Lessons Learned from Mama Bruno

Born in Buffalo, NY, on February 15, 1957, my story, Albert Emidio Bruno, began as the only child of Italian immigrants from the town of Pratola Peligna in the Abruzo region in Italy. Naturally, I spoke Italian before I spoke English at my first school, Holy Angels Catholic School on Porter Ave. My early life was "everything Italian" and a very special time for me.

I had Puerto Rican friends who spoke Spanish. Combined with my Italian-speaking parents and English-speaking teachers and friends, I truly benefited from the great multilingual and multicultural experiences on the West Side – ethnic treasures that I am forever grateful for. However, my greatest lessons came during the mid-1960s in the form of endearing words from Mama Bruno. Those words forever changed the rest of my life.

In 1965, at age 8, Mama told me something that profoundly affected me the rest of my life. Mama often gave me motherly love and encouragement when we were alone in the kitchen, while she stirred the tomato sauce, adding more finely chopped garlic and onions every 15 minutes, it seemed. I was diligently working on my math and phonics homework at the kitchen table. Mama stressed to me in Italian, “Figlio mio, tu devi sapere che no tutti genti piacciono gli Italiani” “My son, you need to know that not everybody likes Italian people.” Naturally, I was naive and shocked. I innocently asked Mama, “why are there people out there that do not like Italian people?” After all, my life was everything Italian and almost everybody I knew was Italian; being Italian meant everything to me.  In the mid-1960s, Italians were still being shunned and even discriminated against because of their cultural background. In fact, one of my best friend’s last name was Benevenuto. His grandfather (from Italy) changed their last name to Benton to mask his Italian culture so he could secure union employment, a common practice back then.Those Italian immigrants were culturally prideful and absolutely detested not being able to acknowledge who they were or where they were from. Mama reassured me not to worry about anything and emphatically stressed to me that all I had to do to succeed in life is make sure I go to college, get a degree and work harder than gli altri, the other guys. She also stressed, “Fa di  piu di gli altri and fatte voule bene.” “Albert, do more work (and be more diligent) than the others and make them love you.” Mama was not well-educated, completing only the eighth grade, but she was simple, to the point, profound, and right. Mama would remind me: “Vai con chi meglio di tu e fai i spessi,” which meant “befriend those that are better and more accomplished than you and even pay their expenses” to ensure your future successes.

Because of her promising words and vision for me, I was inspired to earn three MS degrees (and a BA degree), becoming a long-time special education and English teacher and published writer. Thank you, Mama Bruno for giving me life, a personal mantra and inspiration and the old-country, culturally instilled perseverance to become a difference-maker in America, forging my path to success.

Sometimes I wish I could go back to 1965 to experience, again, those life lessons learned on Buffalo's old West Side. For me, Italian cultural, vocational and religious traditions and practices guided my ambitious footsteps into a hopeful future. Our Italian parents used their best old-country values to teach, prepare and arm us for success in a progressive and future America. My hope is that these Italian cultural lessons continue to be delightfully revisited, discussed and retold for years to come.