Monday, April 26, 2010

The Cultural Melting-Pot

My great-grandfather came to America from Italy in the early 1900s. My Dad tracked down all of the documentation, though I'm not sure how much we know of ancestors farther back than that. Which, in the grand scheme of things, isn't all that far. One thing I do know about my great-grandparents, however, is that they believed whole-heartedly in a concept I remember learning in school: the Melting-Pot Theory of cultural assimilation. The idea of the Melting Pot was, from Wikipedia (since I had to hand in my old textbooks at the end of the school year):

a metaphor for a heterogeneous society becoming more homogeneous, the different elements "melting together" into a harmonious whole with a common culture. It is particularly used to describe the assimilation of immigrants to the United States; the melting-together metaphor was in use by the 1780s.
This notion was never discussed with me by any of my relatives. They never said to me, "We're all in favor of the melting pot theory." Rather, I can tell they bought into it because I have no cultural heritage to speak of. My parents would tell me about family traditions they remembered from when they were younger, but being told isn't the same as experiencing them. I know, for instance, that Italian families often have enormous feasts around certain major holidays. Christmas Eve or Christmas, I forget which, was definitely a big one. There were certain standard dishes to be served at each course. I've never been to one of these feasts, I've just heard my dad talk about it. I think probably his grandmother was the last one in our line to host one. His own mom was neither Italian nor an especially capable cook, so that's not too surprising. That's got a lot to do with it, I'm sure - my paternal grandmother wasn't Italian and I don't believe my maternal grandmother was, either. But neither did they have cultural traditions that they passed down to their children. We basically just had the same traditions as all the other generic white Catholics in Upstate New York.

It's hard to miss what you never had, but I kind of do. I wish I spoke Italian. Or, hell, any foreign language. I'm pretty adept at English, so clearly learning a language wasn't always beyond my capacity. I may have had a limited window of opportunity, though - I took something like five years of French in High School and college and can't speak a word of it. I probably could have picked up Italian, though, if it had happened organically. It's not just the language, though. It's the connection to the past that would be nice. I don't feel particularly Italian, or any other ethnic group, because I don't really have any of the cultural baggage that would go with them. Practically the only indication of my ancestry is my greasy dark hair and the funny way I pronounce mozzarella (it came out moots-are-ell for years).

It's nobody's fault. It's just that some families clung tightly to their heritage and others were more apt to try to blend in. It's pretty clear that my family, or at least my grandfathers' branches of them, were inclined to "just be regular Americans" - a decision that likely either led to or resulted from their marriages to women who were not predominantly Italian. Likewise, my grandmothers evidently didn't feel overwhelmed by the need to hang on to the traditions of their European backgrounds. The result - I'm culturally a full-blooded American, with no real sense connection to anywhere outside this country. That's okay - being an American is fine and dandy, and we have a rich, vibrant culture all our own. My roots may not run deep, but they're intertwined with millions of other families now - all part of the great melting-pot.

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