One’s own heritage is something unique to one person and yet, at the same time, it connects numerous people together by showing what customs, values and beliefs they may share together. To discover one’s heritage is to discover a culture that spans the globe and helps people identify with others who hold similar backgrounds and interests.
Italian Americans are an interesting group. Starting from the enormous amount of Italian immigrants from the 19th and 20th centuries, many Italian American families are now living and growing throughout the U.S. and communities are popping up everywhere. There are even numerous Little Italy cities scattered all over, from the east to the west coast. No matter where one may look, they may spy a large Italian American community right around the corner!
Discovering heritage means discovering an identity that was previously unknown. In a way, people have to understand what draws them to this need to discover. I myself am motivated by an intense need to form a personal connection with my ancestors, who I will never meet. Also, it is important not to feel alone in large “melting pot” cities. What if I move away from my small suburb? Will who I am be lost in a tide of people?
I know for a fact that my father passed down about half of his Italian DNA to me. It was quite a discovery when he took a test to see exactly “how Italian” he was; and he was half. That was passed down to his kids, especially me, who sports the olive Italian skin tone, dark hair and dark eyes popular amongst many Italians. My father will often stress his desire to have me get in touch with my Italian side and to embrace the culture. But, with so many aspects of “being Italian” that he shows me (the Italian horn, the Catholic faith and even something as simple as a laptop decal hosting the Italian flag), I seem to be a little confused on how to start embracing my heritage. If embracing starts with discovery, I have no idea where to look.
Luckily for me, heritage is a unique discovery for every person. Not everyone will look into their history and their ancestry in the same way. I’m young with limited resources so I had to be creative with finding my path to discovery. The first time I made a leap into the Italian culture was during an Italian American festival last summer where I was able to enjoy Italian food, music and culture at a more communal level. I could interact with other Italian Americans, I could enjoy good Italian food and, oddly enough, I bought clothes with the Italian flag scattered all over it. Even simple events like this brought me closer to a heritage that I had previously thought was overwhelming. I used to think: why should I bother discovering my heritage when it’s so difficult to find? And I then began to realize that not everyone discovers in the same way. I was taking baby steps to find myself and I felt at peace with that (also, what better way to enjoy Italian values than attending a festival?).
Another way I’ve come to know the Italian culture is through yearly get-togethers with my relatives. Every year around Christmas time, my father brings us over to celebrate with his side of the family. Even though I’m not even 120 pounds and my appetite severely lacks, there is still heavy amounts of Italian food being offered and passed around all night long, from noodles to cookies, from meats to sweets and everything in between. With someone as small as myself, I can only ever pick and choose a small amount from such a large variety of Italian food, but it is still an excellent way to sample the Italian culture in a delicious way, I might add.
A story my father recently told me was about my last name: Selvaggio. He told me that long ago on Ellis Island, which was the location in New York that saw a massive amount of Italian immigration, Selvaggio and Silvaggio were the same name, but spelled in two different ways when these people arrived in America. I have met quite a few people with the Silvaggio last name and little did I know that I could have been meeting a long-distance relative. Perhaps my ancestry isn’t as far away and unachievable as I had once believed.
But discovery isn’t all about festivals, food and fun. There is a certain connection that heritage provides that stops me from feeling alone. I feel connected to an entire culture simply because of the surname that I hold dear to my heart and this feeling of solidarity is a motivator to continue my quest to better understand, accept and adapt to a culture that has evaded me for so long.
In the end, I can’t stress enough how lucky I am to find this sudden spark of a desire to discover not only myself, but my culture. Although I take pride in my heritage, it is important to note that I don’t need it to define me. I may still celebrate other non-Italian holidays and I may not follow the Catholic faith, but I will still always have a tight unity with my culture and I will hopefully one day discover more and more about my Selvaggio ancestors and who they may be (and I also have a whole other half of me to discover that I inherited from my mother’s side of the family, so this journey is just the beginning!). Until then, always discover and always celebrate. You’re never as alone as you may think.