FAU student archive seeks to preserve Italian culture

Three graduate students have conducted 18 interviews with Italian-American students.


Alexander Rodriguez | Contributing Photographer

Tucker Berardi, Features Editor

FAU has international students from all over the world who attend classes on its South Florida campuses. For many of these students, the new college atmosphere is not the only thing they have to adjust to — they have to fit their cultural backgrounds into their South Florida surroundings.

Three FAU graduate students from Italy have decided to reserve a space for these cultural experiences by creating an indefinitely expanding archive of recorded interviews that reveals a snapshot of Italian-American culture in South Florida.

FAU graduate students Vincenza Iadevaia, Viviana Pezzullo and Federico Tiberini are all international students who have recognized that college-age Italians are not the only ones struggling to uphold their cultural identities in this new location.

Vincenza Iadevaia. Alexander Rodriguez | Contributing Photographer

The three students are currently interviewing Italians and Italian-Americans from multiple generations to include in their archive, which will be a collection of audio, written and visual content that they hope will preserve Italian heritage while also giving a glimpse of Italian-American life in South Florida.

Eventually, the three hope to put the audio archive online or make it available in the S.E. Wimberly Library.

Many Italians and Italian-Americans ranging multiple generations have struggled with the preservation of their cultural identities upon moving to the United States and ultimately, South Florida.

“South Florida is a place where we are experiencing a second-level migration,” Iadevaia said. “[The Italian-Americans] give us their background as we ask them why they came to Florida. We want to know their reasonings.”

The graduate students are collecting stories, heirlooms, memories and anything else that connects students’ Italian backgrounds with what Iadevaia calls the “New New Land,” or South Florida. So far, they have interviewed 18 Italian-Americans.

Many of these Italians coming to the states, and eventually to South Florida, are met with the prospect of assimilation — blending in with American culture and adapting to a new language, new values and new norms, often at the expense of the ones they know.

Viviana Pezzullo. Alexander Rodriguez | Contributing Photographer

Jean Giarrusso, a second-generation Italian-American, is one participant in the study who has experienced this move into American culture firsthand. Because she was born in the U.S., Giarrusso feels like she lost out on the opportunity to learn fluent Italian.

“My parents spoke mainly English at home — although they spoke in Italian when there was something they did not want us to know,” Giarrusso said.  “I usually understood what they were saying, because I was the oldest child and I learned the most Italian. My two sisters did not.”

Giarrusso’s story is not uncommon. Many second and third-generation Italian Americans lose out on much of their heritage. Others, however, hold to their traditions as they come to South Florida.

FAU professor of Italian Studies Ilaria Serra said, “Italians like to make their comfort zones in new areas (like South Florida) and that can take many forms: telling stories, traditional ingredients, treasures, heirlooms, photographs. It is an identity they want to protect. Some choose to blend in with American culture, some do not.”

Regardless of whether they are holding on to their heritage or adopting a new way of life, this project recognizes that every Italian-American has a unique story that Iadevaia, Pezzullo and Tiberini hope FAU will be able to share with students and the South Florida community for years to come.

Federico Tiberini. Alexander Rodriguez | Contributing Photographer

“This seemed like it was just a project for a class, and then it became bigger than we expected in the first place,” Pezzullo said. “We hope to continue this study past this semester, we are the first ones to organize a project like this in South Florida.”

The study also seeks to collect lullabies and words in Italian dialects that will paint a better picture of Italian culture for their on-campus archive.

Along with the archive, the graduate students will be presenting their study at the Calandra Institute in New York City at the end of April.

For these students, the project has become personal — all three are Italians familiar with the desire to maintain their culture. But Italian-Americans do not yet have a solid representation of Italian culture in South Florida, something these students hope to change with the Italian-American archive.

“We don’t just come here as students,” Iadevaia said. “We came here to work, to research. We have experiences and backgrounds and we aren’t really recognized. We live in the shadows.”

Ann Capone, 95, is one of the Italian-Americans interviewed for the study. Her parents were migrants from Naples, and she moved to Florida in the 1950s. Capone used to speak in a fluent Neapolitan dialect of Italian, which had unique phrases and meanings, but lost it after decades without speaking it.

“Speaking with me, she began to resuscitate her memory of the dialect,” Iadevaia said.

As their interview went on, Capone was able to remember some words in Italian and the memories of her heritage.

Iadevaia said she wants as many people as possible to share their stories so that they know that there are others with similar experiences.

“If any students or their families have stories they would like to share or objects that reminds them of their origins we would love to include them,” Iadevaia said. “The project is made by people — the more we reach, the better the project.”

Iadevaia, Pezzullo and Tiberini hope that this project will put FAU on the map for Italian studies and will give Italian Americans a chance to share their heritage with their “New New Land” of South Florida.

Tucker Berardi is the features editor of the University Press. For information regarding this or other stories, email [email protected] or tweet him @tucker_berardi.