DARE TO ASK: You have a problem with that?
By PHILLIP MILANO, The Times-Union
I know a large amount of Italian-American families with houses filled with
rococo furniture, clear vinyl-covered chairs, loud wallpaper, yards covered in
statuary, initials on the garage door, ornate wrought-iron fences and
bricked-over front lawns. Why is this?
Dave, white male, Denver
Most Italian immigrants came from poor backgrounds. Many had a flamboyant
nature. I'm second-generation, a college-grad executive type, and live in a
beautiful house on a two-acre wooded setting. I owe it all to a hard-working
father with a fifth-grade education and devoted mother who insisted I go to
college. We descendants of those immigrants also joke about those gaudy things
you mentioned. Now we watch others, newly arrived in this country, do similar
things. It's part of this beautiful thing we call America. By the way, you
forgot to mention gold chains with horns and diamond pinky rings.
Dave E., 47, Pittsburgh
The first thing that struck me on moving to this part of the country was the
abundance of lawn ornaments. A few years ago it seemed like every other house
had a Dutch Girl/Dutch Boy pair on the lawn!
Sheila, 45, white, Syracuse, N.Y.
Maybe the gaudiness comes from the American part of Italian-American. The
Italian side can boast of Raphael, da Vinci, Michelangelo, Bernini. . . . I'm
Italian-American, and my taste runs to Post-Impressionism and Art Deco. Go
Laura O., 38, Bel Air, Md.
These homes, many in urban areas of the Northeast, would not be complete
without a statue of the Virgin Mary enshrined in a half-buried bathtub in the
front yard, Italian-American writer Regina Barreca said.
"And they don't think it's tacky," said Barreca, author of Don't Tell Mama:
The Penguin Book of Italian American Writing. "They would say: 'I'm going to
enjoy my yard, my garage. This is my palace. If I want to put a painting of The
Last Supper above each inside garage door, I will. You have a problem with
Barreca, a University of Connecticut English professor, said such decor is a
workingclass thing, carried over by immigrants from southern Italy who wanted to
show off their new homes when they arrived here a century ago.
"They couldn't believe you actually owned where you lived. Remember, these
were peasants. They're so pleased to exercise their own taste, they go to town."
It's not only Italian-Americans, she said. Working-class folks of other
ethnicities sometimes go all-out in their adornments.
"If you grew up poor, you want to have the most fun. So whether it's Italians
painting flames on a '67 Camaro or, for example, an African-American
upholstering with a different fabric, it's still 'This is mine, it's not a beige
This sense of enjoying life extends beyond the homestead, she added. "I just
went to a 50th anniversary party for my cousin, and an Elvis impersonator
performed up through the main entree. This was not done with irony."
Phillip Milano, author of I Can't Believe You Asked That! (Perigee),
moderates cross-cultural dialogue at Y? The National Forum on People's
Differences. Visit www.yforum.com to submit questions and answers, or mail to
Phillip Milano, c/o The Florida Times-Union, P.O. Box 1949, Jacksonville, FL
32231. Include contact information.