I am Italian-American

American Identity: Who is us?
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American Identity: Who is us? 02:47

Story highlights

  • Carol Costello: I am proud to be Italian-American
  • Since Bobby Jindal says he's not a "hyphenated American," as in "Indian-American," debate over "who is us" has grown

Carol Costello anchors the 9 a.m. to 11 a.m. ET edition of CNN's "Newsroom" each weekday. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.

(CNN)I am American. Italian-American. Or maybe I'm American-Italian or an American of Italian descent. Nah, I'm Italian-American. It's how I was raised to think of myself, even though I was born in the most American of cities, Canton, Ohio.

Grandpa Tony Recchio
In 1920, a group of men meeting in downtown Canton founded the National Football League. What's more American than that? In that same year, the number of Italian immigrants living in Northeast Ohio exploded. Some 60,000 Italians called this most American of states home, including my Grandma and Grandpa Costello. And the Recchios on my mother's side.
I am Italian as far back as the "proverbial they" can trace. And I was raised to be proud of it. I grew up dancing the tarantella and doing the hustle, fearing the malocchio and the monster under my bed, playing the morra and diving for baseballs, and arguing for no good reason at all.
    As Grandma Costello always told us, "Never forget where you came from." She insisted on that, even though only two of her nine children and dozens of grandchildren were born in Italy. Didn't matter. That's how she felt, and that's how we felt.
    But not everyone agrees. Ever since Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal proclaimed he's not a "hyphenated American," as in "Indian-American," the debate over "who is us" has grown more heated.
    Carol Costello-Profile-Image
    Like many immigrants today, my grandparents came to America not because they fell in love with American culture, but because they were desperate to escape poverty. My Grandpa, Vincenzo Costello, fought for the United States in World War I so he could become an American citizen. Keep in mind that in the early 1900s, Italians were not the beloved paesanos they are today. They were ridiculed for their dark skin, for practicing Catholicism, and don't even get me started on the Mafia thing.
    Even Joe DiMaggio could not escape ridicule. A 1939 Life magazine article described the Yankee great's heritage like this, "Instead of olive oil or smelly bear grease, he keeps his hair slick with water. He never reeks of garlic. ..."
    In spite of that, Grandpa Costello grew to love America. My grandmother did, too, but she also desperately missed "the Old Country." She used to tell my Aunt Nancy that she couldn't bear to visit Italy because she would want to stay there. That didn't make her un-American. She loved her Italian heritage, but she also loved America. So we embraced the rich culture of there and here and developed a strong sense of identity that so many in this country yearn to hold on to.
    "I grew up telling people I was American," Chun Yee Yip O'Neill, a native New Yorker who works for the city's Museum of Chinese in America, told me. She added, "But, people were not satisfied with that answer. So, when I went to college, I said, wait a minute, they don't see me as American, so I'll call myself Chinese-American."
    The current exhibition at the museum explores Chinese-American identity. O'Neill agreed to talk to me about her personal beliefs. She told me, "I feel very strongly about keeping customs. Leaving a legacy. Especially since I became a mother. My husband is British, we grapple with identity all the time. Is our daughter a global citizen? Where does she fit in?"
    The new ABC sitcom, "Fresh Off the Boat," premiering Wednesday night, will explore similar identity issues. Like the comedy, "Black-ish," and the coming PBS documentary, "The Italian Americans," it will delve into how much cultural diversity should matter when it comes to being American.
    In "Fresh Off the Boat," the story centers around a Taiwanese Chinese immigrant family who moves from Washington, D.C.'s Chinatown to mostly white Orlando, Florida. It's based on Chef Eddie Huang's 2013 memoir of the same name.
    The 11-year-old star of "Fresh Off the Boat," Hudson Yang, told me his character, Eddie, wants to "prove he can be part of the group, that he's the same as anybody else," despite the fact his parents are Asian.
    In real life, Yang said, he thinks "being Asian is cool," but added, "I don't really care if I was any other race. It wouldn't matter to me."
    It's a sentiment that makes me both happy and a little sad. Eric Liu, who wrote "A Chinaman's Chance," a book about his own cultural identity, would most likely agree.
    "This idea that we're a melting pot, to me it's the wrong metaphor," Liu told me. "We're not just thrown into this pot and cooked together and we all come out together the same beige-brown-blob. That's not what happens. What happens is that all of these influences get thrown together, woven together, and hybrids get made. Little hybrids of Italian and Jewish and Chinese and African-American identities and styles ... get meshed together. And we're hardly conscious of it because we're in it. It's like water to fish."
    Like water to fish. I would guess my youngest cousins will have no idea what Liu means. But, I do. And I'm glad.