"O, mia patria, sì bella e perduta!

O, membranza, sì cara e fatal!"
-Temistocle Solera, from Giuseppe Verdi's Nabucco

Beautiful and Lost documents the manifold identity of Italian Americans today.

This is a catalog of our personal experiences, our self-perceptions, and what still matters to us as history pushes onward into a more globalized future. We find out if our cultural heritage and family traditions still live and if they can continue to survive. What has changed and what hasn't, for better or worse? Is there sense of community among us? And have we finally achieved the American Dream, no matter the cost?

I am always looking for Italian Americans of all backgrounds and walks of life to photograph and interview. Please contact me at diana.ve.pinto@gmail.com if you are located in the greater Los Angeles and Orange County areas and interested in contributing. The ability to meet for an interview and a portrait is required, as well as ideally being of at least 25% Italian descent. 

Lauren Libaw, soprano
Interviewed in person and photographed in Pasadena, California on December 26th, 2014

Lauren is half Italian. Her mother's grandparents immigrated from the province of Caltanissetta, Sicily, early in the 20th century. She hails from Pasadena, California and currently lives in Europe for her musical studies and career. 

Do you know if your newly arrived ancestors struggled to assimilate at the time?

Good question. I know that they spoke in dialect at home a little bit, or maybe a lot, but that my grandmother...grew up speaking English, has no accent, spoke a little dialect, understood a lot, but never spoke it to my mom. So by one generation, I think, they assimilated.

Did you watch any Italian shows or movies or listen to any Italian media growing up? Obviously opera.

Yes. Opera was very influential because since I sang in my first opera as a kid at 10, La bohème...I loved it, and so I wanted to be around the language and to speak it. And I always felt like I had some kind of weird connection to Italian music and when I started to sing I really did it better and more easily and more instinctively than any other type. Which is odd, I mean, because I didn't grow up so much around it.

Did you notice any cultural differences between you and those outside your home/community? 

I would say by the time we were growing up we were so assimilated that people didn't think of us as Italians. We were just Americans since my mom is second-generation. So no, I didn't feel different because of being Italian...if we had been on the East Coast, like in Pennsylvania or in New Jersey growing up in an Italian community then we would be Italians.

Are there people who were crucial to forming what you would consider to be your Italian American identity?

I guess my grandmother, my mom's mom. We were close and we used to talk every night, every single night on the phone. And she was sort of the Sicilian one, she had the Sicilian name and she would tell us stories about growing up in America, because she grew up, as well, a lot in America, but about old-school Italian-Americans. So she's pretty much my closest link. She loved opera, she loved Pavarotti.

My first Italian teacher was also important. She made me feel Italian. She would always say, "You're Italian, sei Italiana!" like, "Of course it's important that you learn the language!" and "Chiacchieriamo until you learn it!" So she was really great, and she was also southern Italian...I feel that too, I don't just feel Italian, I definitely distinctly feel southern Italian. There is a big difference. People are like, "I'm from Milano or Como," and I'm like, "Oh, no."

What's the most frustrating part of trying to maintain an Italian identity?

I would say for me not being totally fluent and not having that be a part of me. I almost feel a little bit sheepish about saying I'm Italian because I don't speak the language on a daily basis. That's such a central part of the culture...like if I say I'm Italian then you grew up speaking Italian at home...they want to know if my mom lives in Italy and why I have an accent when I speak in Italian, you know? So it makes me feel less Italian.

Do you feel a sense of duty to your heritage?

I would like my children hopefully to take an interest and speak the language. I guess that's my only duty I feel is to sort of pass it on at least in some small way so that they sort of have the option to opt in if they want, you know? So I'm not going to force it on them but yeah...I also...I guess that's why I'm a little, like, embarrassed that I don't speak the Italian anymore as much as I speak French just because I feel like I am Italian and I should speak the language.

A increasingly popular view of tradition in America is that it is a burden, a link to old problems, and a limitation to social “progress.” How do you feel about that interpretation?

I think that's wrong. No, I think it's possible to...maybe I'm an idealist, but I think it's possible to make progress and develop within your own personal identity and be very American while still keeping traditions of your culture or your parents' cultures. America was supposed to be the land of the free, huh? So I think we should try to keep it that way. 

So what would the worst thing Italian Americans could lose over time through globalization be?

Well, when I think about culture in general, this is just me and what I happen to like to do in life, but I really do think of music as being a central pillar...people really do communicate through music and musical ways and musical references. I think a connection to the music of Italy is important, classical and non-classical...education and knowledge of your past and where you've come from and the culture you're a part of. There's a lot to be proud of. 

Minerva Pinto, law student

Interviewed in person in Gardiner, Montana and photographed in Yellowstone National Park on May 12th, 2015.

Minerva is full Italian and first-generation American. Her parents immigrated together from the Lazio region to the United States four years before she was born. Born in Idaho and raised in Los Angeles, she now lives and studies in Philadelphia. Minerva is also my older sister and singular sibling.

Did you feel that there were cultural differences between us and those in our community?

Yeah. It's hard to figure out if it was just because of our family or it it was the Italian tradition... I feel like there's an element of stereotypical, like, "My Big Fat Greek Wedding" thing where the lunches we packed were always really different. I remember when [my friend] Jessica's mom used to pack me lunch if I was staying there for a week it was like, "Oh my God, it's Christmas! It's so different, I have a bagel!" Stuff like that. It was just mostly you could tell that I was not a Wonder Bread child.

When people find out you're Italian, what's their reaction?

I think the reaction is different depending on where I've been. I mean, growing up in LA people thought it was cool because...they saw it as exotic whereas if you're on the East Coast they're assuming you're from South Philly. And I've had people ask me, "Are you related to the South Philly Pintos?" and I have no idea who these people are but I just don't want to deal with that. And it actually really bothers me because Italian American for me is not the same thing as Italian American on the East Coast. Especially being first generation Italian American, it is not South Philly. It is not Jersey Shore. And that actually is not a stereotype, Jersey Shore exists...and that's what people automatically think on the East Coast and I had to teach myself to do this, that when I'm on the East Coast I say "My parents are from Rome."

How does the culture manifest itself in your life today?

More so than just the, "Oh, I like cooking," it's definitely...the process of, like, hanging out in the kitchen, or sitting down at dinner and having family dinners and talking. And I'm a big talker. I feel like that's part of our culture, too, is sharing and I think that is the biggest part of what's Italian to me. It's this sense of, not Mafia togetherness in the sense that you're loyal...It's more about when you're home and you're in the same house and you have a family you aren't just in a hotel. That's what we were always told. You are part of it, you will sit down at dinner, and you're gonna share and people are gonna bounce ideas off each other and I like that. That's the part that I see is the biggest difference between me and most people who didn't come from those kinds of families...I don't like the idea of coming home and pulling whatever they want out of the fridge and eating at, you know, six o'clock, and the other one at eight o'clock. I like that tradition of being together and being around food and taking your time and being at a cafe for four hours...I was just talking to Mom about this, how she hates how people say "Hi, how are you?," and just keep walking. I feel like that's a quintessential American thing where you go through these motions of togetherness without actually being together. And in Italy if you ask that question...you might as well sit down because you're going to hear the story and I like that.

By now Italian American culture is something that is so long-established in America that distinct images of certain dishes, music, films, places, and popular figures are associated with it. Did these things align with your actual experiences? Can you relate to them? 

It's funny, because I think it's more about the aura of it...for instance, when you watch Moonstruck...I honestly don't have that family and I never had those experiences and I don't have that tradition, but for some reason that movie really resonates with me, and that story really resonates. And that family, maybe it's just bits and pieces, I feel like it's home. But then I had a friend that texted me recently like, "Oh, it's so stereotypically Italian," and to me it's not. There's an attitude. I don't even know what it is, to me it's just an aura, there are certain times, especially if it's a situation like that where it's authentic and it's not this watered-down cannoli conversation...It's just the attitude of the people, this open-hearted kind of openness that you get from Italians that is really great, for better or for worse. They're very conversational and honest and happy and they like food, and I get that...but I kind of stop identifying with it when it becomes a cliché .
So you've been able to separate those cultural stereotypes from your experiences?

Oh yeah. To me, being Italian is more about the kind of person you are, and not about what you do. So you can go through the motions and eat as much lasagna as you want, but...

Do you feel that globalization will serve to erode our heritage?

In some ways I actually think it's helped because we're in a world now where we can watch any movie we want, we can listen to any radio station we want, and it's actually allowed me to connect with Italy a lot more than I would if there weren't technology that could allow me to do so. I think that if we had just moved here and that was it, we just let go of every connection that we have with the country that we would have become American a lot more quickly. We had RAI International and things like that and I feel like in some ways it allows us to keep the connection, however superficial, to a country and maybe also lets you see the best of other cultures. I mean, I've never really decided that because I like sushi that I've become Japanese.

Cassie Venaglia, composer and soprano. 

Interviewed in person in Norwalk, California on December 30th, 2015 and photographed in Fullerton, California on April 20th, 2016

Cassie is one quarter Italian and one quarter Irish through her father, and one half Mexican through her mother. Her paternal great-grandmother was from Livorno and her great-grandfather from Lucca. By way of New Jersey her family eventually relocated to Orange County, California. Her pursuits as a composer and musician have taken her to Italy in recent years where she has been more inspired to deepen her connection to her roots. She now is pursuing graduate studies at NYU.

Did you have have any Italian traditions in your house growing up?

I mean, I’m only a quarter Italian but I’m very Italian by personality. I hear stories about my great-grandmother...she would make homemade raviolis by hand...I saw a home video a few years ago about her doing it with her gnarled hands. She lived to a hundred and four and she could still roll those puppies out faster than we could! I know that was definitely a tradition in our family. Our dinners are always kind of, I don’t want to say extravagant...we always have pasta. For Christmas or Thanksgiving or something my dad has been getting really into Italian cuisine in the past ten years and so he makes the most amazing pasta sauce. I wouldn’t say it’s necessarily completely like Italian, it’s definitely Italian-American. It’s very...I know after visiting Italy the past couple years I’ve realized everything is more simple there. But my dad is more powerful, probably more like an American pack-a-punch of flavor, like BAM.

I think tradition of music and a love of music. My great-grandmother...I mean, she died when I was ten but she was kind of going deaf in one ear, but she would sing to me in Italian and it was totally out of tune, which is to be expected if you’re going deaf and can’t hear yourself.

Music, food, always inviting a person who maybe isn’t normally in your family like, “Come on, join us!” Very welcoming. I think that’s definitely Italian aspects of my family, the personality more than anything else, coupled with the food. Food is very important to Italians.

Do you have any family in Italy?

That’s something I haven’t really explored. I know that there are other Venaglias in the US besides the ones that we know, like my uncle Richard in Virginia, and I’ve wanted to explore that but I don’t know. As far as I know there isn’t, but there might be. I did get a chance to go to Lucca for, like, a half an hour which is really sad...I was lucky to stop there but I kind of did want to see if there are any Venaglias still there. Then I might have a free place to stay! And also another person to connect with who’s still in the motherland. That’d be really cool, so I hope some day there’s some Venaglia still out there.  

Do you feel any cultural differences between you and your community?

I totally do. I feel, like I said when I talked about a little bit earlier when I visited Italy for the first time, like, “Oh, my people!” Like I’m exploring this other part of my personality that is not necessarily appreciated in America very much. It’s not socially acceptable to be very flamboyant with your emotions here, and I am a very flamboyant girl with my emotions, and so is especially this side of my family...I definitely have a very big personality and I don’t always feel like that’s appreciated here. I don’t feel like that it's okay to be myself completely here. 

Would you say that there were any people crucial to forming your Italian-American identity?

My dad and my uncle, my grandfather and my great-grandmother...just my family, the most important thing. And I think connecting with other Italians traveling the past few years to Italy has definitely been a big factor. Joining the Italian club at school was a good influence, too, connecting with other people who, whether they were Mexican or white or whatever, had a passion for Italian food and music and the culture. That all helped form me, but probably my family most importantly.

By now Italian-American culture is something long established in America, in food and music and movies. Do you feel more Italian or Italian-American in that regard?

I think there’s something I connect with Italian-Americans, you know, the love of being Italian or maybe idolizing certain things. I think the idolization of the Italian culture is definitely Italian-American. You feel like you’re not quite Italian enough for people, or they tell you you’re not Italian, you’re not a real Italian. I mean, especially, I’m only 25%, but I definitely connect with different ways.

There isn’t as much of a tight knit Italian community here in Southern California. Did you feel you missed out on exploring that?

I don’t know. Kind of. Yes and no. I feel like the Italian-American on the East Coast is different from the Italian-American here. I kind of do and then I don’t because I have my family and that’s very important to me. I think also visiting Italy was more important to me than feeling like I’m missing out on the Italian-American experience.

What’s the most frustrating part of attempting to retain an Italian identity out here?

Probably the current most frustrating thing is language, not being able to really practice it. I know this summer when I got back, I was gonna go and find an Italian-American club, and I know there are but they’re so far away from here....but trying to find other people to get together with, and also who are young but not so far away, that’s frustrating.

Do you feel a duty to your heritage, like things that you feel you’d pass on to your children?

Definitely. The food, the culture, the music. Maybe hopefully becoming better at Italian and Spanish. I feel passing on a language is important because you learn so much...it helps intelligence because languages are so complex. I feel like language is something that I hope I can continue to pursue but I get pretty lazy ‘cause it’s hard. It’s like practicing an instrument, you have to do it every day or else you lose it.

I feel the further the generations go on and the more they learn about their past, they feel even more interested than their parents were.

Right. Well, like my mom, I’ll ask her things like, “How’s Mexican hot chocolate made?” and she’s like, “I don’t know, I don’t remember, I don’t care,” because they grew up there. They lived there, and they got away from there for a reason, and that’s how they think about it. But I think there’s always that wanting to connect especially as an American, any American. You don’t have a central feeling...we all are like a melting pot. A lot of people are multi-ethnic…”I’m German-ish, I know I have a German last name, but I don’t really feel German.”

Especially when you get the globalization, it’s just how many things can you focus on as a heritage? But it’s still good to try. It’s what’s in your heart, what you feel connected to.

Me personally...I fall in love with cultures. That’s just who I am as a person. I love traveling, it’s been a recently acquired passion of mine the past few years and I love people from different cultures. I love learning about how people live around the world, and I feel whether it’s Italian or Mexican or even, you know, taking my child to France I will want to expose my children to a different culture...that there is a world outside being American. I feel like that’s important to me, that’s a passion to expose them to what else is there outside to not just focus on me me me, to expose them to how other people live and how blessed we are to live in this country in so many ways

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