by Teresa Antonia Broccoli
As a young adult I often dreamed of a attaining an education. My thirst for knowledge, diverse culture, literature, and art carried me into college. Attending the University of California at Santa Cruz in the early-1990s was like an unattainable utopian dream come true.
I'm a second generation Italian/Latin American. Pursuing an education was a dream my grandparents and parents inspired in their children. Their ideal of education was in conflict with their strong working-class ethics and values. It was essential to secure a good, stable long-term job and a marriage. Anything beyond that was a luxury. Therefore pursuing my education was something I did on my own. My budding adulthood did not come with a college fund.
My mother (Maria Yolanda, born in 1924) was expected to pay her way through high school. She was the second-to-last child. Around 1941, when she finished grammar school, her father demanded she quit school and help her mother at home serving boarders, which was a part of their survival. My mother had other dreams. She independently took a job at a dime store, paid her parents for room and board as well as her own tuition at parochial high school. She walked to work and school, or took the bus if she had the fare. Ma told us kids that her parents never attended her graduation and she had no extra money for a yearbook or class ring.
My maternal grandfather worked in the auto factories of Detroit, as did my paternal grandmother. My maternal grandparents (second cousins) were born in 1886 and 1887 in Frosinone, Italy. They both were peasant farmers during their childhood and young adulthoods. Neither one of them ever read or wrote in English, and only completed the second grade in Italy. My Nonna Maria Cristina had twelve pregnancies, thirteen children, and only five lived to adulthood. They came separately to America in the lower steering area of the immigration ships in 1906 and 1907. Their names are on the Ellis Island wall in New York.
My Ma also had strong desires to go on to college, which never manifested. During World War II she was a "Rosie the Riveter," working at a factory in Detroit. "The jobs were reserved for the men returning from the war," my Ma exclaimed sarcastically. "I would have liked to have stayed single and gone to college, you know."
My grandparents and parents always told us, "You'll be no one without an education and the ability to learn English." "You're American," my father would boldly state, and, "You are only allowed to speak English." My parents spoke Italian with relatives, friends, and among themselves. They fought in Italian, too. The language barriers contributed to more family secrets than already existed.
By the time I was born in 1959 (the fifth of six children, and one foster child), my parents were busy with multiple outside jobs and responsibilities. My Italian grandparents and aunt cared for my younger sister and myself while our older siblings were in school.
Much to my Pa's chagrin, naturally many of my first words as a toddler were in Italian. My Nonna Cristina died when I was nearly five years old. Her sudden absence jolted my language and communication world. After her death, my father made sure none of us children spoke any Italian. As a result, I became silent, and eventually displayed symptoms which the nuns labeled as deaf and mute. I attended special education classes at Saint Frances De Sales in Detroit city. However, in those days special education was called "the retarded kids class." All the children with different abilities and needs were lumped together and taught in the staff lounge. My learning disabilities were also attributed to a head injury I sustained as a toddler. Slowly, I came into my own English voice, and learned basic sign language. While I am hard-of-hearing, I realize now that my learning differences had more to due with the fact that English was my second language.
The civil rights movement in Detroit influenced me deeply as a growing child. Blatant segregation, racism and violent racial riots and crimes dominated our neighborhoods. The following poem depicts a crime I witnessed when I was about nine years old. I wrote it in a creative writing class at UCSC in 1991:
Detroit Racial Riots 1967:
From the Eyes of a Redhead Italian Girl
Corner markets on fire
Orange hot fire flames
store front windows
shattered by rocks
sidewalks and streets
running from young black boy's
big thick club
gripped by strong
tall strong police man in uniform
among familiar strangers
Was he asleep, she
or had they killed him
They dragged him away,
left him on the
he didn't even cry
"Black was beautiful," we heard in the Sixties, but being colored in America is filled with degradation. My ancestries are both Latin and Italian. We all have endured levels of classism and discrimination, not only for having dark skin, but also due to our ethnicity and language barriers. On the other hand, I never forget the physical privilege I carry in my family and the world. I am light-skinned, freckled, with strawberry-blonde hair. My relatives called me their "American girl." I represented to them (as did my siblings and cousins) hope for the new generation of Americans. My grandparents' sole purpose in life was coming to America to better the lives of their children and future generations. I always felt very different and awkward. I wanted to have olive skin, dark hair and eyes like members of my family. I am often perceived as a Anglo woman, which dismisses my culture and ethnicity.
By the fourth grade, I taught myself to read through picture books from school and the public library. As my skills progressed, I found an autobiography of Janis Joplin, and read the word bisexual . Soon after, I had my first sexual experience in the fifth grade with a girl my age, my best friend. I thought for sure my older sisters were spying on us through the army blanket fort we had made in the attic. I was also terrified that the Sisters at our local parish had some special psychic powers and knew the acts I had done with my girlfriend. Two years later I left my first love. In 1971, my father (who had abandoned my mother with six children in 1968), encouraged my mother to remarry him. We moved out of Detroit to escape poverty and a single-parent household to be with our father in Chula Vista, California.
However, our economic problems contributed to a move every two to three years. I had attended twelve different schools by the time I graduated from high school in 1976, one year early. I was sixteen, and eight months pregnant. My strong Italian and Catholic influences convinced me that motherhood was one sure mark of womanhood. I also desperately wanted to be emancipated from my domineering father. He insisted that I leave, and I never returned home to live with my parents again.
My paternal grandmother also responded to my pregnancy with anger as she ran me out of her home calling me (in Italian) a whore that was carrying a bastard of a child. The irony is that she was never legally married to my Latin grandfather. Divorce was not legal in Latin or Italian cultures. Divorce did not become legal in Italy until 1970, and 1974 in Sicily. My grandmother (twenty years his junior) was considered unable to marry (in her small Italian Catholic village) due to the fact that she had a child out of wedlock. The baby girl's conception was a result of a rape. Carmela died as an infant from illness. Therefore my grandparents' union was arranged in Italy by the village people. The rumor has it that my grandfather left his first wife "a town whore and alcoholic," to come find a new mother for his son in Italy. The couple and boy (my godfather) came to America in1919. Soon after my grandparents' arrival my father was born in 1922 in America, followed by two daughters.
I went on to an unwed mothers home, where I finished high school. The academic expectations were minimal. My reading and writing skills were that of a third or fourth grader. In the library I found a copy of Our Bodies/Ourselves and other feminist books. This gave me a clear language for lesbian/feminist theory and lifestyle. Simultaneously, I was falling in love with a woman, my midwife. This changed my life profoundly at the ripe age of sixteen. It was exquisite to have my healthy beautiful son (Jebediah Dylan) birthed into the arms of a woman I loved. Within a few years, I found the women's community. In the mid-1970s, San Diego had a strong, growing lesbian community which gathered around Las Hermanas, a women's coffeehouse. I also was introduced to WomanCare: a Feminist Women's Health Center, where I worked for many years as a lay social worker/advocate.
I struggled as a single mom to make ends met. I attempted many times to complete semesters of college, with little success. The multiple blue collar jobs to support my son and supplement my job with WomanCare always took priority over my education. As a working-poor Italian lesbian, I did not have many role models or mentors to encourage me to pursue an education. Jeb and I spent seven years homeless during the Reaganomics era of 1981 to 1988. In the fall of 1985, when my son was nine, I left San Diego to escape the crack neighborhoods and drove north. A lesbian mom friend, Julie, invited us to move to Santa Cruz.
In 1985, I began to attend community college. Classrooms and the library were warm and dry places to be, and people were for the most part child-friendly. The cafeteria food was also cheap. I managed to complete some classes at Cabrillo with the support of the women's re-entry program, disabled student services, and EOPS. I worked in the women's center and the women's re-entry program for my work study. Early on in my studies at Cabrillo, I was asked to take learning disabled tests. The academic counselor who evaluated the tests informed me I had scored across the board with severe learning deficits. She advised me to learn a trade at Cabrillo, as I would never be successful at a university. When I told her my heart was set on university studies, she responded that I was only setting myself up for failure. I was shocked. However, on the other side of campus I sought out a different academic counselor, who assisted me with great encouragement. I received several scholarships at Cabrillo. In 1988, I secured stable housing. Two years later, I graduated from Cabrillo College with honorable mention in liberal arts.
In 1990, I was accepted into the literature undergraduate program at UCSC. UCSC came with a package deal: secure and affordable housing at Family Student Services. I chose literature because UCSC had a good reputation for their comparative literature program. The literature program is diverse and multicultural in international, English, and American literature. My focus was on Latin and Italian women writers, early nineteenth-century literature, particularly African-American women writers, and slave narratives. I also collect oral histories/herstories by Italian American women as a result of taking a oral herstories/American studies course.
I am in debt for my educational and professional success to many people and agencies, but especially my mother and grandmothers. "There were no options for women in my day, unless you were rich," my Ma said to me after I was admitted to UCSC. We walked on the redwood path between Family Student Housing and Kresge College. She went on to state (a bit sarcastically) that she would have loved to go to college. "Women in my time were expected to get married, and your dreams stayed that, only dreams." She reinforced her point, stating that even her mother (Maria Cristina) had her own dreams of becoming someone: an opera singer. "My Ma had a beautiful voice, you know. It was opera quality. She sang while she cooked and cleaned, serving her husband, borders and children" Nonna Cristina was also a hired wet nurse for the community's infants. Grandma Broccoli had a very hard life too. When her children were grown she started to watch Jeopardy, because she was hungry for knowledge and education. She loved that mental stimulation.
As we walked, I had the profound realization that my Ma, Nonna and Grandmother were the major women in my life who sacrificed their dreams for my education. I had an image of my Nonna Cristina cooking in the house with bunches of little kid voices in the background as she sang her Italian songs. I recall the one song she sang most often; "Oh Momma," in tribute to her mother. Her mother (my great-grandmother) endured World War II as the German army took over their small village of Vicolvi in Italia. She secretly hid a Jewish boy in her attic. The image of my Nonna Cristina scrubbing the kitchen floor was so vivid. Nonna would always be singing while on her hands and knees. I remember Ma telling me this was the best time (on hands and knees and all sweaty) to offer your struggles and pain up to the Madonna.
The experiences of my foremothers were juxtaposed against the beautiful landscape and my new home of UCSC. I held my mother's arm as we looked at the Mediterranean-like ocean below us. I wondered--had I become my relatives' American girl? Had my mother's prayers to the Madonna and her special Saint Anthony and Jude been answered? My Ma looked at me as the sun was setting over the Santa Cruz ocean. The moon was rising above the redwoods, a silver sliver of white in the sky. "You have always been special, Teresa Antonia. I knew it from the first day I laid eyes on you. That moon belongs to you tonight, as it's dressed in hope, a hope for a better life for Jeb and your future, and the future of his kids, and all my grand- and great-grandchildren."
My Ma always carried herself so gracefully, strong, and in control. However, in that moment she was soft, gentle, and humble. My Ma was crying as I went to hug her and express my gratitude. Her emotional support during these last several years of raising my son contributed to my educational and personal success. She has been the wind beneath my wings during every struggle and achievement in my life.
UCSC was a wonderful place to be an out-lesbian mom and student. I felt safe on campus. Jeb and I called it "our all-year-round summer camp." I never endured lesbian hate crimes from neighbors at Family Student Housing, as I have all my life before and after UCSC. We all respected and embraced our differences. One of my neighbors, Rosie Ramirez, accepted Jeb and myself to be part of a photo-essay presentation of single mothers who were attending UCSC.
Each class I took was on the cutting edge of innovative thoughts, theories, of literature, world cultures, arts and multicultural representation. These were the best three years of my educational career. I was single-by-choice during my studies at UCSC. I was committed to my schoolwork and raising my son through his middle and high school years. During the first two years of my work at UCSC, I also was enrolled in the extension program and received an advanced certificate in alcohol and drug studies. This enabled me to work as a chemical dependency educator and counselor/lay social worker.
I graduated in 1993 with a B.A. in comparative American and English literature from Kresge College. I wore a dress instead of a gown as I accepted my degree. I am the first and only person in my immediate family to complete a higher college education.
In 1996, I graduated with my Master's degree in social work from the University of Michigan with a tuition scholarship, and other small grants from the Women's Educational Division. It was an honor and privilege to go to my home state for graduate work. On my drive out to Michigan I played a special song which my son (he was nineteen at the time) recorded for me by the rap group 2Pac called "Dear Momma." This song is a tribute to a single mother living in poverty, raising a son with no father, and little resources. This was the most special gift I received from Jeb, as it depicts how much he appreciates and understands me as a mother and person.
© 2003 - Out in the Redwoods © 2004 by the Regents of the University of California. Edited by Irene Reti. Any reproduction of these interviews, including electronic reproduction, is prohibited by United States copyright law.