. So what was the loss of a name as a sign of lineage and la patria?
But my father’s generation of southern Italians suffered another blow, one that post-World War II North American Italians have been reluctant to discuss over the years. In spite of my father’s opinion of Italy, my Calabrian mother, born in a Utah mining town, often spoke fondly of her mother’s village. Yet, she and my father faced pressure to assimilate from another source: Mussolini’s entrance into World War II.
Gambino tells us in Blood of My Blood that wide-spread support for Mussolini among Italians was “superficial” in America. Even so, there is an extensive scholarly literature on Italian fascist activities in America, as Philip Cannistraro demonstrates in Blackshirts in Little Italy: Italian Americans and Fascism – 1921-1929. Recent works such as The Darkest Side of the Fascist Years: The Italian-Canadian Press – 1920-1942 by Angelo Principe, and Filippo Salvatore’s Fascism and the Italians of Montreal, testify to the influence of Italian fascism in Canada. Principe explains that interest in Italian fascism grew among Italian Canadians in the 1930s. Cannistraro also points out that, in spite of Mussolini’s lukewarm reception in America among Italian immigrants, Italian fascism was an important aspect of pre-war Italian American history. I would add that, in more subtle ways, Italian fascism continues to be an integral part of Italian American identity that most Italians in North America have yet to come to terms with and would rather forget.
Anyone can understand the accidental change of my surname. But I have spent a lifetime trying to explain Kenneth Niles. In 1936 my oldest brother was christened, as tradition dictated, Robert Vincent, after my grandfather, Vincenzo. In June of 1940 Mussolini entered the war with Germany. In July of 1940 my other brother was christened, Terryl Allen. In 1945 after Mussolini’s annihilation and Italy’s complete humiliation, I became by whim, but not by accident, Kenneth Niles. When, as a boy, I asked my mother why, she said quite simply, “we wanted you all to be American.” I never thought to ask, but why Roberto Vincenzo?
What role has Italian fascism played in the post-war marginalization of Italians in North America? Is this the other storia segreta, yet another forgotten piece of North American Italian history besides the internment of Italians during World War II? When we say that previous generations were pressured by Anglo-American culture to assimilate, in Israel Zangwill’s term, into the “melting pot,” are we telling the whole story? In truth, Mussolini and Italian fascism contributed as well to the invisibility and silencing of immigrants, their children, and grandchildren in their struggle for a place in North American culture. This is the untold story – la storia nascosta.
Kenneth Scambray is professor of English at the University of La Verne, California, firstname.lastname@example.org