Learning another language helped me connect with my heritage

When I stepped into my first Italian class, I was totally unprepared — but learning the language brought me closer to my family

When I got to high school, I thought I would continue to learn Spanish as my second language. 

French seemed too hard, and German sounded harsh.

But as I checked the box for which one I wanted, I pressed my pen on Italian. My mom said it would be a good experience, and that now, given the opportunity, I should do it. 

At the moment, I was unsure of the outcome and apprehensive about my decision. Looking back now, I realize how right my mom was. 

My family’s roots stem beyond the U.S. From Italy to Ireland, England to France, and Scotland to maybe Turkey (jury’s out on that one thanks to Ancestry.com), I am a mutt. 

However, my family is fully Italian on my paternal grandmother’s side and maternal grandparents' sides. 

Thanks to my grandparents, I grew up surrounded by Italian culture. Every holiday had its own feast with special foods, we attended church every Sunday, and we never had a family dinner without meatballs and gravy — this is second nature. 

Despite all this, I wasn't fully connected with my heritage as a child.

I used “statazit,” along with other Italian slang phrases, but never truly knew what they meant. I didn’t understand why we ate antipasto before family meals or why we prayed away the “Malocchio,” but I always wanted to know.

My Zizzi, or great aunt, spoke about her father, reminiscing about his youth — how he shined shoes in a shop back home in Sicily. My Poppi, or maternal grandfather, recalled his family’s plights and how his grandmother fled Sicily during World War II to protect her children. I remember being enthralled and itching to learn more. 

Growing up, I begged for more stories and lessons from my elders. I wanted to know the villages and towns where my family lived. I wanted to learn who each person in our pictures was. No matter how unimportant the details seemed, they meant the world to me.

When I stepped into my first Italian class during my freshman year of high school, I was totally unprepared. Somewhere along the way, I had lost that childlike innocence and drive to learn — I simply wanted to pass. 

The thought of learning another language was intimidating enough, and upon realizing we wouldn’t be allowed to speak in English at all, I was ready to tap out. But my mother convinced me otherwise. 

She reminded me that I only had to face this challenge for, at most, an hour a day, aided by a fluent speaker. But my ancestors faced the opposite when they came to America. 

They had to navigate a country they knew nothing about, from the culture to the language. They strived to adopt another attitude — to become American. They found jobs and provided for their families, all while learning English on their own. 

They did everything in their power to ensure our future prosperity and safety, regardless of whether they knew the outcome. The least I could do to honor them was sit through a class block. 

Throughout my studies, I grew tremendously. I gained the insight I craved as a child about my family’s motherland — I knew who I was and where I came from. 

I will never forget the smile that stretched across my Poppi's face the first time I spoke to him in Italian. Since no one other than him and my Grammy spoke Italian, he couldn’t recall the last time he had a full conversation in the language.

He thought of his mother and how she would have been so proud of me, knowing I was the one to keep this tradition alive. Passing down the language stopped with my mother, but I plan to continue it once again. 

Every time I speak the language, I feel connected with and confident in my Italian roots. I think of all those before me and the strides they made for me to get to where I am today. Without their courage to learn English, I wouldn’t have experienced the joy of learning Italian. 

Every day, I am thankful for my ancestors, and I am proud to be a Molee, Vitale and Stoppiello.

 Reach the reporter at omunson@asu.edu and follow @munson_olivia on Twitter. 

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