Saturday, June 11, 2011

Celebrating An Italian Heritage In East Harlem, N.Y. Pt: (2a)

By Miriam B. Medina

Nonna and the Importance of Family

Let's not forget the traditional Sunday family gathering at nonna's house in the old neighborhood. Hmmmm...delizioso. The inviting aromas of freshly made pasta and homemade meatballs and sausages greeted you as you entered her kitchen. While they cooked, nonna would simmer her remarkable home-made sauce in a pan, adding basil and garlic. The nonna (an Italian grandmother) is an extraordinarily unique person in the lives of her family. Boy could she cook. Everything she put on the table was made from scratch, no matter how long it took, she loved every minute of it. She could tell when the spices were just right by sight and taste, how dough looked when it was ready for the raviolis, pastas and lasagna, creating a variety of delicious Italian dishes from the old country, enjoyed with a nice bottle of home-made wine.

"Mangia, Mangia" (eat, eat) she would say, standing by the table with a smile on her face, watching her children devour everything. It was a delightful moment for her. Nothing was ever left on the plate, especially after the crusty bread wiped it clean. The satisfied look on her family's faces was all the reward that she needed for a hard day's work.

The nonna has always devoted her life to her husband and children. Her Italian heritage brought her immense pride. She tried to instill in her children and grandchildren those same family values and traditions that were held sacred in the old world. She could not understand why her children were so different from her when this was not the way she raised them. Their ways of thinking, their lack of respect, their dress, their lifestyle practices, their choices of recreation and entertainment, and above all, failure to preserve the Italian language unsettled her terribly. They had become so Americanized, which sometimes created conflicts between them. In her broken English she would express her displeasure. They would roll their eyes, responding annoyingly: "Ma', you're in America now, not in Italy. Give it a rest." Nonetheless, she passionately loved her family and cared very much about her fellow-man. The nonna was an instrument of Italian tradition and culture.

At the end of the day in the quietness of her room, nonna would sit by her dimly lit lamp, eyes closed, a picture of sweet serenity, praying with her rosary beads in hand. Bringing her rosary beads to her lips to kiss them, she would wipe her tears and bend her head again, moving her lips in silent prayer to the Madonna, asking her blessing for her family's well-being.

Tearing of the Fabric

The advent of the public housing projects after World War II disrupted the peaceful life and relationships of thousands of Italian Harlem residents, demolishing the tenements which housed them. The demolition of block after block began tearing apart the interwoven fabric of Italian Harlem. Not only were the tenements demolished but 1500 retail stores, mostly owned by Italians, were run out of business, leaving 4,500 people without jobs. Only three notable Italian owned businesses from that era, Patsy's Pizzeria, Rao's Restaurant (where famous celebrities still dine) and Claudio's Barbershop are still operating to this day. Thus, a steady migration of Italian Americans began moving away from East Harlem. The split became unbearable for many families and close friends, torn apart to make way for progress. Others, benefiting from the improvement in the American economy, moved from East Harlem to the suburban areas of New York City.

So now I ask you "How did this neighborhood of East Harlem become known as Italian Harlem and why have the Italian religious feasts such as our Lady of Mount Carmel and the Feast of the Dance of the Giglio become so important for this neighborhood? A question we will try to answer as we move forward.

To be continued on next page Part II (2b)

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