Each October we celebrate Italian Heritage Month. The Italian flag is flown at Cleveland City Hall and an event is held there on the first Monday of the month in celebration. Many Italian American organizations throughout the region sponsor programs and meetings in honor of our heritage. Like many of you, I get caught up in the excitement of the celebrations. But, as someone whose spends a lot of time studying Italian heritage, I think it is also important to take a step back and reflect upon Italian heritage and develop a greater understanding of it and how it contributes to our identity.
Italian heritage is essentially a cultural heritage. The Khan Academy’s website contains a very good explanation of cultural heritage. The Academy describes it as the values and traditions that are inherited and passed down from previous generations. Cultural heritage forms a shared bond to the past, present and future which maintains and gives identity to a community. It can be learned and perpetuated through intangible means, such as ideas and customs. However, tangible means such objects, papers and photographs are also important to expressing and understanding heritage.
We are lucky that Northeast Ohio has such a vibrant, thriving Italian American community. With over 35 organizations, there are plenty of opportunities to connect with others who work together to celebrate and keep Italian traditions alive. From bocce to Italian language classes, from discussions of Italian literature to sausage and wine making parties, these groups help us learn some of the intangible aspects of our Italian heritage. Northeast Ohio is also fortunate that about 11 years ago, several of these organizations came together to found the WRHS Italian American Collection to preserve the materials of Italian heritage.
Building a collection or an archive requires knowledge about what you are wanting to document. As I set out to develop a plan of collecting, I soon realized that my Italian DNA did not automatically lead to a clear understanding of the Italian-ness of our heritage or what makes our community unique. So, I began reading about the Italians of Northeast Ohio, both general histories and individual stories and biographies. Most importantly, I attended many club meetings and other Italian American events to observe some of the customs and developed relationships with Italian Americans of differing ages and from a variety of backgrounds.
Ultimately, I realized that the idea of la famiglia or “family” is a significant part of our Italian heritage and it pervades everything that we, as Italian Americans, do. Those that lived in the Italian neighborhoods in the first half of the 20th century will tell you about the closeness they felt with neighbors. Reading minutes of Italian American organizations from church groups to social clubs will convey the care the group showed each of the members, celebrating with them in good times and offering support in bad times. Even with Italian American-owned business, records and oral histories reflect the concern and appreciation for employees.