This past April I traveled to Halifax to attend the Canadian Museum Association Conference. While there, I visited the Pier 21 Museum. I was interested in visiting this museum for two reasons. The first being that I wrote about Italian immigrant history for my Master's thesis. The second, and more personal reason, was that several of my family members took their first steps on Canadian soil in the building this museum now encompasses.
The guide took me through the exhibits and we stopped in a large narrow room with high windows overlooking the ocean. This was where the ships docked. It felt strange to stand on the exact spot my relatives stood long before. Even stranger was to reflect on how different our lives were. Standing in the same room we could not speak to each other, as some spoke Polish and others Italian.
Below I will recount the stories of my grandfather and grandmother, Stefano and Maria Teresa Bellissimo. Showcasing my family's story will highlight larger trends in Italian immigrant history. This discussion will ultimately lead me to answer why I, a second generation Canadian, still feel a connection to my Italian heritage.
Stefano and Maria Teresa Bellissimo
My grandfather (Nonno), Stefano Bellissimo, came to Canada from San Nicola da Crissa, Calabria, Italy in 1952. He arrived at Pier 21, as most immigrants did, before departing to Toronto. He left behind a wife and four children so he could secure employment in the New World. Stefano worked on the railroads near Timmins, sending money home; the family joined him a year later. My father was born after my grandparents reunited, and was the only family member born on Canadian soil. My Nonno spent his life working for the Toronto Transit Commission. My Nonna worked as a cook for York University (those lucky students!) Although Canada was now their home they clung to their Italian culture in a number of different ways. They:
Growing up, my father and his siblings spoke Italian at home, played with Italian school mates, and ate Italian food. I myself, was never taught the Italian language. I have since taken numerous conversation and translation courses on the subject, and can only hold a basic conversation. However, there were many other Italian cultural symbols that I was exposed to; I can safely say that I feel a connection to my Italian heritage.
But what does it mean to be "Italian"?
Throughout my research about Italian immigrants, I learned that historically Italians did not feel a connection to an "Italian" identity prior to their move to Canada; instead they identified with their hometowns. This was because Italy experienced unification in 1861 after centuries of political fragmentation and domination by successive Spanish, French and Austrian empires, who consistently struggled with both one another and the Papal States for control of what is now modern Italy. Due to the country’s recent formation, the idea of a pervasive national unity was still in its infancy at the end of the nineteenth and beginning of the twentieth century (much like Canada itself). This circumstance was largely the result of a socio-economic disparity between the country’s northern and southern regions. The north experienced heavier industrialization, while the south was primarily rural, relying heavily on agriculture. Many parts of the south lacked modern infrastructure, leaving many of the region’s peasants with a distinctly parochial worldview. This disparity resulted in the village being the primary source of identity for many of its citizens. For many of the rural peasantry, the village was the only “world” they had experienced. Many Italians, therefore, identified more with their paesani - fellow townspeople- than they did with being “Italian." I asked my father if my Nonna had ever visited other big Italian cities. He replied that she had not; the Italy she knew was her hometown of San Nicola da Crissa.
When Italians came to Canada, they held onto their roots by living close to their paesani. Chain resident patterns allowed immigrants and their children to remain surrounded by cultural symbols that were brought from Italy. Culture is shared and transmitted between generations through the use of language, myths, religion and other symbols, and these constitute a major component of how people choose to ethnically identify themselves. Donald Akenson, a historian of Irish immigration, explained that “ethnicity is a perduring cultural characteristic,” meaning that it has influence over future generations.
As Italians settled in Canada their identity changed. They were seen as the "other" by dominant society, resulting in the creation of a unified "Italian" identity. In other words, their identity developed in relation to what it meant to be "Canadian."
Unfortunately, because of the language barrier, I have never been able to ask my grandparents questions about how they identify themselves. However, a large picture of their hometown sits proudly on the wall of my aunt's house (who was born there), suggesting that their is a pride and yearning for the homeland. Exposure to Italian cultural symbols resulted in my deep fascination with Italian culture. So much so, that I dedicated two years to studying it in school. After graduation I spent a few months in Italy with my sister to attend language classes and to travel. I enjoyed the trip so much, and plan to go back multiple times in my life. Now if only I can get better at Italian cooking...
To read more about Italian Canadian identity, or for those interested in learning about Italian homesteaders in Saskatchewan, check out my thesis.
John Zucchi, Italians in Toronto: Development of a National Identity, 1875-1935 (Kingston and Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 1988), 8
 Donald H. Akenson, Being Had: Historians, Evidence and the Irish in North America (Port Credit: P.D. Meany, 1985), 43.
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