My great-great-grandparents were immigrants from Italy. They eventually settled down in northwestern Pennsylvania where I grew up decades later. They spoke fluent Italian as well as English. When my grandparents were growing up in the twenties and thirties, they were bilingual in both Italian and English. My mother told me that my grandmother was embarrassed by her own mother’s strong Italian accent. My grandmother for the longest time was embarrassed by her Italian heritage. When my mother was growing up, my grandmother never taught her or her siblings how to speak Italian. She wanted them to be a part of mainstream American society without being discriminated against for being Italian.
Now, Italians are not targeted for discrimination like they were when my grandmother was growing up. Now, I wish that my grandmother had taught my mother to speak Italian so she could have taught me the same. I want to be proud of my Italian heritage because that is who I am. That is what drew me to the Italian Heritage Study Room in the library. It celebrates Italian Americans.
The study room dedicated in November 2012 is dedicated to the memory of John N. La Corte, an Italian American entrepreneur and founder of the Italian Historical Society of America. La Corte dedicated his life to the recognition of all Italians who have made historic contributions to the United States. La Corte founded the Italian Historical Society of America in 1949 to show that not all Italian Americans were involved in organized crime. The focus was to commemorate the accomplishments of great Italians and Italian-Americans. His greatest achievement was the naming of the bridge which spans Brooklyn and Staten Island, the ocean gateway to New York, after the Florentine navigator, Giovanni da Verrazzano, the first European to enter New York Harbor in 1524. Verrazzano preceded the well-known Henry Hudson by some 85 years. Hudson utilized navigational charts of the area created by Verrazzano. After years of criticism, La Corte finally gave proper recognition to the first European to enter New York Harbor.
Within the study room, there is a myriad of artifacts relating to Italian heritage. One thing that I noticed while perusing the room was the inclusion of Christopher Columbus with several artifacts. After this piqued my interest, I had to look more into Columbus’ lineage. My entire life, I believed him to be from Spain, when in fact, he originated from Genoa, Italy. I was slightly surprised to find out he was Italian. While his actions weren’t morally justified, the colonization that he sparked altered history forever. I wonder if my grandmother would have felt differently about her Italian heritage if she had known Columbus was also Italian.
I am proud of my Italian heritage and learning about great Italian immigrants such as John N. La Corte makes me even prouder. Knowing that the library has a study room dedicated to remembering the people who altered the public opinion of Italians in the United States, I believe that it sets a foundation for other cultures who feel discriminated against to be proud of who they are and acknowledge the accomplishments of their society and community. So this post is a thank you to the Leatherby Libraries for highlighting the beauty of different cultures.
Make sure to also check the Italian Studies program at Chapman University!