"…[W]e never understood until we were older what kind of prejudice people harbor…"
Giovanna Tringali was born in Asmara, Eritrea, where she lived until the age of 16. She emigrated to Sicily with her family in 1979 during the context of the Eritrean war for independence. Two years later, she moved to the U.S., where she has lived since then. She is married and has two daughters. She has worked in the real estate industry for almost two decades. She is currently studying art and enjoys painting, drawing, reading, yoga and going to the movies.
Stories to Tell
“We have stories to tell, stories that provide wisdom about the journey of life. What more have we to give one another than our “truth” about our human
adventure as honestly and as openly as we know how?”
- Rabbi Saul Rubin
Every society has a set of criteria by which people must live, and we are all expected to adhere to those norms. Our failure to do so can engender ridicule, condemnation, punishment and even death. The problem is that we are all different. We are like fingerprints; no one shares the same fingerprints—we are unique. In many ways, my life is about trying to fit in and maintaining my difference. I suppose all of us struggle with this dilemma. I struggle with it in three parts of the world—Africa, Europe and America. The struggle began as a child in East Africa, Eritrea. I was 11 years old. That’s the age at which I remember paying attention to my surroundings. That was the age I realized the precarious position in which my family found itself.
Born in Asmara, Eritrea, I was 11 when the life that I had known until then turned upside down. Until that time, I had lived a privileged life as the second eldest daughter of seven children of an interracial couple, my father an Italian man born and raised in Asmara, Eritrea, and my mother a young native girl, 16 year his junior.
It was 1972- 73, and the country was in turmoil. Fighting and shootings to obtain independence from Ethiopia had interrupted the quiet and joyous living in the city of Asmara. Everyday living, or the normality of everyday life, had come to a sudden change; schools, stores, markets and jobs had all closed down. The people in Asmara and its vicinities were deprived of basic utilities such as water and electricity, and we had to learn to live with curfews. It took my father five years to finally give up the hope that things would return to a state of normalcy.
Before Eritrea’s struggle for independence, my siblings and I had a carefree childhood in Asmara, and we never understood until we were older what kind of prejudice people harbor against interracial couples and their children. My parents met and married in 1959. At that time, Italians looked down at other Italian men who married Native women (it was inconceivable that an Italian woman would marry a Native Man). At the same time, Eritreans did not look favorably upon interracial relationships either. The notion was that Native women who married Italian men were unchaste. My mother, one of the most modest people I know, was perceived as a morally suspect—and all because she married outside of her race. This kind of accusation was beyond my comprehension.
In a recent literature class I took, when I was reading the novel Kindred by Octavia E. Butler, there were many passages from the book that rang a familiar note to me. One of them is when Dana is pulled into her past by Rufus—a white boy—and he finds out that Dana—a black woman—is married to a white man. Rufus is outraged that a white man is married to a “Nigger” (Butler 60). Another passage that I can relate to is when Dana feels like she is looked at as a traitor by the slaves for being with a white man (Butler 223).
In Asmara I recall the times when my sister and I would walk home from school, and we would encounter Eritrean children our age or older who would refer to us as “hanfez,” in a derogatory tone—a word used to describe people of mixed race. Alternatively, they would call us “fascist” (because of our Italian ancestry). The prejudice that came from the Italian children was more subtle. It rarely included name-calling; mostly, they simply ignored us and generally did not interact with us.
Still, my overall childhood memories are of good times, not bad. One of my fondest memories is when my father, an amateur archaeologist, used to take my siblings and me to different parts of the country in search of signs of ancient civilizations. Our more precious findings are held in museums across the world, including England and Italy. More generally, I remember feeling loved as child, and not just by my parents, but also by a broader community of family and friends. These good memories prevail, overshadowing the bad ones by a long stretch. That is why the racial difficulties I described were not a salient part of my childhood, even as they clearly shape my sense of self today.
But let’s turn back to the story of my family in Asmara, and how we decided to leave Eritrea. Eventually, when it became clear to my father that things in Eritrea were not going to improve, we left Asmara and “returned” to Italy. I put “returned” in quotes because I had never been to Italy. And although my father is Italian and white, he was, as I mentioned, actually born in Africa. Italy was an unfamiliar place for all of us, but especially for my mom, whose difference was clearly marked in terms of her race. We were less noticeable than she, and spoke fluent Italian, which was our first language.
The place in Italy to which we “returned” was, in fact, Catania, Sicily. This city would be our new home. Here we would start a new life. We had moved from a large home in Asmara to a small two bedroom apartment in Catania, and we could no longer depend on the live-in housekeepers that had helped once with everyday chores. My siblings and I adjusted easily to the change, but it was more challenging for my middle- aged parents.
To arrive in Catania felt like a new chance to a new beginning. I was 16 years old and excited to turn a new chapter in my life. In Asmara life was languishing; what it used to be, a city full of life and full of hopes, was now a ghost city.
As it turned out, my life in Sicily lasted about three years. My biggest adventure in life was yet to begin. In my first year in Catania I worked as a sales person in a retail store. My sister and I then found work with an agency as runway models. Our 5’ 9” and 5’10” sizes, respectively, caused us to hover over the much shorter Sicilian girls; combined with a look considered “exotic,” we had a lot of success in our field. But here again we were looked at as being different—which is to say, we were foreigners. Although we spoke fluent Italian and had an Italian citizenship from birth, we were constantly asked how we possibly could learn to speak Italian so well in such a short stay in the country. I have been educating people about my provenience since then. Yes, we are Italian. No, we were not born in Italy. Yes, Italian is our first language. Most people in Sicily do not have any historical knowledge about the colonization of the Italians in the Horn of Africa, or the lifestyle of the Italians that lived there.
I made friends easily and enjoyed my time in Catania, and although most of the young Sicilians were nice and curious, the elder Sicilian looked at us with suspicion, and we were not welcome to date their sons or daughters. To realize that people felt that way about others because of their skin colors or because they looked different than they did not hurt me; I was simply perplexed. Later in life, when I read Zora Neale Hurston’s essay “How It Feels To Be Colored Me,” I understood perfectly when Hurston explained her response to racism: “Sometimes, I feel discriminated against, but it does not make me angry. It merely astonishes me. How can any deny themselves the pleasure of my company? It’s beyond me.” That is the way I felt in those moments.
A new chapter in my life opened when I moved to the United States of America. At eighteen years of age I met a young American man who was serving in the American navy base in Catania. Young and in love, I moved to Los Angeles to be with him, and found a whole new world. I loved the diversity of people that Los Angeles offered; I could blend in most of the time. I loved the opportunity available to people who were willing to work hard and take chances, and I felt like I had found my place in the world. I felt free to be who I wanted to be. Those feelings were so strong that they got me through and empowered me to leave what turned out to be an abusive marriage. Eventually, I found a job in retail, which began another new chapter in my life.
Two years later I was an assistant manager of a men’s department in a large retail store. The assistant manager position was a big move for me and a career in retail was forming ahead of me. It was there that I met my present husband, a young student who had moved a year before from England to the States. As a part-time sales person he was making ends meet to finish school. We got along right away; his European upbringing and his Jamaican background meshed perfectly with my Italian and Eritrean upbringing.
A year later we were married and our first daughter was born. Life was moving fast. I continued to work in retail as my husband was getting a law degree from one of the most prestigious universities in the country. When our second daughter was born, I decided to change careers and worked part-time in real estate to be able to care for the girls. I wanted to give them the love and attention that I had growing up. My husband and I wanted to make sure that we did all we could to give our daughters all the tools available to survive in today’s society, focusing on an opportunity of a good education and unconditional love.
From all the challenges that I have faced so far, identity loss has been the biggest challenge that I still face today. Many immigrants experience a loss of their identity as they try to assimilate into American life. Even though I knew I had to learn English, it was still painful not to use my other two languages (Italian and Tigrinya) on a regular basis. Moreover, not fully identifying with aspects of American culture and not always knowing the cultural references about sports or music sometimes made it hard for me to fit in. Few people know or understand my cultural references.
After more than twenty years, three years ago I decided to go back to school. The girls are now grown, and I decided to pursue a degree of my own. My feelings of intellectual inferiority had grown, and I was compelled to keep up with the rest of the family. It has been a fun and challenging venture so far. I find it funny when my youngest daughter (who is in high school) and I find each other studying the same section of history.
Now, in my new life in the States, I watch my two girls and see that they are kind and strong young ladies. They are compassionate and generous. They have strong opinions in regard to injustice, and they are ready to fight for what they think is right. I remind them that all people want to be accepted and loved for who they are, and that sharing with the less fortunate will enrich our lives one hundred times more than any riches in the world. My daughters are my biggest reward in life.
As much as I try to pass on my experiences to my two daughters and want to protect them, I understand that they have to experience life themselves. In Herman Hesse’s novel Siddhartha, this is one of Siddhartha’s reasons for leaving all the teachings of his father and other Brahmins and deciding to experience life hands on. Here is one paragraph from the novel Siddhartha that captures Siddhartha’s feelings.
The teachings of one thing that this clear, worthy instruction does not contain; it does not contain the secret of what the Illustrious One himself experienced- he alone among hundreds of thousands. That is what I thought and realized when I heard your teaching. That is why I am going on my way- not to seek another and better doctrine, for I know there is none, but to leave all doctrines and all teachers and to reach my goal alone- or die. (Hesse 27-28)
Reading and learning from others’ teachings is valuable and it gives us direction, but only personal experience is going to form the person whom one ultimately becomes.
Everyone’s fate and destiny is different. I believe that there is a difference between destiny and fate. Fate is what happens to us, and we don’t have a choice about the matter, but destiny is what we choose to do about our fate. I believe that destiny is something that we are able to stir in directions that could help us achieve our goals in life. One example of that is that, because of fate, I met the young man whom I followed to the States. I had then the choice to shape my destiny; to follow my dreams and decide whether to leave my family behind and venture into the unknown or to stay put. Another example of that is when I found myself alone and scared after my relationship had failed; I had to decide whether to remain in this country or go back to Italy. My life would have been completely different if I had chosen to go back to Italy. I made a choice to remain in the States, choosing a path to my destiny. Every step of the way we make decisions, right or wrong, that are going to shape our lives.
Today, there is an infinity of things that I want to learn, explore and experience, and going back to school is one of them. Although at times I feel overwhelmed and intimidated by the task, I feel as though a new chapter in my life has begun.