51-Serrapede Family in America April 18, 1931: It’s a girl! (Part 2)

(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

51-Mom's Birth Certificate 2

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.

51-Coney Island Hospital

Coney Island Hospital, October 2012. Public domain photo by Jim Henderson

51-Bath Beach 2008

Bath Avenue in Bath Beach, 2008. Public domain photo by Dave Golland.


Bath Beach, Brooklyn

Bath Avenue. Bay 34th Street between Bath Avenue and Cropsey Avenue, Bath Beach, Brooklyn, NY, USA.
Public domain photo by Dave Golland.

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

Coney Island Hospital, October 29, 2012
Public domain photo by Jim Henderson

New York Times Online
“If You’re Thinking of Living In /Bath Beach, Brooklyn; Once a Bayfront Resort, Now Residential”
Published: May 30, 1999

One Day History for April 18, 1931
Day of the week


11 thoughts on “51-Serrapede Family in America April 18, 1931: It’s a girl! (Part 2)

  1. I find it interesting that you separate Sicilian from Italian. I would have thought that Sicilians identify as Italian just as someone from Alaska or Hawaii or anywhere in the US would identify as American. Would someone from Tuscany or Umbria also identify by region, not the overall country?

    As for your San Francisco experience, I’d chalk that up more to anti-NYC than anti-Italian. Their comments about public schools and danger in the city are stereotypes many people have about NYC, and I think more based on race than national origin. Of course, the Mafia comment was clearly anti-Italian….

    Interesting post, Emily!

    • Excellent responses, as always. Throughout my life I have found that most Italians and Sicilians consider their countries very distinct from each other. I don’t know why but underneath there is a sentiment that they ate different enough to be different countries. Also, in the past Italians identified by regions. This past May, it was a great experience to meet Giuseppe Carnicelli, our young relative from Agropoli. His sense of looking at things has been greatly influenced by Italy being an EU member. He said that now it is easy for students to apply to universities in other countries very easily whereas before the EU the process was difficult and not always predictable. He liked this mobility and openness where students could come to Italy and he could go elsewhere if he wanted to.

      I think it takes many generations before a sense of national identity makes progress. So we are living through some very important developments as we redefine what it means to be American. For me it is taking inspiration from my ancestry but living wholly in the present in this place where I grew up and anticipating and working towards the future here. I do not long for the past or even the ancestral countries.

      Your point about anti-NYC sentiment is well taken and something I hadn’t considered. But yes, even on the West Coast there can be those who think of the East Coast in unfavorable terms.

      • I think all of us engaged in family history struggle with that identity question. Am I a Jewish American or an American Jew? Which defines me the most? I think both, but I definitely think I feel American first because it’s where I live, it’s where I went to (public!) schools, it’s my first language, and so on. I definitely don’t feel German or Polish or Romanian. But, of course, Jews were never full accepted as citizens of those countries when my ancestors lived there so why should I? I am Jewish and I am American. It’s a bit like those holograms where you can see one or the other, but not both at the same time!

  2. I would have been in big trouble if I was in your 7th grade class. My list of ethnicities is very, very, long. I’m English, Scottish, Danish, Welsh, French, Spanish, Italian, Jewish, and if my DNA results are accurate, several others too. I may have had a mini-crisis in that class. I’m glad it didn’t bother you.

    • My Dad was very sarcastic about it when I told him the teacher took to naming everyone according to their dominant ethnicity. He said it was to be expected that a public school would try to play God and name each being according to the latest program of indoctrination for the next generation. This teacher and I did not get along as you’ll see later when I start sharing parts of my memoir later on in the family history. In fact this was the start of an internal struggle to define myself on my own terms. All very silly to me now but when you’re a teenager these things take on a larger than life proportion.

      • He probably would have been extra frustrated by the fact that my immigrants are recent. Even then I could have named each great grandparent and where they were from, all different. 🙂

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