(This posting is a continuation of 51-Serrapede Family in America April 18, 1931: It’s a girl! in which we considered the day Emily L. Serrapede was born and some of the issues she faced growing up as an Italian-American. In this posting the discussion expands to experiences Uncle Sammy and I had.)
The Detail in the Birth Certificate that might point to an answer
Close-up of the birth certificate.
I think I found a clue to Emily’s sensitivity regarding her ethnicity. Looking at her birth certificate I found the following: Color or Race-It. The It. means Italian.
Southern Italians were considered a race unto themselves. This was not in a good way. They were seen as incapable of joining the mainstream. An article from a 1914 edition of “The World’s Work” expresses sentiments held at that time about why this was so. It came down to this: Southern Italians were non-Caucasians. Therefore, the thinking went, they’ll never make it into the mainstream. In the 1910s the sentiment against Southern Italians was very negative. Their admission to this country was thought to have a detrimental effect on society. Census records list Italians as members of the Caucasian race but outside of their immigrant community the treatment was not always considerate or kind. When I was a child I was told by outsiders that we were “Wops” because our Grandparents were all here illegally. “Wop” meant “without passport.” Recently I’ve read it also could mean “White on paper.” Meaning for things like the census records Southern Italians were entered as Caucasian or White but in reality they were treated as “others”.
To what degree Emily experienced negative treatment I do not know. She never told me of any events in her life that would be a contributing factor to the strong show of emotions I witnessed when I did things like ask to get my ears pierced or why she wouldn’t teach me how to speak Italian as good as she did.
Discussion with US on Sunday January 17, 2016 11 to 11:30 a.m.
Uncle Sammy told me that when he grew-up in Dyker Heights he did not experience any anti-Italian sentiments from other members of the community. When he was older and went to other locations people sometimes used derogatory terms like guinea or wop. My Uncle has always had a very strong sense of who he is so that kind of talk did not get to him. He laughed at people who called him such names and told them he didn’t care what they said. Uncle Sammy thinks such talk tells you everything you need to know about such a person. It also gives you the reason why they are not worth associating with.
Like my Uncle, I did not experience any negativity about the Italian part of my background as I grew up. My paternal Grandmother was Orthodox Jewish and descended from the Rosenbaum and Flashenberg family branches from Galicia. My paternal Grandfather was the son of Sicilian immigrants. Since I was closer to my Mom’s family I always identified with the Italian part of my heritage very strongly. At the same time, I did not think of myself as anything other than American because this country is where I grew up.
I distinctly remember that the concept of “hyphenated American” came into being in the mid-1960s. In 1966, when I was in the 7th grade, I heard the expression for the first time when I had first year Italian language classes. One day the teacher went to each student and asked them what country their parents or grandparents came from. Based on their answer he then told them they were, for example, Irish-American, Italian-American, African-American or Chinese-American. For children who had more than one ethnicity in their parent’s or grandparent’s generation it got sticky. The teacher didn’t know how to finesse over the situation. If, like me, there were three ethnicities in the mix, the teacher selected the one that was the most dominant. In this way I became Italian-American according to that teacher’s reasoning because on Mom’s side there were two parents from the same ancestral country. He completely bypassed the Galician Jewish and Sicilian part of my paternal heritage.
I was not bothered by this but in the days after I noticed two effects of thinking about all of us as hyphenated-Americans. There was something that felt good about it. Yet at the same time it made me feel like we were being set apart from each other. Weren’t we Americans first? And like Mom always emphasized, isn’t it just as important to look past the labels and recognize that we’re all human beings? For many years I used the designation Italian-American to the exclusion of saying “I am an American of Italian descent.” It took the trip to Italy with my Grandparents to show me just how different I was from the cousins I met there. The difference was not one of being better or worse. Rather it was being a product of a unique place and culture in the world. I was a woman of Italian-Sicilian-Galacian Jewish descent living in a very pretty and cozy community in Brooklyn. My life and expectations were different from my cousins in Italy. They did not know about autumn in the Catskill Mountains or the delicious flavor of Vermont maple syrup on pancakes or cranberries and oatmeal for breakfast. I could not understand their emphasis on being fashionably dressed everyday and I could not understand the very flirtatious nature of the men in Rome. These are the kind of differences I’m talking about.
The first time I experienced condescension about my background came when I was 18 years old. I was on my first vacation alone having saved the money from my full-time job so I could travel to San Francisco. I was in a restaurant on Fisherman’s Wharf when a couple in their early 30s invited me to their table. They asked me if I was from Brooklyn and I said yes. They had heard me speaking to the waiter and wanted to ask me about New York City and Brooklyn. When I told them about where I lived and how safe it was they didn’t believe me. They were sure the Mafia would be out shooting people they didn’t like. When I told them that we rarely knew where such people lived again I was met with disbelief.
I was asked what school I had attended and why wasn’t I going to college. I told them I was on a break and would return in one year. When I spoke very fondly of New Utrecht High School this couple would not accept the fact–which I saw since I went there–that a public school had very high quality teachers and a a good mix of students. The only time I remember the students getting boisterous was when the New York Jets won the Super Bowl on Sunday, January 12, 1969. When we went to school on Monday, the boys were ecstatic that a New York team won. As we passed each other in the hallway we’d hear “Yay Jets!” None of this made any difference to the couple I made the mistake of sitting with. When they went back to talking about the evening news reports featuring violence in New York City schools I decided this was the end.
When my order arrived I asked the waiter to wrap it up. Back in my hotel room I had a chance to think about what had happened. I learned that some people who don’t understand anything about people from other cultures, backgrounds or locations can be resistant to letting go of the stereotypes. I don’t think any amount of convincing can reach them. I got the impression that such people aren’t really interested in a conversation. They just want you to say something they can latch onto and use to prove that they were right all along for having such a preconceived idea about a certain group of people. It’s better to just look at it for what it is and then, like Uncle Sammy said, take it as an experience that tells you more about the other people than what it says about you.
Around Brooklyn Today
Here are some public domain photos of what Bath Beach and Coney Island Hospital are like today.
Coney Island Hospital, October 2012. Public domain photo by Jim Henderson
Bath Avenue in Bath Beach, 2008. Public domain photo by Dave Golland.
Bath Beach, Brooklyn
The Brooklyn Public Library-The Brooklyn Newsstand
Weather and News for April 18, 1931
The Brooklyn Daily Eagle
Weather & Local News: page 24
Headlines – Page 1 news
Page 2 news
Coney Island Hospital-About
New York City Health and Hospital
New York Times Online
“If You’re Thinking of Living In /Bath Beach, Brooklyn; Once a Bayfront Resort, Now Residential”
By JOYCE COHEN
Published: May 30, 1999
One Day History for April 18, 1931
Day of the week