Elvira Ubaldi

My name is Elvira Ubaldi, I am forty eight years old. I came to Adelaide Australia from Tuffara Vale, Provincia di Benevento Italy at the age of three.My father had already been living here for almost two years when my mother, my twin brother and I joined him.

This was the beginning of my dual cultural world.

My first memories of childhood date back to this time. I cannot remember the sea voyage here, although my mother tells me I bore the month or so at sea well. When we arrived in Port Melbourne, my twin brother and I were photographed for “IL Globo”. We were chosen because we were with the new wave of migrants coming to Australia in the early fifties. My mother dressed my brother and I in captain’s uniforms and the officers of the ship gave us their caps. (My mother still has this newspaper photo).

So it seems my arrival made news.

My other early recollections were of my family co-sharing a house in Maylands with another Italian family, which did not prove very successful. It seems that, even in times of hardship, Italians have regional factions. We did not come from the same area of Italy so there was continuous friction.

We moved by the time I was five and bought our own home (the same house my mother still lives in) a block away from the first house we lived in and my brother and I started school.

Australia in the 50’s, I came to understand, was a difficult place for a migrant Italian. As I grew up I faced a climate of suspicion and disrespect from anglo- Australia. My frizzy hair made me ugly, my dark skin marked me out as a “dago” and the olive oil and garlic I ate made me smell. These were the things I learnt at school.

I had already interacted with the “Australian’s” prior to starting school. I had developed a friendship of sorts with a little girl across the road from me. I say it was a friendship of sorts because I could only speak dialect at this point. I did learn fast at school, faster than my twin brother. I was moved up a whole year in infant school, which separated us. It was a difficult time for my mother because by this time she had given birth to my second brother and, with three young children in a strange country, she still could not speak English. Facing her own issues of being discriminated against she had no time to deal with ours. How could I tell her that the fried pepperoni sandwiches she made were never eaten at school and all I wanted was vegemite. As a child in the fifties, there was a certain shame attached to being ethnic.

Italians in my world at this time tended to create their own little sub-communities and stick together, always speaking in their native tongue, so it was imperative that I learn English quickly and act as translator for my parents. This was the pattern that was set in my early years and continued until my mother learned enough of the English language to get by.

My father, now deceased, was working for the E & WS water department and they had an assimilation program running for all migrants workers, yet after thirty years of trying to master the language, it was a feat that he just could not (or would not) achieve. I was the bridge to the Australian community for my father until his death.

One of the many memories I have of how we were different from “The Australians” came for me when I was separated from my twin at school.

It was in my second year of primary education that I first experienced discrimination. My brother’s teacher came to me and told me that my brother was a dirty boy because he spit on the ground. She had to hit him, she said, to teach him. (She actually pulled him by the hair). “Teach him what?” I wondered, as I saw the hurt and humiliation he was suffering.

I remember this incident clearly because this was the time that I began to realize that I was different from the world around me. The reaction of the teacher and her words about my brother hurt not just my brother but me as well. This Australian way of life that I was embracing was confusing and untrustworthy. It was my first taste of racial difference, and what struck me most, even at that young age, was this teacher’s remarkable lack of compassion.

My childhood was filled with similar episodes. This is one reason why most of my friends throughout primary and secondary school were girls from the Italian community. There was always a sense of “us” and “them”, and we always felt a certain safety in numbers.

I differed from most of my friends however, in that I always maintained at least one close friendship with an Australian girl throughout my childhood. I think I did this because, even as a child, I was open to the idea of integration rather than assimilation. Much to the consternation of my friends, I wanted to be a part of the white Australian community as much as the Italo-Australian. I always believed the two could co-exist, and thanks to the political ignorance of my young Aussie friends, they often did.

It is impossible to receive an Education in Australia without embracing something of its culture. I was in effect an Italian trying to “fit in” to an Australian schooling system and the only way to survive was to assimilate at least on the surface within that environment . My twin brother on the other hand, having been rejected as an Italian, during his teen years, rejected in turn his own heritage, and decided to appropriate for his own all that was Australian, much to his detriment in later years.

I was at the same cross road myself in my teens. In fact, I was at a critical point in my life. While I still called myself an Italian, within my own culture I started to see the drawbacks of this heritage that had drawn back on itself and had, to a certain extent, selectively used what suited them from the Australian way of life while rejecting the rest. I do not blame them, it was self-protective, but unfortunately it was also a form of reverse-racism.

For me, this enclosed world of either culture was not enough. For a teenager, struggling to find out who they are and where they fit in the social scheme of things is hard enough. Many of my friends at this time chose to embrace what they knew of their Italian culture (I say what they knew because during the sixties in Australia, the only Italian culture you were exposed to was within your own family and community group. Very parochial and limiting).

The Italian culture that I grew up with was staunchly patriarchal. In my family, the men had control of the lives of their women. They dictated the lifestyle and the pace of life. We, my mother and my sisters, were assigned certain roles and our life revolved around those imposed roles. I, being the eldest, had to set the example for my sisters. I was to finish my high school diploma, work until I married (the sooner the better) and then raise the family, support my husband and create a stable home. The notion that I was a good student and had higher aspirations never crossed my father’s mind. Indeed this and the fact that I wanted the same freedom that my brothers enjoyed, was the cause of many arguments with my parents during my teenage years.

This was the legacy of my Australian education, my Italian heritage and the Catholic Church pre- and post-Vatican II. The experience of both cultures and the reformed church’s influence that I had gained and my parents lacked.

I knew by the time I was fifteen that I was neither completely Australian nor Italian, and to be true to myself was to blend both cultures. To take what worked best from both worlds and make it my own. I am sure I was not alone in this realization. I am sure that many Italians of my age group thought and felt like I did, yet amongst my own peers I saw the double standards that they developed to cope with this dissatisfaction. I saw it in the games played by the young Italian girls, who would sneak out to meet their partners while pretending to be the vestal virgins with their parents. I saw it with the Italian boys who would date Australian girls. Use them and sometimes abuse them, then marry the vestal virgins. I saw it with Italian parents that closed their eyes to the changing times and the new identity of the second generation Italo-Australians that were their offspring. Still trying to impose old rules on new youth. I also saw it in the Australians that I knew that while embracing you on the one hand, held you apart with the other.

This is the well I had to draw from to create the stream of my life.

This was when my rebellion began. I loved my heritage, I loved my family, I loved my culture, but I wanted more. I wanted the freedom to make my own choices and have my own experiences without being labeled. I had grown up with labels and it was time I broke free.

It was easier for me than most of my friends. My father had one passion that my mother did not share. It was the love of ballroom dancing. He would go out every Saturday night while my mother stayed home with the children. I would often, at a young age, go with him, so I too loved dancing.

It was this weakness of his which enabled me to fight for my rights and demand that I too be allowed to go dancing with my own age group. It was my first victory and one I had to fight for over and over again. It was not the one that I wanted, it is the one I settled for. I had wanted to attend university (which I did as an Adult) but in my family, only the boys were encouraged to study.

Having gained some measure of freedom, I started attending church youth groups and it was here that my concern for social justice, in particular where Italians were concerned, evolved.

The first cause I became active in was with the Catholic Church. My formal religious education was with two Irish catholic nuns. They were indoctrinated pre-Vatican II and my relationship with God developed around the belief that I was never good enough for him because I was a sinner. In 1965, the Vatican released its new teaching principles. I helped the young priests of my parish to introduce the new ideas represented by Vatican II, and move away from the strict adherence to the catechism into more community and home-based teachings. We strove to emphasise love and acceptance by God and not the old fire and brimstone wrath of God I grew up with.

My reward for my participation with this change was seeing many young people whom I worked with at this time go on to become great teachers.

By the time I was sixteen years old I had a clearer perception of who I was.

I left school and took a job with an Italian retail company. While I was employed in the office, most of my work was in translating and interpreting for the Italians that frequented the store. In the late sixties there were very few translating and interpreting services available and my boss used his office to provide this much needed service. This brought me in contact with the variety of regional Italians that lived in Australia. It was a lesson for me as they all spoke their own dialects and were as different as chalk and cheese. Australians grouped us as Italians from the South or from the North. I discovered the nuances of each region and came to understand the differences of the Neapolitans to the Venetians to the Calabrian and Sicillians, etc. Learning to understand each dialect was a strange education. I learned to speak Italian formally, not my dialect, because while many lacked formal education they all understood the basic Italian language.

I was not educated formally in my native language. I spoke in dialect at home and because of my job I had to learn and learn quickly, as best I could from books and magazines. I am self-educated in my own language.

Because of my unqualified work as interpreter/translator for the Italians in the Glynde area and my own family at home I became, over the next five or six years, quite well known in my community.

My limited freedom from my parents was cause for much speculation and gossip. Usually my family knew what I was doing before I did. This created strife for me and I was forced to re-negotiate my freedom. Over the years my mother came to realise that she could trust me and even though she did not approve of all the things I did, she was no longer swayed by the gossip. I often reflect on the relationship between mother and daughter and it saddens me to see girls lie to their mothers because they might feel rejected. At the most empowering, yet challenging time of my life I valued the honesty between my mother and myself. It was the one relationship that sustained me during some very turbulent years.

In my seventeenth year I had joined a political party (me, a woman) and though not very active it was another educational experience for me. This was also the time that I was approached to enter a soccer club beauty quest. During this time women were rarely seen at the soccer games. Those that were there were associated with the clubs in some way. Normal Italian girls did not frequent games unless chaperoned by their parents. I liked soccer and so I went – without my parents who had little appreciation of sport. My decision to enter the “Miss Azzuri” Soccer quest was more to please my Godfather than any desire on my part to enter any beauty contest. I was young, I was having some fun and life seemed to be my oyster during this period. The role of entrant was to raise money for the club and in the year leading up to “the night” I totally enjoyed myself and had some great fundraising events, much to my parent’s disapproval.

My participation in the quest did not weigh heavily on me with regards to sexual politics at the time. I had fun, went through the judging process on the day and I won.

As “Miss Azzuri” 1969 I had certain duties to perform. (I will say that this particular soccer club ran their quests along the lines of the “Miss Australia Quest” and used judges from that organisation to choose the winner along the lines of the criteria they used for a Miss Australia. Unlike some other Italian clubs of the time, where it was more who you knew that got you the title). One of the duties was to represent the club in the annual “Miss South Australia” judging and it was here, feeling like a prize cow lead to the ring, probed and assessed for the merit of the blue ribbon, that I had a gestalt about beauty quests. I feel strongly about the degradation of our sex through beauty quests and am glad that Australia, unlike America, has discouraged the practice.

The revelation came when I was asked to show my nails to the judges. How my nails would make me a better Miss South Australia than any other I have yet to find out. And yet, before a panel of some seven judges I had to parade my nails. I remember biting my tongue to hold back some smart retort along the lines of “Well yes, I am Italian, but as you can see I do not use my nails to dig the garden, but like you I could learn to use them to pick my nose”.

I was so charged up from this experience that I ranted and raved to anyone who would listen at the humiliation of women who were subjected to this indignation. What had I expected and why had I subjected myself to this?

I still had almost a year of my “reign” to go and the club had other quests I was to represent them in, plus a calendar full of other “official duties” mainly around playing hostess and looking pretty. For someone who has some modicum of intelligence and is as outspoken as I am it was a difficult commitment. I remember telling one host, while on stage and in front of the microphone, that if he asked me a stupid and senseless question such as “What is my favorite colour?” I would refuse to answer him. I left him speechless and the crowd laughing.

In the late sixties, nearly all Italian Sports Clubs were run by committees of men. The Azzuri Sports Club was no exception. Women participated by cooking and cleaning. It was this state of affairs that prompted me one evening, to barge in on a committee meeting and demand a higher profile for women within the social community.

From this confrontation came the first Italian women’s netball team and a stronger influence and presence of women in a male dominated society.

And from these humble beginnings the Italian Cultural Community grew into the many and varied arts and sporting events of today.

It was the late sixties, An Italian family like mine, who had all but closed ranks on the broader community, and interacted mainly amongst their own kind would have little contact with the “Hippie” cult of this period. The soccer club occupied much of my time and my tastes ran to popular and contemporary music and mainstream entertainment of the day. Much that I appreciated was the imported music and fashion from Italy. The Hippie era of psychedelic drugs and free love could have past straight by me and I would have been totally oblivious to it. It was my twin brother that brought it to my awareness. As stated before, he underwent a total rejection of our Italian tradition and brought home these new rebellious ideals. Were it not for him I may have remained as unaffected by this period as most of my peers. It was, at this point in our lives, that we diversified and made choices about our life that influenced who we became as Adults. I chose to stay within the boundaries of what I knew and trusted. He went the other way. It created a distance between us. The bond we knew as children was damaged. The most positive effect of this period, is that, in order for my mother to maintain some communication with her son, she needed to stretch some of her own beliefs and values. This tenacity to hang on to their child, whatever the cost, is particular to most Italian women. In my brother’s case it saved his life. My father, on the other hand, remained rigid and fixed in his ways and the gulf widened between them.

This trait of some men, in particular Italian men, of ignorant stubbornness, has been the cause of many broken relationships and loss of trust and intimacy. It was the price my father paid. Although he realised this much later, he was too old to change his ways.

With a Hippie brother and an Italian “Fred Astair” for a father, we were not the stereotypical Italian family. This made me both protective and defensive of mine, particularly from the criticism from our community. I am sure that other Italian families had similar experiences, but, the idiosyncratic tendency of Italians to take care of their own business and or hide their problems through cover up and secrecy, delayed the emergence of the much needed social support systems that are available to them today. These were problems that I knew existed, but was too young and inexperienced to address. A few years later I had the opportunity to work with the then Department of Community Welfare and start a pilot program to address particular needs of migrants similar to so many support groups that are now prevalent in the migrant communities.

In the early seventies, my twenty first birthday was looming. Looming darkly because, in my parent’s world, if a girl was not married by her early twenties she was too old to get a good catch, or she was a “putana”(whore). If she wasn’t engaged at least, by this time, she obviously had some abnormality and parents, to protect their daughters from these labels, would busily arrange to provide marriage-worthy partners for them through the network of families in the community. Of course we all knew that what parents were really afraid of was that their daughters just might become pregnant and bring “vergogna” (shame) to their families. In this my parents were no different. They wanted me married and fast. The pressure was unrelenting, especially for me. Being involved with the soccer club meant my life was full of social activities. I lived a very popular and glamorous life, with the italo-Australian community. I flirted outrageously and had many men who wanted to “come home” (the accepted way of stating whether their intentions were serious or not) and meet the family.

I had had four official “filanzati” (boyfriends) in the last four years. My reputation as a “good italian girl” was questionable if not suspect, and the gossip about me was at an all time high. The number of times Italian mothers came to visit me at work to check me out if their sons showed any interest was funny if not ridiculous. Freedom always has a price and mine was that it kept me in the limelight of the gossip mongers so that any service I gave to the community was overshadowed by incidentals of how short I wore my dresses and how low my neckline was cut. Not all Italians I knew were that narrow minded, thank God, or I would have turned my back on my own a long time ago. Those that could discern and knew me knew that I would often deliberately feed the gossip. This did not help the situation at home. Although my mother was well aware of my nature to stir, she was, none the less, anxious to put an end to my high profile. My father, who was no match for my tempestuous nature, while not quite disowning me, withdrew and blamed my mother for all my perceived faults.

Marriage into this parochial mentality was repulsive to me, and although the young Italian men I had met were slightly more liberal minded, I knew that, should I marry one of them, their parents and relatives, would influence their thinking. In truth, knowing that my rebellion was only surface deep, I did want to get married. No one I had met at yet impressed me enough to make me want to give up what I most valued, my independence.

A few months before my twenty first birthday I was introduced to a young man, who had recently migrated from Italy. We were to perform in an Italian play together. I married this young man within a year of having met him. He was an Italian, but full of a cultural sophistication and intelligence that I had not seen before in men of my migrant community. His sensitivity and compassion impressed me, but it was his ability to see me for who I was and not the image of what I was supposed to be me that won my affection. It was because I was treated with respect and acknowledgement, as his equal, that I married him.

In the twenty years we were married, he had become a very active voice for migrant social justice. The problems I had identified with migrant Italians in my youth he fought and helped solve. His activities were many and varied and he gave more to this community than it ever gave to him. There is far too much to say about this man’s contribution to the South Australian Italian Community to do him justice here. His is another story. I will only comment here, of his impact on my life. In my marriage to him I was able to continue to grow and evolve as my own person. I returned to tertiary study, ran a Travel Agency with my husband, raised a family.r I was encouraged me to keep interested in issues that I felt passionately about and this gave me a certain independence. Through him I was able to access knowledge and skills I did not know I possessed. We shared the same passions, yet we were different. Like most married people, ours was not always a perfect marriage, there were times when I resented the demands made on him by others. He was continually sought and our home life was a constant interruption of phone calls and visitors wanting a word with him. Over the years this took its toll on all of us. He had made himself so available to everyone that needed him that his own family was sometimes neglected as a result. Our marriage could not sustain this continuous pressure and we parted ways. This did not diminish my love and respect for him. Through him I had become strong, and the stigma of being a divorced woman, especially as we were so well known to Italian society, though painful, was easier to bear. I was again, at the centre of unwanted attention and innuendo.

Though separated, we shared four beautiful children that we both loved and we remained a “family” until he died almost two years ago.

The richness of our Italian heritage that he brought with him when he came to South Australia is part of the legacy that he has left myself and my children. We will always miss him.

In essence, I dedicated myself, throughout the late seventies, to starting a family, but in that time the world around me began to change very quickly.

In the eighties the buzz word was “multi-cultural”. We became this multi cultural mix, (better than the assimilation policy of the fifties and sixties) and “languages” were introduced into our schooling system. Second generation Italians could now learn the native language of their parents.

Italian food had become part of the Australian diet (It amuses me to watch Australians eat melenzane, pepperoni and that “weird green stuff” today with as much gusto as they once repulsed them). Ethnic Festivals were popular and established events. No longer did I hear people ask how to spell a foreign sounding name that was as easy as it sounded. Second generation migrants were in parliament. We had come a long way.

By the nineties we were living in a more balanced and integrated society. Gone was the presence of overt discrimination. Our children were proud to be Italians and showed it by their literal T Shirts. “Kiss me I’m Italian”. Unlike me, they did not need to throw away their mortadella sandwiches. In fact, Australia had been good for their parents and grandparents and they could now buy twenty mortadella sandwiches at their school canteen. To be called a wog or dago was now almost an honour. Our children had turned it around and laughed first……Yet………

At this stage I feel I have grown beyond a need to be identified as an Italian, Italo-Australian, or Australian. I have had the advantage of growing up in two cultures, and while sometimes painful it has enriched my life and made me more accepting and tolerant of others, no matter what race or colour or custom.

My story ends here as I have withdrawn from much that was my past. I have written of my experience of growing up in a dual culture and I write only of my impressions of those that I knew and met. I have made some generalisations of character traits peculiar to both anglo- and italo-Australians as I perceived them, but my intention was not to offend or hurt anyone. I suppose these ideas become cliched because they are generally true.

As we move into the 21st century, I still see discrimination. It is covert, but it is still alive. It may not be directed at Italians and Greeks anymore. It is now the turn of Asians and Arabs, and it is not just Anglo Saxons that are discriminating. It is most Australians, and most Australians are made up of the mix of migrants of the past. It’s a pity, really, that more of the Italians I grew up with, at least, cannot remember the old scars of discrimination they suffered enough to know not to inflict them on others, whoever the “other” might be these days.

Adelaide 2000