Italian Women and the Famiglia

I don’t think I’ve mentioned this yet, but I was recently made aware of the fact that there is a professor at Smith College, Jennifer Guglielmo, who writes/teaches extensively on the topic of Italian immigrants in America.  I will be meeting with her next week!  I’m very excited.

In the meantime, I have borrowed her book, Living the Revolution: Italian Women’s Resistance and Radicalism in New York City, 1880 – 1945, from the library.  I haven’t gotten very far in it, but I found a passage that is very much a part of my experience, and very much a theme I’m looking to explore in my show.  Up to this point in the book, Professor Guglielmo is discussing how Italian men have gone overseas to work, leaving women behind to tend to family life, money management, etc.

As can be expected, women increasingly turned to each other to deal with the many changes wrought by mass emigration.  At the turn of the century, most women in Italy had several things in common: grueling labor, little formal education, illiteracy, poverty, and the persistent authority of their husbands, brothers, employers, and police, as well as church and government officials.  At the center of this world was the family, which formed the heart of Italian social structure, and from which most mediated the struggles in their lives.  The proverbs gathered by Giuseppe Pitrè in nineteenth-century Sicily reveal, however, that Sicilians did not have a word to describe the nuclear family (mother, father, and children).  Rather, the concept of la famiglia was a malleable social ideal, and the significance of “blood ties” actually took on greater meaning during migration and resettlement.  Across southern Italy, the lines between kin and friends were less dramatic, especially because a single famiglia could embrace the entire population of a village owing to the large size of most families.  As a result, many people developed the strongest ties to those they saw on a daily basis: friends, neighbors, and close relatives.  The closest words to “friend” were comare and compare, which mean godmother and godfather, or literally co-mother and co-father.  Proverbs told, for example, that the child inherits from the mother the blood and from the godmother the bones.

This passage is hugely significant for me and for my work.  This is more or less how my family operates, and probably more or less why Italians are stereotyped as welcoming apparent strangers into their families.


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