Traveling as a Hispanic-American Woman in Italy: Gnocchi, Pork, Limoncello and Racial Bits Thrown In

I am going to be upfront with you: it has rained nearly every day that I have been in Italy and I am unapologetically a New Yorker. What does this prefacing mean? I don’t have sun-colored glasses on and I believe with every core of my being New York is the best city in the world. I have taught my son to be loud and proud about the fact that he was born in Manhattan. That’s right, baby.  So, now that I got that out of the way I can move on to share my Obama Post-racial Italy experience and you make of it what you will.

I truly find Rome beautiful. The streets and cobblestones are delight. The gnocchi with four cheeses: divine. The plain croissants are delightfully not plain but are somewhat buttery and lightly creamy. I readily savored the Amaretto that went unadulterated with juice or some pre-fab sour mix. Although, not there is anything wrong with that.  Cappuccinos and Lattes every few millimeters fueled my daily 3-5 mile walk which helped burn off all the yummy prosciutto I ingested.  The pork-stuffed fried Olives I ate mightily fed and nurtured my Puerto Rican self. The countless churches around every street corner fill you with serenity and joy. The people, ah, not so much. Ouch. I said it. And, let me explain.

A few months ago I wrote about my delight at the interracial mix that exists in Curaçao and how I felt welcomed therein as a result. Let’s say, for every ten couples at a restaurant, four were racially mixed. Babies there looked a bit like me. Curaçao was a complete contrast to Austria the country that was quite perplexed by me and my family. Austrians seemed to be constantly questioning whether I was the nanny or the mother of the white baby? In Japan, it was never an issue as they just absolutely adore kids and my son was a “mayor” for a week.

In Italy, it was quite a mixed racial experience where I  could see that Italians are still struggling with their collective identity. Yes, they were the world’s superpower at one time. Note, this was a long time ago. They proudly talk of their Roman history, their renaissance period, their Michelangelo. However, their fascist past -which is not a so distant past as a recently elected mayor of Rome, was from the fascist party- they are a bit mum about. One of our tour guides, who had a funny sense of humor, thanked us for liberating Italy. I was the only one to laugh. And of course, rounding the corner we came across a “no bush” sign. I don’t ever recall seeing a “no Berlusconi” graffiti in the United States; but it is what it is.

The same tour guide related a story to us about the croissant and how it was invented in Italy and not in France because they were commemorating a battle with the Turks.  She ended it by saying that if she were giving this tour to Turks she would have told the story differently. I laughed. The Canadians in the group didn’t quite get it.  On our trip to Florence, the driver (a supremely nice Italian guy) jokingly asked if I was Japanese since I liked to take so many photos. An hour later he noted that the national pastime is hitting Japanese with cars since none of them look where they are going.  I was shocked but not offended by these instances because I realized they don’t have the same racial filters we do in the United States.  For instance, while attending a soccer game in Europe it is not entirely uncommon to see fans throw banana peels onto the field when there are African players.

Overt racism exists more readily in Europe. Period. Way less filters. In the United States, of course there is racism. We have a troubled past with race and such discourse makes many people very uncomfortable. But can you imagine such overt acts in the United States, especially around strangers? (I don’t mean horrific acts like the Jenna 6 event). Acquaintances/friends may have shared language around race, but I don’t think we go into a situation assuming one can be overtly racist. Maybe I’m wrong. I know I definitely noticed a different treatment here in Europe. While eating at various restaurants I have had whole Italian families turn in their seats and stare at me. And it hasn’t been subtle. In one instance, the son kept turning in his seat to look at me repeatedly. At no point did his parents reprimand him for this.  When we went past them to leave the restaurant, my four year old son tried to squeeze by them and the mother shoved my son for trying to get past her.  You can stare at me, but don’t mess with my son.  I wanted to ask outright why they were staring but there was no way they would entertain that conversation. At another dining experience, this Italian woman was seated directly facing me and she just stared and stared. She would note how I ate, what I ate, and how I got up to use the restroom. It was as if I was a zoo animal. By then I had it, so I blatantly stared at her and crossed my arms. She turned away at last. But when I walked past her and she heard me speaking English she seemed a bit startled. Many outside of the United States are still not used to the fact that Americans come in all shapes and colors.  In all fairness, the US is still getting used to that as well.  However, the fact that several US states have majority “minority” populations does mean we are a bit of a step ahead in terms of racial mixing (noting we still have many more miles to go).

On a trip out to Naples our driver noted that Rome is becoming a melting pot similar to New York. I indulged him and nodded my head and asked home “oh yes. Who is the biggest group?”  He thought about it for a second and then said the Romani. My memory immediately flashed to all the instances of the Romani beggars I have seen throughout the city. Hardly any of the beggars I have seen (and I have seen many) were Italian, per se.  Further, many of the street vendors have been North African-slightly darker than myself. Also, apparently, Egyptians are “the Mexicans” of Italy in that they are the ones in the restaurant kitchens making the pizzas. That’s what our Egyptian Roman acquaintance told us. Note I added the roman part to his identity. Although he has been here 20 years and Italians readily admit Egyptians have been part of Italy since its early beginnings, they tend to note that Egyptians, similar to our acquaintance, are not really Italian.   What does it take to be Italian? Being born in the US automatically confers citizenship. I do recognize that not many other countries do that and it is quite a touchy subject [Fareed Zakaria did a great immigration special on CNN that is worth catching: http://globalpublicsquare.blogs.cnn.com/2012/06/06/the-gps-roadmap-for-making-immigration-work/].

In the supermarket line before us was a North African Italian couple clearly speaking Italian quite well. While we were ignored, this couple was subjected to outright disdain. Within a day of being in Rome, an older woman walking along with her family, looked at me and said “morena.” (Its literally brownie but can at times be a much more derogatory term). I had not been called that with disdain since I lived in Spain. All this I bring up to note that many of the outsiders, non-Italians are marginalized. I do not think this is breaking news for anybody. It was just an interesting and at times frustrating experience to have undergone.

I am not saying we were treated badly everywhere and every time. However, many of the times we were treated well and given good service, it was by those that were clearly not originally from Italy. My son was given a chocolate bunny by a Scandinavian barista off of marcello di teatro. We were warmly greeted and served by a mixed Italian/Asian couple in Florence. We were served a wonderful lamb pasta dish by a great staff on Via Venetto. The staff so happened to consist of an Indian male and an Asian female.  A nice Asian family helped me get an adapter after I blew out (smoked) my converter. But I do have to be fair and note we met many nice, very funny Italians. There was a sense amongst those that there is much to be cheerful about and laughter often filled the dinner tables. I think there may be a bit of snarky humor here; which is something I readily enjoy. I must also note that I enjoyed a great sense of catholic pride while here which was a very nice experience to undergo as well. In the US, Catholicism is not held in as much esteem. I was thrilled to learn of the new Pope but not many others that I know were as thrilled.  I loved how friendly and outgoing the nuns have been here towards us.  The Easter greetings were given and received warmly.  Italy, has definitely, been an intriguing mix of contrasts for me.

I have enjoyed my time here overall and hope that Italy’s “newcomers” do help it become a melting pot. Italy has a long history of being adventurous.  May Italy tap readily into that part of their history. They will need it if they are to overcome the economic turmoil in which they find themselves.  Tourism is key and so are their new Italian brothers and sisters. Otherwise, there must be a way for them to turn all that yummy Gelato into gold, right?

After nine days in Italy I long to be back home, in New York. I won’t be stared at because I’m brown. I won’t be stared at because my son is white. If I get stared it, it will be solely because of “my looks”; which includes possibly walking around with bird poop streaming down my back.  But I will still be dreaming of those pork-stuffed fried Olives I had in Italy which were truly divine.

13 replies »

  1. Long live NYC!!! Life in the more cosmopolitan capitals is so freeing on this level, it’s so easy to forget what the rest of the world is like… I am white but my son is mixed (dad is Haitian) and we live in Koreatown in Toronto. They say this is one of the most multi-cultural cities in the world. Even so, my boy tells me sometimes he gets a vibe from people that is like, “what ARE you…”


  2. Really spot on observations. I always enjoy reading your posts, but this one speaks to me especially being born of European parents and having encountered such examples in my own travels back to the motherland. While the rate of intermarriage in Greece has definitely spiked, many still have old school mentalities toward these unions. My great uncle married a woman from Martinique who, after living in Athens for 30 plus years and speaking fluent beautiful, musical Greek, still got leered at whenever she went to buy her groceries. It was always amazing to observe their reactions when she would put them in their place in both Greek and later, French.


  3. Love everything you said here. I’m Puerto Rican Dominican, brown, and was wondering how things would be for me in Italy. Kind of a sad they’re like that, makes me second guess taking my wife and kids there. Thanks again for the great read


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