"How boring, how dull, how sad!" That's what I thought, twenty years ago, the first time I attended one of the many regional association events in my newly adopted Canadian city. "They eat, they drink and they dance in these anonymous, squalid halls. Italian food, sure, but not even well prepared, low grade homemade wines, hours of sweat dancing to music of the thirties, forties and fifties. When they speak, mostly in dialect, they repeat the same old stories and anecdotes filled with nostalgia." In the eighties, I had just left adolescence and Italy behind. Italy was in full development, though threatened by the terrorism of the Red Brigades and by ferocious union wars. It was the Italy of design and fashion, envied and copied the world over.
I did not understand what it meant for entire generations of Italian migrants to gather together in that way, in those "unsophisticated" places.
Most of all, I did not see myself fitting into those associations, those clubs, those parties and gatherings. As the years passed, however - after having worked for an Italo-Canadian newspaper and as an interpreter in law courts, hospitals, and rehabilitation centres for work-related injuries - I got to know those men and women who had been forced to migrate at a time so distant from my reality.
I learned to listen to them, to reflect on their stories, to imagine the vicissitudes of their lives. I began to understand their hardships, their conquests, their dignity, their silent - though paradoxically eloquent - contribution to the new society. What is the secret of their achievements in a foreign, unknown land? The traditions of mutual solidarity, the conviviality and the sense of community, had kept them united, thereby protecting them from "bad-weather beatings."
Getting together, after long hard days of manual labour, to taste those foods, listen to that music, speak those dialects, was a boost of serene familiarity. It gave them the energy and strength to keep on going . . . back to the mines and distant woods, to the railways and construction sites, and to numerous other jobs . . . without feeling alone.
Earlier this year, I casually decided to leave Vancouver - an airline ticket, an eleven-hour flight, and I was in Italy. By comparison, it is too easy, today, to forget how distant the pioneers must have felt: the great-grandparents, grandparents and parents of my generation.
Because of their sacrifices, we are able to live the present and plan the future in a different way. We are no longer just manual labourers! Today's youth can focus on deeds of the mind - culture, music, art. They can devote their time to technological projects and engage in the discovery of new boundaries. They are the vehicle of an expansion in a true global sense through exchanges, intellectual broadening and sharing.
Thanks to those who came before us, we have the opportunity to study and to travel, perhaps on the very railroad tracks laid by our grandparents, metre by metre, across our immense continent, or along the thousands of kilometres of roads and highways built by our parents. Because of them, today we can take the time to think, read, study and philosophize. They didn't have this luxury, but they made it possible for us; and at the same time they passed on their patrimony of work ethic, their sense of duty, their sense of morality and the importance of family.
Today we have strong bonds, though often unconscious ones, with the language, history, traditions and culture of our country of origin, precisely because of the previous generations of migrants. The majority was faced with difficult experiences, but therein lies the secret of their wealth and success, whether they have made a fortune or not. In their quest for a better life and a better future for their children and grandchildren, they found courage, determination, persistence and tenacity: the courage to abandon their homeland out of necessity; the strength and persistence to meet the challenges of adapting to a new and unfamiliar society; and the tenacity to undertake any kind of job in order to survive, while enduring racism and prejudice.
It is true that many young Canadians of Italian origin do not speak the Italian language properly, if at all. They may not know the grammar or syntax, but they are proud of their Italian heritage.
The previous generations, through their sacrifices and their desire for economic and cultural redemption, have opened many doors for their offspring. My generation can now aim to become actively involved in the political and social life of their ancestors' adopted country, and of the entire world. Italy has, indirectly, given a lot to the new generations, but the new generations have even more to offer Italy. The Bel Paese and its Regions have awakened to the importance of the role played by Italians outside of Italy.
Italy has taken constructive and strategically astute steps in organizing an increasing number of shows, conferences and exchanges - not only on tourism but also on education and professional training - in an attempt to establish a truly constructive dialogue with the granddaughters and grandsons of those who left Italy.
Without a doubt, Canadians of Italian origin are equipped to become the leaders of a new world, thus contributing the atavistic values transmitted by their ancestors who were scattered around the world.
Ida Maria Pan is a film technician and a freelance writer living in Italy after twenty years of residence in Canada.