When I got married, I made the decision to keep my last name. I don’t know that I was railing against tradition so much as I was electing to keep something that had always been mine. Over the past four years, I’ve given many explanations as to why I kept my name. The red tape, the long lines, the documentation fees, the sheer fact that I hear my last name 8,571,369 times before lunch every day. But I’ve never felt compelled to tell a bit of the story of my actual last name until this weekend.
Just over a century ago, my ancestors arrived from Italy. There’s nothing particularly unique about that. Waves of southern Europeans were crashing on America’s shores at that time. In my case, one side came from Northern Italy; the other side of my family came from Sicily. This particular story of my name, though, is about the Northern side.
My family name–my real family name–is a gorgeous name. There’s a striking cadence to the vowels as you slide through each syllable. It is as unmistakably Italian as homemade gravy. It is also not my name.
My grandpa’s family made the decision to part ways with that name once they came to America. They sought opportunities, not closed doors. They wanted to prove themselves, not be preemptively dismissed. When you build a life, when you start from scratch, you do everything you can to set yourself up for success. For them, the chance presented itself, and they took it.
So no, I don’t begrudge that decision. In fact, I’m proud of my made-up name. But I’m also painfully aware of the consequences of it. When they gave up their name, they also gave up a piece of their identity. I have no recollection of my dad’s family ever serving Italian dishes. Their house never once smelled of basilico. There was no mention of Ol’ Blue Eyes. There was no knowing glance at one of us grandkids before slipping into a tongue that we could only guess at. That was the other side of my family.
While my nana’s family probably preserved their identity so well that it was to their own detriment, my grandfather’s family assimilated with a capital A. They were as American as the Cubs, apple pie, Ward and June Cleaver. And that was exactly the way they liked it.
I can’t pretend to understand the vastly different choices that both sides of my family made. I won’t claim to know any of their struggles. I don’t have to. In this day and age, I am not an other. I am the exact opposite. The idea of an Italian being discriminated against in America is laughable. Dark hair and olive skin grace the cover of magazines, not to mention the fact that through some unlikely amalgamation of recessive traits I possess neither. No one would see me and think twice about reviewing my résumé, renting me a room, or lending me a mortgage. In a world increasingly divided along the lines of us versus them, no one would ever dream of categorizing me as the latter.
But my grandpa’s family? They knew what it felt like to be perceived as an outsider, to be viewed as some fictitious threat to jobs and a city they would claim as their own. They were fortunate enough to find a way to mostly skirt that label. And in honor of all the opportunities that are open to me now and in memory of them and their stories, my name is here to stay.
Note: In the grand scheme of American history, I know my ancestors could have had it infinitely worse. Still, if you want a brief bit of context for the Italian-American otherness I alluded to, this piece was shared with me a few years ago, and it is, unfortunately, still incredibly relevant.