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Silvia Pera Headshot

My Missing Country

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I was born in New Jersey 17 years ago. However, both of my parents were born in Italy, 50 something years ago. Living in New Jersey, which I often see depicted as an Italian hovel in popular culture, I have always had trouble figuring out to which country I belong. I travel regularly to Italy, speak Italian, have Italian friends, but I have always lived in the U.S. I don't really fit in either country.

In America, I have an Italian accent, get made fun of for seriously saying "Mamma mia" to my parents in utter frustration and eat pasta. In Italy, I get made fun of for being an annoying American who argues with everyone and knows nothing about the mess of Italian politics. In Italy, I am never loud enough in my disapproval of an obscure Italian politician and always too boisterous in my knowledge of American politics.

Not fitting in either country has never really posed itself as a problem. When I was a child, I would be questioned (mostly in Italy) on my love of countries, and to play it safe, I would always say that I liked China more than either Italy or America. The real answer, though, is that I actually don't prefer any country I have ever visited over another (although Manhattan and Florence I love equally). I have never had to ponder my nationality until recently. As I study nationalism in European History and consider Puerto Rican statehood, I have become interested in my own nationality.

According to the Italian government, I was born in Italy, and according to the U.S. government, I was born here. Although the U.S. government is technically correct, I have always felt more connected with Italy. Perhaps it is my overly Italian mother or my need to be unique, but Italy has always drawn me in just a bit more. It holds a mysterious awe that Houston has never been able to produce. Florence especially draws me in and the days I spent there last year and the year before are the best days of my life so far.

So, perhaps I am more Italian, but that does not change the fact that I feel very lost nationality-wise. If I do not even know if I am Italian or American or Italo American or Italian American or perhaps Ameri Italian, how can I ever manage to truly define myself?

When I was a kid, and even now, I cringed at the thought of having a child. With a kid would come the added responsibility of imposing on him or her a cultural reference point. Would my child be Italian? And what if I married a Czech or a Nigerian? Would my child learn Czech? What if my husband or partner decided that Italian was the worst language ever? I have always been frightened by the thought of any future child of mine not growing up learning Italian.

Because of the probable loss of Italian culture heritage, I have never seriously considered marrying and the thought of a child makes me tear up. However, this should not be the case. Until recently, I had never realized that of course any child of mine would learn Italian. Italians say that I am too American because I argue and my last name means "stubborn," so I would certainly be able to convince any future child of mine (even if under stubborn force) to recognize their Italian heritage.

I may sometimes mock 50th generation Italians, but if in 100 years my future family were able to retain their Italian heritage in America beyond traveling to my parent's hometowns, I would be proud. At that point, my nationality would probably not matter. I would just be what I am -- an Italian American living in Houston.