Loss and Renewal: My Sicilian roots in New Orleans (Part 1)

Lyndsey dressed up for dance when she was a little girl. Photograph courtesy of the Nuebel family.

Editor’s Note: This story is one of a series reprinted from the book A Guide to South Louisiana: Stories of Uncommon Culture. Each author was a student in Rachel Breunlin’s “Storytelling and Culture” course for the Department of Anthropology at the University of New Orleans in the Spring of 2017. The Neighborhood Story Project sponsored the project as part of its mission to publish collaborative ethnography in high quality books in which the authors receive royalties for their creative labor.

What is Normal?

Slidell, Louisiana is a place I have never thought to analyze because it is considered to be “normal,” and is an example of what other places considered to be “not normal” are compared to. In regards to its proximity to New Orleans, how could a place only across the lake from one of the most culturally-rich areas of the country be so androgynous?

Cultural diversity within Slidell hasn’t completely washed away. In the midst of big-box stores and chain restaurants, there are locally-owned seafood stores, Italian bakeries, Vietnamese restaurants, and cafes serving Creole cuisine. That diversity can also be felt during crawfish boils in the summer and the few parades during Mardi Gras season.

But when I think about how I am connected to Slidell, the cultural connection is never the first one I make.

The first connection I make is the one connected to the larger pattern of migration. Like many white, middle-class residents of various parts of the city, my parents moved to Slidell from New Orleans East and Gentilly because they simply deemed the city as unsafe. They only had the best intentions for my siblings and me when we were growing up. They wanted to empower us, but growing up in Slidell, for me, was not empowering. White-flight migration from New Orleans created a general “whiteness.” Answers to these questions lay within the trends of “Americanization” and assimilation.

In the ethnography, Daughters of Suburbia: Growing Up White, Midde-Class, and Female, Lorraine Delia Kenny states that “girls occupy an ambivalent and at times contradictory position in relation to the norm. At times they can appear fully ensconced on the inside, but upon closer examination there is something not quite normative enough about their identity” (Kenny 2000: 2).

Drawing upon Kenny’s statement, I feel as though I exist in the in-between of Slidell and New Orleans. I find it difficult to examine my suburban home. It is not difficult because it is familiar, but it is difficult because, as Kenny states that “white middle-classness thrives on not being recognized as a cultural phenomenon. It’s culture is a culture of entitlement in which the Self does not question its position within the dominant, normative group and instead accepts all the privileges of race and class that seem to naturally come her way” (Kenny 2000: 1).

In high school, I took a psychology class and during a discussion about the “nature versus nurture” debate my teacher asked us if we felt like we were a product of our environment. I remember thinking to myself, “Oh, hell no!” If I was not a product of Slidell, then what was I a product of? I didn’t exist in space or in a vacuum. Kenny states that, “I knew my girlhood experiences were neither unique nor idiosyncratic, but by-products of post-war, anti-Other suburbia, with its history of exclusion and investment in constructing a normative, homogenous, and heterosexual familial culture” (Kenny 2000: 7).

Growing up, I knew I did not understand the Republican values held by most of my elders, and I did not have the same interests as most of my peers. Even as a preteen, I was aware of the level of conformity in my society. The majority of my adolescence and teen years were spent competing in dance competitions across the southeast region of the country.

Though I loved to dance, the competition team at my suburban dance studio was the only accessible place to receive a “dance education.” Though I was taught basic technique of multiple styles of dance, my dance education focused on flashy costumes and routines, learning the “wow” tricks, and how to be ultra-feminine. In a sense, suburban dance studios taught me how to fit the mold of a white, middle-class woman.

Now that I am in my twenties and about to graduate from college, I have a greater understanding of neoliberal policy and how these policies have shaped suburban lifestyle. The culture that was held by past relatives has now become a family history, one that has, for the most part, been nonexistent during my years of growing up.

In Slidell, I grew up with a slate clean of most of my family’s cultural history that was so prevalent just one generation before our migration to the Northshore. My family’s history began in New Orleans. My family moved to the city in 1910 from Sicily. As a child, I was always intrigued by my Italian grandfather, whom I call “Papa.” Papa is quite the character who has been singing the same lyrics to the same Dean Martin songs for decades now. He is proud to be Italian, and he will make sure anyone around him knows it. I always loved being around him and observing his quirks, and occasionally asked my papa and my great-grandmother, Maw-Maw Mary, about their history. All I can really remember Papa telling me is that my ancestors are from Palermo. Maw-Maw Mary would tell me how we are related to Dean Martin, or how our family was a part of the mafia, only the latter possibly being true.

Part 2: Migration