I am a fifty-nine-year old professor of French and Italian at San Diego State University. I was born in Loretto Hospital on March 23, 1952. Loretto Hospital still overlooks the Eisenhower Expressway, formerly known as the Congress Expressway. I lived, for the most part, in a house owned by my grandfather, Cesare Sacco, located at 1247 N. Monticello Avenue.

To protect me from our gang-ridden neighborhood, my dad shipped me off to a residential military academy from first to eighth grade. I lived there throughout the school year from Sunday evening to Friday afternoon. Then, I came home to get into trouble with my cousins who lived upstairs from me or nearby. During the summer, my dad shipped me off to Camp St. Joseph around 100 miles north of Chicago. I only had August to get into more trouble, which we did at every opportunity.

When someone asks where we’re from in Chicago, we always say Grand and Pulaski, located on the west side of Chicago. We actually lived at the junction of Grand Avenue, Division Street, and Monticello Avenue. In Chicago geography, Division Street is twelve hundred north while Monticello Avenue is thirty-six hundred west. Living off of Division Street means we lived around twelve blocks north of Chicago’s north-south border, Madison Street. Thirty-six hundred west means we lived around three and one-half miles west of Lake Michigan. When someone from Arlington Heights or one of Chicago’s many suburbs claimed he or she was from Chicago, we would frown or correct him or her indignantly: “You ain’t from Chicago!”

One’s identity in Chicago begins with the question: “What are you?” Anywhere else in America the question “What are you?” elicits a puzzled look. The answer to “What are you?” in Chicago elicits a clear and logical answer: I’m Italian. . . I’m Lithuanian. . . I’m Polish. Only immigrants from the South answered that they’re American.

In Chicago the question “What are you?” initiated most conversations between two people who didn’t know each other—as predictably as two dogs sniffing each other’s butt to confirm identification. The answer to “What are you?” informed us if our interlocutor was a potential friend or enemy. If someone answered “I’m Italian” then the natural follow-up question is “What are you–Galabrez? Sicilian? Nabulitan?” Calabrese, Siciliano, and Napoletano are the textbook spellings and pronunciations of these three Italian identities that have been bastardized by our dialects. Years later, my Florentine tutor bristled at my use of “Nabulitan” and quickly corrected me: “Someone from Naples is Napoletano.”

It was the rare Chicagoan who didn’t know his ethnic identity. For us Italians, the only thing worse than not knowing one’s ethnic identity was to hear a classmate or a new kid in the neighborhood identify himself as “Scotch-Irish.” Someone Scotch-Irish was relatively devoid of a cultural identity given that they couldn’t speak their language of ethnic origin and had no identifiable cuisine. They were outsiders and we only befriended them if they were cool.

Chicago was the most segregated city in America when I grew up there. There were no separate water fountains like I saw in New Orleans in 1960 nor did African Americans have to ride at the back of the bus or L-train, but Chicago boasted its own not-so-subtle segregated system. The Chicago of 1960 featured Italian neighborhoods, Polish neighborhoods, Mexican neighborhoods, Puerto Rican neighborhoods, Black neighborhoods, Lithuanian neighborhoods, and the like.

For us Italians, we were guilty of double segregation. My neighborhood, bordered on the north by Chicago Avenue, by North Avenue to the south, Humboldt Park to the east, and Pulaski Road to the west, was primarily Italian. Our Lady of the Angels was our church; we had our own candy stores, barber shops, grocery stores, even car dealerships. My grandfather, who lived in America for sixty years of his life could shop and socialize, play cards and drink, pray and fight in Calabrese dialect or in neutral Italian to non Calabresi.

There was the occasional Polish family and a few southern white families who began immigrating to Chicago. We called one kid Jimmie Lee from Tennessee whenever we saw him across the street. That was about the closest we ever got to each other. We were Italians and Jimmie Lee was, what my grandfather called, a “heelabeely,” his warped pronunciation of the ethnic slur, “hillbilly.”

Bruno and Wally, Polish immigrants who survived a concentration camp–I never knew which–were our next door neighbors. My family and theirs exchanged tools and the occasional brief conversation, but we never socialized together. We never played with Wally’s son, whose name sound like Jujubee. They weren’t Italian. They were white; we were olive.  Several years later, my uncle lent Wally some rope, which he used to hang himself–unbeknownst to my uncle. My uncle grieved for Wally but probably went back to Wally’s house to retrieve the rope.

Nick the Greek was the exception to the rule. In Chicago being Greek was almost like being Italian. Nick’s family owned an Italian beef and sausage shop, which also endeared him in our eyes. Nick was about five years older than me and he was mostly my cousin Gene’s friend. Nick, like most kids in our neighborhood, served in Vietnam where he got his leg blown off by a Viet Cong land mine. He returned to Chicago with a decided limp that my mom naively thought was arthritis. When she asked Nick one day if he suffered from arthritis like she did, he removed his artificial leg and shocked the shit out of her.

My grandfather lumped white people together, especially the fastidious Anglo-Saxons who were so proud of their lawn and closely groomed flower beds. They didn’t share our cultural values, our Catholic faith and the like. My grandfather, known for his Calabrese home-spun wisdom, once remarked: “America ees a wonderful contry–you fuck a man’s wife, he no say nuthing. You step on his lawn, he shoot you.”

The Anglo-Saxons didn’t much like us Italians. We had invaded their country that their Pilgrim ancestors had founded. We had invaded their country just like Mexicans and Central Americans are accused of doing today. We were Mary worshippers, not proper Presbyterians or elite Episcopalians. We didn’t eat Wonder bread sandwiched around cooked ham. We ate soppressat, cappacol and other Italian sausage and prosciutto. We didn’t eat Turkey at Thanksgiving and we devoured raw clams and Sicilian cookies at Christmas.

I find it ironic and hilarious that my grandfather called southerners hillbillies. Calabria is about as far south as you can get in Italy, geographically and culturally. Northern Italians, who are quite overt in their disdain of southern Italians, call us terroni, the Italian word for hillbillies. Sometimes they call us africani, the Italian equivalent of the N-word. They make jokes about our lack of sophistication and culture. Sadly, they make jokes about Calabresi families who die in explosions from their primitive bombole, propane stoves used by the poorest of the poor in southern Italy.

When I visited the mountain village of Miglierina, sixteen miles from the city of Catanzaro, I reconnected with relatives my grandfather hadn’t seen since his 1959 trip. To my dismay, the mayor of Miglierina revealed to me a shocking discovery. Everyone in Miglierina is our cousin. The Saccos are related to everyone in town on BOTH sides of the family! If my grandfather were alive, I would remind him that we are the true hillbillies.

It wasn’t until I left Chicago for college that I was formally introduced to the sociological delineation of race and ethnicity. On my application, I was asked if I were white, black, Hispanic, Asian, American Indian or other. There was no olive or designation for Italian. I was puzzled when the university official said I was white. I wasn’t white nor am I now. As I filled out more applications for college or jobs, I boldly began checking off the category “other” and entered “olive.” Italians are not Caucasians or white. We are a Mediterranean people with our dialects, cuisines, Catholic faith and the like. We are as different from Poles, Lithuanians or Slovaks as we are from Mexicans or African Americans. Today when my Mexican friends call me a “gringo” I correct them, reverting to my Chicago dialect: “I ain’t no gringo; I’m Italian.”


About growingupcalabrese

Professor of French and Italian at San Diego State University
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