Born in Buffalo, NY, on February 15, 1957, my story, Albert Emidio Bruno, begins as the only child of Italian immigrants from the town of Pratola Peligna in the Abruzo region in Italy, and I naturally spoke Italian before I began to learn and speak English at my first school, Holy Angels Catholic School on Porter Avenue. My early life was “everything Italian” and a very special time for me.
I had Puerto Rican friends who spoke Spanish to me, together with English and Italian, I truly benefited from the great multilingual and multicultural experiences on the West Side: ethnic treasures that I am forever grateful for. Here are several cultural lessons from the mid-1960s that I would like to discuss and share because they were the endearing words of Mama, and those words forever changed the rest of my life:
We lived on Prospect Avenue, next door to D’Youville College on Porter Avenue. I grew up admiring and cheering on Jack Kemp of the Buffalo Bills and Mickey Mantle of the New York Yankees.
Hall of Fame Wrestler Ilio DiPaolo was my local hero, a gentle Italian giant with huge hands and an infectious smile. Papa knew, loved, and exhorted on his famous, Abruzzese paisano on Saturday nights.
The three of us travelled to the old Memorial Auditorium in Buffalo to see DiPaolo outmuscle and outwork his wrestling foes; and for his closing act, he would powerfully hoist wrestlers onto his massive shoulders, whirling them, like a draining washing machine, into an uncontrollable, “airplane spin,” his signature move, and then slamming and pinning his opposition for the victory.
The Italian American contingency would roar with delight, and I remember hearing: “Bravo Ilio! Forza a gli Italianni!” All the Italian Americans in attendance passionately identified with DiPaolo: After all, DiPaolo was one of their own and a DiPaolo victory was an Italian victory.
Senator Robert Kennedy seemed like he was everywhere and my Mama, Vittoria Rosina Pizzoferrato Bruno, loved him. My father, Elio Perrino Bruno, was a longtime steel worker for Bethlehem Steel in Lackawanna. Papa and Mama Bruno, a sewing machine operator, were inspirational to me and taught me many important lessons about life.
But one lesson in 1965 at age 8, I will never forget, profoundly affecting me the rest of my life. As a routine, Mama would often give me motherly love and encouragement when we were alone in the kitchen, while Mama stirred the tomato sauce, adding more finely chopped, garlic-and-onions every 15 minutes, it seemed; I would be diligently working on my math and phonics homework at the kitchen table because I still did not have a desk of my own desk yet, and I did not complain; we were poor, but I did not know or feel it.
Mama stressed to me in Italian, “Figlio mio, tu devi sapere che no tutti genti piacciono gli Italiani” which translates as “My son, you need to know that not everybody likes Italian people.” Naturally, I was naive and shocked, innocently asking Mama, why are there people out there that do not like Italian people? After all, my life was everything Italian and almost everybody I knew was Italian.
To set the stage and landscape in the mid-1960s, Italians were still being shunned and even discriminated against because of their Italian cultural background; in fact, one of my best friends’ last name was Benevenuto, and their grandfather (from Italy) changed their last name to Benton to mask his Italian culture, so he could secure union employment, a common practice back then.
Those first Italians were culturally prideful and absolutely detested not being able to acknowledge who they were, where they were from, and what was their cultural background.
To add further, Mama reassured me not to worry about anything and emphatically stressed to me that all I had to do to succeed in life, in essence, is make sure I go to college, get a degree, and work harder than “gli altri,” the other guys. Mama would also say, stressing, “Fa di piu di gli altri and fatte voule bene,” translating into the following: ‘Albert, do more work (and be more diligent) than the others and make them love you.’
Mama was not well educated, completing only the 8th grade, but she was simple, to the point, profound, and right. Socially and for future, upward successes, Mama would remind me of this: “Vai con chi meglio di tu e fai i spessi,” which meant ‘befriend those that are better and more accomplished than you and even pay their expenses’ to ensure your future successes.
Because of her promising words and vision for me, I was inspired to earn three MS degrees (and a BA degree), becoming a longtime special education and English teacher and published writer. Thank you Mama Bruno for giving me life, most importantly, a personal mantra and inspiration, and the old-country, culturally-instilled perseverance to become a difference-maker in America, forging my path to success.
Sometimes I wish I could go back to 1965 through a time tunnel, and for that one day, experience again those life lessons learned on Buffalo’s, old West Side. For me, Italian cultural, vocational, and religious traditions and practices guided my ambitious footsteps into a hopeful future. These memorable life lessons were real, they happened; importantly, they must be preserved, or they will be lost forever.
That is why I was inspired to write down my memorable thoughts, preparing my literary version of those old-country, Italian, life lessons that are no longer cited, voiced, and will be forgotten, unfortunately.
These anecdotal accounts refreshes us, sometimes amusingly, on those important, Italian mantras: What we were given and prepared with by our Italian parents, using the best of old-country values to interpret, teach, and arm us for success in a progressive and future America. My hope is that these Italian cultural lessons continue to be delightfully revisited, discussed, and retold for years to come.