Multicultural Issues in Psychology: Cultural Immersion Project Into Italian-American Families

As an Italian and by passport Italian-American, I need to know more about the ethnic minority group of Italian Americans. I am Northern Italian-American and for most Italians and Italian Americans, the number one life value and priority is the family. To expand on the Italian American contextual background, children are supposed to live with the family until they get married. Moving out of the house before marriage is considered betrayal. Even after marriages, children are expected and supposed to live close or around the parents and certainly geographically very close to all the relatives. This sometimes forced geographical closeness can present problems brought to therapy. For instance, kids may not feel comfortable going to a University far away from the family, in order not to “betray” them. Another example is that such closeness causes everyone to be in everybody’s business and there is no privacy.

Northern and Southern Italy are ethnically very different ethnically. In Italy, there is some rivalry and discrimination between Northerners and Southerners. When Americans refer to Italian-Americans, they refer to the culture or ethnicity of Southerners. For example, Northerners have a cuisine based on dairy, have a colder climate, have a lighter complexion and eye and hair colors, have more laws, work longer hours, are wealthier and are usually not involved with mafia (organized crime), unlike Southerners. Historically, Northerners had a culture that produced the Roman Empire and the Pope, whereas Southerners belonged to Arabic domains. After many wars, the 21 regions of Italy were unified under the same country, but their populations were very different and felt foreign to one another. Its populations did not want to be politically, economically and geographically unified, and to this date, they are still trying to separate one another and become their own independent Northern and Southern Italy. For that same reason, Sicilians call themselves Sicilians instead of Italians, because culturally they do not feel part of Italy and they feel like their own independent country, although geographically they are part of Italy. 95% of the Italians who migrated to the States are from Southern Italy, as in the 1800s, as result of volcano explosions and earthquake eruptions, they were in extreme poverty.

Because Southerners had dealt with almost 2000 years of oppression and domination, they learned to count only on their own families and became resilient and adaptable, which helped them when they eventually migrated to the US. More than 50% of Southern Italians, after making money in the US, migrated back to Italy to be with their family. That is a percentage higher than any other immigrant groups. Italian American is the 5th largest ethnic group in the US. Italian immigrants saw the dominant culture as hostile, based on their history of oppression. That is why they formed neighborhoods called “Little Italy” to preserve their culture and feel within the sense of family.

Even if both Italians and Irish are Catholic and shared the same Catholic schools, they had different views on Catholicism. Italians view God as a benign friend of the family and Irish are preoccupied with the Day of Judgment. Italians had their own Italian Catholic priests. Personally, although I was brought up Catholic, I rebelled against the Catholic religion, at age 17, when I first visited the US and volunteered as a YMCA counselor for a Summer. After having been an atheist for 10 years, I became spiritual.

As everything was, and still mostly is, centered on the family for Italians and Italian Americans, education, work and the American dream were opportunities only to the extent they provided practically to the family. Mafia was originally benign, related to someone who commanded respect without running to the authorities. According to the FBI, there are very few members of the Mafia, but, yet, the stereotype of Italian Americans being connected with the mafia remains. Sadly and ignorantly, more than 70% of Americans think that most Italian Americans are connected to the mafia. This belief can cause a serious psychological and social issue for Italian Americans, especially for young ones.

Italian families must keep their code of honor and grace. To keep the code, and to avoid what Italians may perceive as embarrassment, if there is a family dysfunction, they tend to keep it as a secret. These possible secrets are something for therapists to know.

Many Italian patriarchal family traditions are getting somewhat lost nowadays with more and more equality between gender roles. Most Italian Americans marry partners of a different ethnicity because men and women attribute gender stereotypes to each other, or because the conflict over traditional gender roles. Italian men are considered “mammoni” because they live with their mothers until they get married and are smothered literally to death. I also have not been attracted to Italian men or Italian American men, as possible life partners. That is the reason why Italian American couples seek therapy.

Interpersonal relations are a core Italian value. Often Italians seek counsel among family members. Because of the importance of the family, having children is key to Italians, although Italians today have a low rate of newborns, due to their unstable economy. Italian Americans in the States tend to have more children than the Italian families in Italy. Due to the still somewhat patriarchic family traditions, male children get away with more slack.

Sometimes, old Italians do not trust outsiders and external authority, but just the family. I am certainly not that way, or more specifically, I am quite the opposite, especially living in this country by myself. All my family and relatives live in Italy. Certainly, though, my parents, who are in their early 60s, are still very much old-school like those older Italians than do not completely trust people outside the family. Thus, one may live differently from what the tradition expects him or her to.

Among Italian Americans, there are no baby-sitters. All the family members and relatives take turns in raising children. Death for Italians and Italian Americans is a big deal. To conclude the background, living people do a lot of practices (prayers, cemetery visits, etc.) to keep the dead people close to them.

I arranged and attended/participated in three Italian-American events, where the majority of the participants are of the Italian-American culture and the focus is somehow reflective of the Italian-American culture. The events were: visit at the Italian American Consulate in Los Angeles, California, to renew my Italian passport and membership to AIRE (Association Italian Resident Expatriates), social gathering at the Institute of Italian Culture in Los Angeles, California, and, last, several Italian “meet up” (worldwide online social network) group meetings. All three events represented the Italian and Italian-American culture well.

Following is a description of my observations using empirical literature to frame them. First, at the consulate, all employees were Southern Italians and they spoke English with an average fluency, which could be mastered, in my opinion. I can tell they were Southern Italians because of their accent or dialect. They tend to monopolize whatever industry, sector or field of work they get in, including schools, as it happens in Italy. In other words, there were no Northern Italian employees there. They treated me with respect and I can tell they were not as organized as they could be, which sometimes can be a good thing. For instance, they forgot to make me pay for a fee, which I brought to their attention. The same thing happened on Alitalia, the Italian airline, which forgot to register my pets (cat and dog) on board and did not bother to charge me for their travel, last year.

Secondly, I went to the Istituto Italiano della Cultura. They were displaying the beautiful art of a new, young and talented Italian American artist. The artist spoke in front of the participants and introduced his work. Of course the event was full of delicious, fresh, homemade and succulent food and wine! All the participants were of Italian descents or Italian culture appreciators. Everyone seemed to enjoy refreshing the language, sharing food and connecting in general. The experience fit the stereotype of Italians enjoying life more than Americans and enjoying “la dolce vita” (Passini and Emiliani, 2009). I noticed there was a calendar featuring upcoming events around Italian movies, music, fashion, sports (predominantly soccer, the national Italian sports) and, more food!

A third series of events was several Italian meetup gatherings. The focus was the Italian language and culture with native Italian language speakers and other passionate people. The group meeting provided: a forum message board for sharing the knowledge of the Italian language and exchanges about word usage, Italian idioms, questions relating to Italian language, cultural topics and connections, and an abundance of practice materials for all levels. The participants, as in all Italian social gatherings, desired to connect with other local amici who shared the same culture and heritage.

My preconceived notions, biases, stereotypes, and/or misconceptions prior to attending the events were centered on Italians and Italian Americans having humor and a very positive attitude on life (Life is beautiful.). Another bias I had was that men are big flirts and pride themselves on being great lovers. A final preconceived notion I had was that Italians families are proud of Italy, but I could see all the things that are not working well in the Italian socio-economic and political system. Everyone wants to live or have a second home in Italy after they vacation there, but I tell them that living there is not as easy as vacationing there.

What I know now that I did not, before going to the events is how beautiful the Italian culture is, compared to some other cultures and just intrinsically. Even with all the pitfalls, having lived in the US for over a decade, and inevitably, after becoming Americanized, I almost forgot how sincere, good hearted, welcoming, simple, yet artistic, quite cultured, and happy most Italian people and people of Italian descents tend to be. Also, what I need to learn is how to maintain more cohesiveness with other Italians in the US to preserve the culture. Italians in the US now are geographically spread out. Italians mingle and connect by nature, as most of them are people’s people. They want to make everyone family members of theirs. Nobody, in my opinion knows how to be cohesive better than Jews, though.

Based on what I learned, empirical literature informs me about the best clinical practice guidelines I am going to use, when counseling Italian American families, as follow. First, therapists working with Italian American families must establish trust, though recommendations, best practices, and honest and genuine interest. Then, therapists must draw boundaries with them, if they, who are likely to, suck them into their family lives. Therapists must be aware that Italians families are lively, loud and outspoken. Often, it can look like to the foreign eye, that they are constantly arguing, but they are just animatedly discussing.

Therapists must also be aware that Italians care very much about their physical and emotional well-being and tend to talk about them or sort of complain about them, in detail for a long time. It is also important to know that most Italian families, especially the older ones, believe in destiny. Then, therapists must educate them in believing in new psychological tools to implement to be empowered and change their destiny.

Italian families, given their history and culture of closeness with family, do no deal well with separation. For instance, a child going to college or getting married is a huge ordeal for Italian families and therapists must customize their therapy accordingly. In my case, when I moved out to come to the States for education, I was threatened to be renegaded from the family and to be left on my own without help. That of course did not happen, but, to this date, I do not think my family has fully “forgiven” me for moving away. As a result, they do not like the States, because, psychologically, they see them as their competition.

I have always appreciated my privacy and that is a concept foreign to Italian families. Individuals, who rebel to the understood norm that family members and relatives all must live close by, may be treated differently and unfairly by the families left behind, and may need therapeutic reassurance of their decision of autonomy.

The belief and stereotype that Italians and Italian Americans are connected to mafia is a serious psychological and social issue for Italian Americans, especially young ones. It has never been an issue for me that I know of, but it has always bothered me when people, especially uneducated ones, say: “Oh Italian! You must be a Mafioso”. Italian families are very concerned of what outsiders may think of them. That is why they do everything by the book, always dress nicely, like inviting people over for food, etc. In order to keep their nice family reputation, they tend to hold on to secrets, even when in therapy. Therapists must then dig deep into the issues to make sure everything is revealed, told and out in the open, in the therapy room. In order to do so, I think it is best the therapists reassure clients of confidentiality and show them or share with them HIPPA and therapy ethical rules. Even signing a confidentiality contract may be helpful.

Because Italian American men and women may have a hard time adapting to the American gender roles that are more equalitarian than theirs, then they may need therapy, as individuals or as couples. It is important for therapists to help them reflect on cultural history of both countries, on their needs, on the world evolvement and on what feels right to them and makes them happy. To conclude, it is also important to remember that the therapist must acknowledge and reiterate their courage for seeking and continuing therapy, as often Italians and Italian Americans seek counsel among family members.

Passini, S., & Emiliani, F. (2009). Social representations of rights and duties in young Italians and Albanians. Swiss Journal of Psychology/Schweizerische Zeitschrift für Psychologie/Revue Suisse de Psychologie, 68(2), 89-98.

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