A story of language loss: Sicilian Americans in New Orleans in the 20th Century
The Managing Director of HLE Network shares a personal perspective about heritage language maintenance in her own family. Gisi Cannizzaro talks with her 89-year-old “Aunt Angie,” as well as with Anthony Germade, the Executive Director of the American Italian Cultural Center in New Orleans, to find out why the Italian community in New Orleans did not manage to maintain the Italian language two generations ago. She asks the question, “Why don’t I speak Italian?”
November 05, 2021
by Gisi Cannizzaro
It would certainly be convenient if I could speak Italian. I married an Italian man, now have Italian in-laws, and have established a family language plan to ensure that my multilingual children will be fluent in Italian – which includes helping set up some Italian lessons in Eindhoven for the children to follow when they start school. However, despite my own Sicilian heritage, I was raised monolingually in the U.S. and cannot hold a very meaningful conversation in Italian. How did it happen?
When I was growing up, I felt very Italian in that we had large and loud family gatherings with Italian food, Italian names – our family even had a wholesale specialty food business that featured Italian import products. I had a cousin in Palermo, Sicily, who became a pen pal with me so she could practice her English. It never occurred to me that it was strange that no Italian was spoken in the family; it never occurred to me to try to learn some Italian to practice with my cousin in Sicily. No one questioned the dominance of English.
Decades later, I am asking why. I reached out to my family in the U.S. to see what they had to say about the language loss that occurred generations ago. The last one remaining of all of her brothers and sisters, and the beloved matriarch of a boisterous Italian-American flock, my “Aunt Angie” recounted to me over Skype the choices made about language when she was growing up in the 1930s and 40s.
What year were you born and where were you born?
Angie: I was born in 1932 and will be 90 on February 28, 2022. I was born on Chartres Street at home with a midwife in New Orleans. (I was actually born on February 29, but the midwife did not want me to miss a birthday!)
Where were your parents and grandparents born?
Angie: My mother was born in the U.S., probably also on Chartres Street. My dad was born in Palermo in 1899. All four of my grandparents were born in Palermo.
Why did your mother’s parents move to New Orleans and why did your father move to New Orleans?
Angie: My grandfather and great uncle on my mom’s side came from Palermo together and were bricklayers, and then they sent for the ladies.
My daddy came to America when he was 21. He was a seaman and a cabinet-maker, and he entered through the port of New Orleans, not Ellis Island. He rented a place next to St. Mary’s Italian Church. My mother at that time was living directly across the street from the church, so that is how they met.
What language did your parents speak?
Angie: My father was born and raised in Italy and he spoke Sicilian dialect. My father came to America with some knowledge of English, but it was always broken English. I don’t remember my mother speaking Italian too much. My mother was more comfortable in English.
Did you learn to speak Italian by speaking it with your father?
Angie: Us kids did understand everything said to us in Italian, but we never became fluent. My dad definitely wanted us kids to learn Italian more than we ended up learning. I only spoke Italian when answering my grandmother, who I used to spend time with during the summer. I was able to communicate it somehow with her, but I never became fluent.
Did you ever follow any Italian lessons as a child?
Angie: The Italian families organized lessons for the children at the Italian Hall on Esplanade Avenue. It was “book Italian,” the “grammatical Italian.” The lessons might have been two nights per week. My sister who was two years older than I was grasped it more and she taught herself. She had books and I didn’t. I was very young and the lessons lasted only a short time for me. When WWII broke out, the Italian consulate discontinued the Italian classes.
When you went to school, did your classmates or teachers ask you about your home language?
Angie: At that time, our area was considered Little Italy. It was all Italian kids back then – I would say 95% of the other students were direct descendants from Italy, second generation. Italian was spoken at home, but the kids all just understood it and didn’t verbally speak it. All of the children spoke English to each other. All of the teachers were Catholic Italian nuns, and they spoke English to us.
So everyone was Italian, but the kids could not speak it. Why do you think that is?
Angie: I just felt the way my daddy felt: we were just proud to be American. When my dad got his American citizenship, he was so elated and I was proud of him. He joined the coast guard reserve. They were leaving Italy and coming to a better life. Most of the men felt that they had to learn English, they felt more the urge to learn the English language. Rather than pass on Italian to the children.
What was the attitude by the public about people who speak Italian? Was there discrimination?
Angie: I never experienced any discrimination. My father would get offended if people would call him racial slurs for Italians, but he would laugh it off with a joke.
Conditions around discrimination definitely improved during my school years. I think part of this was that so many of the Italian immigrants had proven to be very successful and prosperous business owners. Many are still in business with second and third generation family members.
You married a man with Italian heritage. Could he speak Italian?
Angie: My first husband’s family came from mainland Italy, Catania, which had a different dialect than Sicily. He did not understand much Italian.
So you had an ability to understand some Italian, but this was not a skill that you could transfer to your own four children because you were not fluent yourself. Did they ever ask why they never learned Italian?
Angie: Exactly, I could not pass on any Italian to my children. They never really asked me why no Italian was spoken or passed on. With my children, I would sing to them some songs like the “Mano Manuza” song and just some expressions that my grandmother had told me.
So this is also the reason no Italian got passed on to me. Your brother (my grandfather) was not in a position to speak any Italian with his sons either.
Angie: That’s right.
Have you ever been to Italy?
Angie: Yes, after my first husband died. I visited our family in Palermo. When I arrived, they asked me if I could understand grammatical Italian or Sicilian dialect, and I told them dialect, so that is what they had to speak to me in order for me to understand.
Have you taken any Italian classes as an adult?
Angie: Yes, I took some Italian classes. I understood most of it, but it still doesn’t flow out of my mouth speaking it. I told the teacher what I really want to do is just learn conversational Italian, but he was set on conjugating verbs and stuff. If you get used to speaking it as a child, then you can put in the grammatical part of it much more easily . . . I had arranged some small group lessons to work on conversation skills, but they were cancelled when COVID started.
Looking back, do you wish things would have been different?
Angie: Yes, I would have preferred it that way, if my daddy would have won his battle. I would have been bilingual and would have learned Italian.
After talking to my aunt, I was still curious about the social, political, economic, and historical reasons there must have been for an entire community to experience this type of widespread language loss. I reached out to Anthony Germade, the Executive Director of the American Italian Cultural Center in New Orleans.
Do you have information about the language loss that took place during this period within the Italian community? Did it have to do with the political status of American English (American dream, economic opportunity)?
Anthony: my grandmother immigrated to New Orleans as a young child around 1900. She also never learned Italian. To my knowledge, America wanted to "assimilate" immigrants from all countries, so retaining or learning their native language was not encouraged. Teachers only taught English back then as they thought that was the most helpful way for immigrants to get jobs, etc.
Was there a low status of Italian immigrants? Maybe there was discrimination? My aunt says that she was never personally discriminated against for being an Italian.
Anthony: There was a great deal of discrimination against Italians in New Orleans because most immigrants were assumed to be uneducated laborers. Therefore, the city, schools, and businesses discouraged them from keeping their Italian culture and language. I recall my grandmother saying she was bullied and degraded as a teenager growing up in the French Quarter, even to the point where she did not want to admit she was Italian.
There were also political obstacles, particularly around the 1930s and 40s because Italy/Mussolini partnered with Germany and Japan in WWII. So there was some anger towards Italian immigrants (all over the U.S.) because of that. That, in part, discouraged immigrants from embracing their Italian culture here.
In addition, the famous and unfortunate lynchings of Italians in 1891 in New Orleans (11 died) did not help the situation with new Italian immigrants. So, there is no single answer of why Italian immigrants for the most part, did not learn Italian. Political, economic, social, and cultural racism, bias, and negativity certainly existed.
I was born in the 1980s and never heard one negative thing about being Italian.
Anthony: I believe things started changing after WWII and Italian-American conditions started improving in the 1950's and 60's. Nowadays, Italian language classes are taking place again, and we even offer them on Zoom!
After discovering this aspect of New Orleans’ history, I am grateful that the appreciation of multilingualism, multiculturalism, and diversity is on the rise in the region where I am raising my children. I can contribute to the prevention of unnecessary language loss, not only by supporting my own children in the development of their three languages, but also through the platform of the HLE Network. Activities include informing parents of multilingual children about the benefits of maintaining the heritage language, as well as supporting heritage language education programs.
For resources, visit www.hlenet.org/resources.