I come from a long line of left wingers and political dissenters, on both the Italian and the American sides of my family. My American ancestors were were part of the Underground Railroad which helped slaves make their way to Canada, my mother’s aunt was very vocal during the Civil Rights Era, and my own mother was as anti-Vietnam war as it was possible to be. My mother loves to talk about this, to the point in which I’m pretty sure she’s exaggerating. The fact of the matter is, she takes pride in being on the right side of history. She’s not the only one, you see can see many American public figures playing up their part in the political dissent that wound up making history. There is a satisfaction in being able to say that my family and I were not sheep. We did not buy into the propaganda of the day, or the lazy mindset of the politically uninformed, we took the unpopular but ultimately morally correct position!
The way that my Italian family discusses these things, however, is worlds apart.
Both of my Italian grandparents were partigiani, and actively fought to undermine the Fascist regime during WWII. However, I did not know this until I was an adult. When I was a child and I was studying WWII in school, it suddenly dawned on me that there was a person in the room who had actually lived through this terrible thing I was reading about in my books. “Nonna”, I asked her, “were you a Fascist during WWII too?”
“Well”, she answered, “the thing you have to understand is that everyone was a Fascist during that time. I just didn’t really think about it, you know, we were just told how to think in those days.” She lied, straight to my face, and for years I thought slightly less of my grandmother for having bought into Fascist propaganda during her young adulthood.
Somehow my mother discovered her true political history early on, so of course she was thrilled to find that my father’s family had a similar history to hers. She thought she found a kindred spirit in my grandmother, and when she discovered that a neighbor of ours was born in the same year as her and was also a partigiana, she rushed to introduce them to each other. She introduced my grandmother to this person as a fellow partigiana, and my grandmother stiffened at once. She replied tersely to the forced conversation with this person, and left as soon as she possibly could. My mother was baffled, and took it to mean that my grandmother was still traumatized and feared being openly labelled as a resistance fighter. “Your father’s family suffered for years and across generations for their political dissent”, my mother told me, glowing with pride. “It’s only natural that, even after all these years, she’s still nervous about making it common knowledge that she opposed the Fascist government”.
Yea, the thing is, that wasn’t it at all.
When I told my father this story, and I got to the part where my mother introduced my grandmother as a partigiana, he stiffened and got the same scowling look on his face that she undoubtedly did that day. “Of course she was upset”, he said, “how dare your mother discuss her private business in front of strangers like that. I would have been furious with her too. Many of my friends were in the lotta armata, you think they brag about it over beers?”
And there is the difference. As far as Italians are concerned, fighting against oppression is serious business. It is private, and those very few who brag about it were probably not fighting at all, merely musing over how those guys might have the right idea from the safety and comfort of their couches. It is not something to boast about, to take pride in, or even talk about to your grandchildren, let alone to perfect strangers. It’s not something that you’re ashamed of, but neither is it a badge of honor to be worn proudly. Those who fought against the Fascists saw some serious shit, and bragging about being on the right side of history, to them, is like making light of one of the most serious times of your life. One is not defined by their political dissidence in Italy, so using a label as such is considered to be in very poor taste.
Of course my mother was not trying to make light of anything when she so openly labelled my grandmother as a partigiana. She simply blundered into a giant cultural difference that to this day she does not fully understand. As far as she’s concerned, my grandmother was exceptionally brave in fighting for what she believed to be the right thing to do, so any reluctance to discuss it could only be due to lingering fear and PTSD. Who doesn’t want others to know that they were brave, and on the right side of history? Who wouldn’t want their dissent to be part of their legacy? But as far as my grandmother is concerned, that is not her legacy. She did something risky and dangerous as a reaction to what she saw going on around her, but that has no bearing on who she is today, or what she believes in. For her, protecting her children and grandchildren from danger is the strongest instinct she has. She would not have her grandchildren bragging about her bravery, and develop an idealistic notion as to what such a rebellion could mean, only to blunder into such danger themselves unprepared for the consequences such a decision could have. Once they are adults they can evaluate their situation and make their own decisions, but she wont have anyone she had a hand in raising putting themselves in danger because they idolized her actions.
And that is at the core of this cultural difference: romanticizing history. My mother skates over the dangers that her ancestors and her family put themselves in when they decided to fight for what they believed was right. For my grandmother, every bloody moment of the resistance is etched in the forefront of her memories of that time, and being on the right side of history does not cancel them out.