Random thoughts

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“Little Italy” goes back to San Jose

January 21st, 2009 · No Comments

The county of Santa Clara has begun plans to bring a “Little Italy” neighborhood back to San Jose. The web site is still under construction, or at least I hope the “coming soon” text when you click “Vision” does not refer to a lack of vision in itself. Jokes aside, from a sociological standpoint there’s something absolutely interesting about a “Little Italy” and the people it caters to. Little Italies around the United States are obviously a few generation behind compared to the “Madre Patria” (the motherland) [and doesn’t that word in itself sound somehow obsolete to an italian’s ears?], and they put under the spotlight a generational gap that I had never realized was that deep.

The fracture between the culture of my generation and the culture of Italy around World War II is clear. It’s hard to find anyone in his 30s who would not roll his eyes with contempt when listening to the type of music that would make my mom jump with happiness and nostalgia. But if it wasn’t for Little Italies, I would not imagine there could be an alternative world where that same transition can occur gently. A group of people who moved out of the country before these disruptive dynamics arose, and bred new generations that became able to better cope with the taste of their fathers. And so I wonder, what were these dynamics that made my generation so clearly reject what was happening just a few years before. I mean, it was never an open war, it just so happen that we felt we were different. And we probably felt that it was normal to reject what the previous generations had liked, to label it as old, boring and worth forgetting; that a cultural refresh every 50 or so years is the rule to be expected, not the exception. But now I start to doubt this rule.

Unfortunately I can’t really grasp what I’m referring to. Music, for sure, but there must be something else. There must be something else because when I’m in a Little Italy or surrounded by older italian immigrants and their progeny there’s this feeling… this feeling of not belonging there, this feeling of being dealing with a crystallization of the past. I can’t deny I’m an immigrant myself, I can’t deny I came from Italy, but if I had to start building a community that represents my origins, it would not look a single bit like a Little Italy. I don’t know what it would look like, really. It obviously would offer different food, different entertainment, but what else?

Come to think of it, it would be impossible to represent me with a “Little Italy”. A “Little Torino”, maybe. Because I have to admit I’ve never felt so italian until I moved out of Italy. My real origins are much more compartimentalized, and the idea of finding the essence of an “Italy” and its traditions is bogus from the start, because the only thing we all had in common when we lived our lives in Italy was national TV.

An italian friend of mine once was shocked as he told me about these “traditional italian cookies” that are well known in the United States to be a staple of the typical italian kitchen. He had never heard of them before. Our typical reaction to this kind of things is “yet another made-up american stereotype”… Americans know these cookies by the name “Pizzelle“. I thought this could only be a coincidence. When I found them in stores I started laughing. The pizzelle from my dad’s home town gained stature as no less than “an italian tradition” in the United States. Those same pizzelle I was running away from when I was a kid (yes, I’ve never liked them), are going to be here to hunt me for the rest of my life. That was funny, and although I hate to admit it, that really is a piece of my own tradition, and I can’t help but being proud of it. I’m not saying I’ll start eating them now, no, but I’m still proud of it.

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