First-generation Americans straddle cultural divide
Bunny Filice said she never felt different growing up Italian-American, but perhaps, she said, it was the fact that she grew up surrounded by Italian culture in Gilroy.
“I grew up in this wonderful, tight-knit Italian community,” said Filice. “Some people may have called it the ghetto, but to me it was wonderful.”
There she learned not only the life lessons imparted by her mother and father, an eighth-grade graduate and an apprentice-trained shoemaker respectively, but also the unwritten social code of a community.
Hyphenated Americans, the children of immigrants who do not choose do jettison their native cultures at the border, grow up in a different America. As Americans whose families have been here for more than one generation extol independence, freedom of choice and individual destiny, the families of first-generation Americans frequently teach a group ethic – putting the family as a whole ahead of your own desires for the sake of honor, virtue, success and ensuring the social status of your family within the immigrant community.
Filice’s parents enforced strict rules about dating and emphasized education as a means of social mobility, values that nearly every American family shares.
And children of immigrants throughout the nation, especially in urban centers, such as the San Francisco Bay area and Los Angeles, work to straddle a cultural divide as they also hope to attain the American dream.
But many first-generation Americans experience a certain sense of detachment from both their immigrant parents and their all-American peers.
As a child, 25-year-old Leyla Gulen saw how American culture valued blond-haired, blue-eyed girls who would someday do whatever they wanted, wear whatever they wanted and marry whomever they chose.
By contrast, her father, a Turkish immigrant, would likely find her a husband. Her career would likely not matter, and her clothing would be properly chaste.
First-generation Americans like Gulen are often different enough to stand out from their peers (be it for skin color, traits or mannerisms), but Americanized enough to be dismissed by their own ethnic group.
“I don’t know the language, so any time that there’s a Turkish function that we’d all go to, I would be the outcast, because I didn’t speak Turkish,” says Gulen. “So I stopped going. There was really no point in being there if no one was going to talk to me.”
Gulen’s father, originally from Civas, a city in eastern Turkey, went to work as a waiter on a cruise ship when he was 16 years old.
After immigrating to the United States a few years later, first to Florida and then on to Los Angeles, he managed several upscale restaurants before branching out to private catering for high-profile clients like then-president Ronald Reagan. He married an American woman, the ultimate symbol of cultural acceptance for many immigrants, and they welcomed daughter Leyla in 1978.
By the age of four, Gulen’s life in the United States was far removed from the standards of acceptability in most Turkish families. That was the year her mother enrolled her in a ballet class, a love she would pursue for the next 17 years.
“My dad was actually really supportive of it,” says Gulen. “He’s a little more progressive. Also, he’s not Muslim. He is culturally, but he’s not practicing. If he had been religious, I would have never been able to do it. Who’s going to let their Muslim child go prancing around in a leotard and tights? It’s just not going to happen.”
Though she may not speak Turkish, may not practice the religion or rituals of her family’s culture with great regularity, Gulen cannot help but be exposed to Turkish culture.
Her father still does much of his business with other members of the Turkish-American community, and his friends are Turkish. His life is still Turkish, by association if not by locale.
Thus, she operates in two worlds – America at large and the tiny section of Turkey that her family and dozens of other immigrants create at home. A foot in two worlds, she can rest firmly in neither.
Gulen has dated two men, but within a cloak of secrecy in order to avoid her father’s wrath.
At the time of our interview, she was seeing a white American man, but found little comfort in the relationship.
White American men, she believes, are looking for the blond-haired, blue-eyed ideal. And marrying a Turkish man picked for her by her father? Forget it.
Filice, on the other hand, did choose to marry within her ethnic background, tying the knot with Al Filice, a high school classmate who she began seeing after his tour in the Korean War was complete.
They will celebrate their 50th anniversary this year, and they continue to work at keeping their family traditions alive for a new generation.
“I think it gives you a sense of belonging,” said Filice, “to know where you both come from. I think my kids have each felt the same thing that they’ve tried to pass on to their kids.
We have continued certain family traditions. Every winter my kids and I, we all make Italian sausage. And when the grandkids come to Nana’s house, they still like the things that Nana makes.”
Many of the children of immigrants worry that if they don’t maintain their culture, a part of their own identity and history will die.
And the alienation that many immigrants feel – from speaking a different language, worshiping at different churches, even eating different foods – seems to trickle down to their children as well, transforming into sources of pride along the way.
Those who try to explain the phenomenon call it genetic memory, a physical attachment to the rhythms, tastes and sounds of another place and time.
Others say it’s merely modern ancestor worship. Rob Citas, an Australian high school teacher on vacation in the United States, was confused by Americans’ obsession with lineage. “My grandparents came from Italy to Australia,” he said. “But I’m Australian.
I was born there, and if I went to Italy and told everyone that I was Italian, they’d laugh at me. So how can someone who was born here and never lived elsewhere be Mexican or Persian or whatever you guys call yourselves?”
A claim to lineage beyond the nuclear family may lead some people to manufacture feelings of otherness.
But perhaps the otherness that first-generation Americans feel is really no more than the emptiness of having parents separated from their own child’s existence by a chasm of personal history.