Saturday, August 18

Hey, Sigi!

I get so much slack about reading and writing about Cuba and "forgetting" that I am Italian, that I thought I should give my own heritage some acknowledgment. Granted, I don't have to prove my roots to anyone, sono che sono, but by scrapbooking and working on my family tree, I sometimes get so immersed in my culture that I want to share stories and words, etc., with other Italian-Americans who grew up like I did. I guess all the quirky little ethnic points don't mean much until you're older. For example, I grew up in a home:

  • that was a row-home (called "townhomes" nowadays but let's not kid ourselves) in an Italian neighborhood in South Philadelphia (until we 'moved on up' to Delaware County)

  • that had with plastic-covered furniture

  • where every Wednesday was "macaroni" night (we never said "pasta" and we always put "gravy," not sauce, on our macaroni.) Usually we would name the macaroni: "We're having mostaccioli tonight." Every kid in my family could name that "pasta."

  • where you'd hear "Madonna!" (pronounced, "Marone") or "Madonna Mia" ("Maroneami!") My parents were big into invoking the Blessed Virgin Mother's name.

  • where someone stupid was called a "dididoof," a showy, ostentatious Italian was a "spacone" and a person who had no upbringing was a "cafone" (cavone)

  • where if we lost something the first thing we'd do was pray to Saint Anthony, the patron saint of lost items.

  • where we couldn't put new shoes on a bed or a new hat on the table.

  • where we had to exit through the same door we entered

  • where Sambuca was served after dinner parties with 3, exactly 3, coffee beans

  • where a "comadre" or "copadre" meant a good friend of the family OR a mistress (comadre) and was pronounced "comar" and "compah" or bastardized into "goombah"

My father's side is from Central Italy (Abruzzi) and Calabria (at the very tip of the boot that is almost touching Sicily). My paternal grandfather was from a little town called Riccia and its patron saint (like many other towns) was San Giuseppe (St. Joseph), which was also my grandfather's name. So, on the Feast of St. Joseph (March 19) it would be a non-stop food fest in his South Philly neighborhood, with people going from house to house to visit, celebrate and eat. He was one of 12 kids so there were a lot of houses to visit. In my house we always celebrated this Feast day because of my grandfather- it was "his" day. My dad always brought a special dessert that we only ever ate on that day, which was, what else? St. Joseph's cakes. In Italian they are actually called zeppole, and although I have seen a few different versions, the ones we always had were similiar to creme puffs- light dough filled with creme, topped with powdered sugar and a maraschino cherry.

My mom's side is Sicilian. That's a dangerous bloodline. Not because of the Mafia, but because Sigis are known for their determination to get revenge when wronged. We also have all kinds of "hexes" or curses, if you will, that I have to admit, I give credence to. In fact, whenever I am ticked off and I tell my sister I want to do such and such to someone, she always says something like "you sigi, you." And sadly, my mom is the same way. When someone asks my mom if she is Italian, she corrects them and says "Sicilian," as if to say "watch out."

While I appreciate my Italian-ness more, it's the "Sigi-ness" that seems to be dominant. My particular favorite "curse" is when someone is bothering you, you place a photo of them face down in the freezer. I am not sure, but I believe the person doing the freezing has to be Sicilian. In other words, an Irishman would only come out with a very cold photo. I have done this several times, and for each person, I never heard from or was bothered by them again. I now keep a separate freezer. ;)

In college, many people mistook me for Latina. People came up to me and spoke to me in Spanish (without knowing I spoke Spanish) and other latinos were always assuming I was from ____ (insert one of 20 countries here). One day I walked into my first Spanish class with a professor who had lived in Spain for many years. He called my name out loud and looked at me and said "That is the most Italian face I have ever seen." I hoped he wasn't referring to my nose! When I started taking Italian classes the professor, from central Italy, said to me after class "Sei siciliana?" (Are you Sicilian?) I said Sí, and asked him how he knew. He said an Italian can spot a Sicilian instantly. For the record, Sicilians are generally darker-skinned and darker-haired. We're called the "black Italians" by Europeans and others. Sicily was occupied by the Moors, so there is an African element to it, and I traced my grandmother's family (her last name was Saiia, [sigh-eeh-ah]) to Mallorca, Spain, of Arabic origins. (Immigration, no surprise, spelled my grandmother's name "Saia" (Say-ya) In fact, the word "mafia" has its origins in Arabic.

Em beh, sono Siciliana e non posso fare niente per cambiare.


Anonymous said...

It's about time!
My mom still has the plastic covers, by the way.

Anonymous said...

My grandmother was from Calabria, too. Do you know the town?

Anonymous said...

Hey Freakin'Fanelli, ova daya!
"Peca" says bring on da macaroni, meatballs and gravy! Let's do dinna soon!

El Cid said...

I grew up in an Sicilian-American butcher shop / rowhouse owned by my Grandfather.

Good post. Made me laugh and made me sad that so many of the old-timers are gone.