Turturro: Why my parents stopped speaking Italian in America

John Turturro (left) and Christopher Lambert in The Sicilian (1987).

A young girl punished and hit for speaking her mother tongue.

This was the summer of 1929, in Yorkville, a neighborhood in the Upper East Side of Manhattan.

This young girl was Katherine Florence Incerella. She was born in New York to Italian parents from Sicily and Campania.

In 1947, Katherine married Nicola Turturro, Sr. who emigrated from Puglia, Italy at the age of six and fought as a Navy serviceman on D-Day.

The couple had three children together, John, Ralph, and Nicholas.

John Turturro has previously spoken about his mother’s difficult childhood, but in his latest interview, the actor went into detail about his mother’s early years in an orphanage.

“My mother was born in Brooklyn and her mother died when she was 4. So my mother was then taken away to St Joseph’s orphanage and she lived there for 6 years. She was forbidden to speak any Sicilian by Irish nuns. She was hit if she spoke Sicilian.”

“When her father visited the orphanage she told him to stop speaking in that language,” Turturro said.

Like many others of her generation, Katherine felt intense pressure to prove her patriotism — and like many other Italian-Americans, she started to reject her past by forgetting her parents’ mother tongue.

This is something that many Italian-Americans today have come to regret looking back on their lives.

“I really wish I would have taken the time to learn the Italian language growing up,” Turturro says.

Even though it was more popular to assimilate into the American culture and learn the English language, that doesn’t mean that all Italian-Americans passed over their Italian roots and neglected their original language.

Many parents attempted to teach both English and Italian to their children but that came with mixed results.

Difficulties in school or harassment from peers were just some of the negative ramifications of continuing to speak Italian in America.

Today, many Italian-Americans are researching their ancestors and turning to Italy to regain a kind of authenticity of experience they feel has been lost in the assimilation process.

Although born in Brooklyn and raised in Queens, Turturro is often visiting his ancestral homeland and is now fluent in Italian.

Cultural heritage implies a shared bond. It represents our history and our identity; our bond to the past, to our present, and the future.

Click on the Sign-Up button below to get our top stories sent to your email. It’s FREE!

Written by
Joe Battaglia
Send this to a friend