In the early 1970s, a hipper, more progressive education took hold in St. John’s grammar school and, I suppose, a lot of other places. I remember a lecture in the fourth or fifth grade about the evils of ethnic stereotyping. Examples of stereotypes were provided. I recall a couple of them. The one of most interest to yours truly was: Italians have dirty houses. The ten-year-old me tried in vain to explain to my parents what I learned at school that day. Suffice it to say, Ma and Pa didn’t appreciate the Italian stereotype. The paternal side of my family—including a grandmother and aunt who lived in the apartment below in a pretty clean house—was Italian.
The whole point of the lecture, of course, was that stereotypes were unfair and, in most instances, untrue. The Italians in my family circle, nonetheless, were on the defensive and singled out the many Irish families they knew with dirty houses. Kingsbridge in the Bronx, where we all called home—in clean and dirty houses both—was a predominantly Irish neighborhood in those days. My grandfather opted to live in an Irish enclave because he didn’t want my grandmother interacting with only the Italian-speaking. He figured she would better learn English kibitzing with the Irish rather than relying on her native tongue in the company of just Italians. My grandfather was a wise man. While my grandmother spoke with a heavy Italian accent all her life, she had a reasonable command of the English language. To this day, my brothers and I—in what amounts to an affectionate tribute to her—employ certain English phrases that she was wont to use. When she didn’t like a particular food, my grandmother would say, “No too good,” or “I no like a-too much.” These two patented phrases of hers are on the tip of my tongue nowadays—and they are apropos in describing more than what’s for dinner.
Really, I don’t know where the “dirty houses” stereotype originated. Were the educators afraid to touch upon genuine stereotypes—the ones that all of us were familiar—like Italians are garlic-eating greaseballs in league with organized crime. Funny, but the second example of an ethnic stereotype supplied to us in our lesson was: The Irish drink something funny. What’s that supposed to mean? Irish men and women will freely tell you what the real stereotype is—and some of them will say it’s not a stereotype at all.
I’ve known a fair share of people with drinking problems from a variety of ethnicities. My best friend’s Irish mother—who kept quite a clean house, by the way—perhaps summed it up best when she said: “The Italians are secret drinkers. The Irish like to make a show of it.” It certainly described my grandfather and father, who preferred to imbibe clandestinely in the comforts of home. My grandfather made his own wine for a spell. He kept gallon jugs of it in the closet, which he would pull out in the evenings after a hard day’s work. I was told after sampling a few glasses of the grape, he often reached for his harmonica. My grandmother “no like a-too much” this little bit of theater. Now, if all that sounds a little stereotypical—so what!
Nobody, in fact, laughed harder at Italian stereotypes roles than my father. He loved The Soprano’s. With the exception of the Corleones in The Godfather—who had a degree of nobility amidst the brutality—I don’t care much for Italian gangster-themed television shows and movies. And it’s not because I am offended at how Italians are portrayed. I just find absolute boorishness and wanton violence a bad combo.
My mother—whose maternal grandparents came from Austria and spoke German—always decorated our front door for St. Patrick’s Day and, too, made corned beef and cabbage for dinner. When my mother’s kin first settled in Allentown, Pennsylvania in the early 1900s, my grandmother reported that Irish schoolmates would say, “You Huns…go back to Germany!” When my grandfather bought his first and only home in Kingsbridge, he had to go to court to evict an Irish family in order to move his family in—and it took a couple of years. Said Irish family whispered, “The guineas are taking over.” Now, this particular family kept a dirty house and the roach infestation that greeted my grandfather, grandmother, and their three children is the stuff of legend. And so is the fact that we all lived happily ever after—friends for life regardless of stereotyping and name calling. Erin go Bragh!
(Photos from the personal collection of Nicholas Nigro)