In February I wrote about what I called “The American Connection” and some people misunderstood what I meant. Some thought I meant that I grew up with doubts or confusion about my Italian identity. That is not the case. I want to clarify what I meant and then use it as a stepping stone to talk about “North End identity.”
In that February article, I talked about my former BU colleague Patricia Park’s frustration at often being perceived as non-American because of her Korean ancestry and physical features, and of her own sense of not feeling fully American because of her Korean ancestry. However, as she noted, when she was 30 and finally visited Korea, she realized just how American – and non-Korean – she really was. It was then she realized that “there is a real danger in spending your whole life thinking you belong to some other place that’s anywhere but here,” and that “we must challenge our views on hyphenated-Americans and their place of belonging. You might even say it’s time we collectively weaned ourselves off the proverbial teat of the motherland.”
In connection with her article, I talked about my own sense of growing up “Italian” and Italian-American but without the sense of tension between being Italian and American that she had in regard to her American birth and Korean ancestry. Of course, I felt the difference between the Italian and American sides, no doubt about it. But I felt (more or less) that I could be both Italian and American – and that if I told people I was Italian American, they accepted that the two terms could mesh together. This meshing was harder for Patricia because people saw her “Korean-ness” as always trumping her American-ness, and this due solely to her non-European (non-White) ancestry.
My overall point was simply this: that despite the fact that I do have an “Italian” aspect to my identity, one that is firm and non-problematic to me, I think in the end it is important for me to consider myself as being closer to Patricia as my fellow-American than to consider myself closer to Italians (from Italy) as fellow Italians. She and I – and all of us born in United States no matter what our ancestry – are Americans. We have to value that and we have to see the American-ness in each other. It doesn’t mean letting go of our ancestry (if we don’t want to), but it does mean the changing sense of belonging that Patricia referred to – as seeing ourselves really belonging not to the “old country” but to the “new country” – to America.
Having clarified this, let me complicate it a bit by talking about identity in the North End.
First, not everyone in our Italian neighborhood was of Italian ancestry or Italian birth (though most certainly were). Some North Enders were of Spanish, Portuguese, Irish, Jewish, Arab, English, and Puerto Rican ancestry (with names to match) either fully or with some mix. This ancestry did not matter in respect to being North Enders because they were North Enders because they were born in the North End, lived in the North End, talked like North Enders, and lived life pretty much the same way everyone else did (though I don’t know what food they ate at home).
Second, as the above shows, identity in the North End was linked to the territory of the neighborhood, this was probably the strongest part of our identity. Thus, the North End identity was as much a territorial identity as an ethnic or racial one.
Now, this was true in a lot of urban areas and in many U.S. cities where mixed groups of (mainly European immigrants) lived amidst a majority Italian/Italian American population: the Italian identity predominated. And this was true in the North End. Everybody who lived here, even if they were not fully of Italian ancestry, identified with the Italian-ness of the neighborhood – what scholars call Italianità. This Italianità went with the territory. I’m sure this varied individually, but I know it existed.
It (North End territorial identity) still does today, though in a different and maybe even a more expansive way in the sense that the North End is still identified as an “Italian” territory and that some people living there who are not Italian adopt what they think of as a North End – Italian – lifestyle. The “Italian-ness” of the North End today is a bigger question than I can discuss at length and at this point, but I would say that it still persists. It does not persist in the now almost-all-gone speech forms, social clubs, clothing, sports leagues, corner groups, etc., and not in the restaurants, butcher shops, bakers, and cafes, but but rather in dynamic street live and especially the general sense of neighborliness and attachment that Jane Jacobs lauded in her famous book The Death and Life of Great American Cities (1961). North End identity is still a territorial identity, with Italianità as a kind of ethnic canopy over it.
I don’t know Patricia Park had any territorial identity. I don’t know if she grew up in a Korean American neighborhood that was as geographically and ethnically intense as the North End was. So she may not have had a local identity into which her Korean and American identities were woven, and so whereas the mother-land that she had to let go of was Korea, for me – and for many in the North End – the mother-land is not so much Italy but the North End itself. It is here that our identity is really rooted.