Pasta and grits

The selection of Rep. Geraldine A. Ferraro as the Democratic candidate for vice-president is a milestone in the women's movement. But it is so much more than that.

As an Italian-American, I am enormously proud of her candidacy. Like other ethnic and racial groups, Italian-Americans have their dreams. They began about a century ago with the first waves of Italian immigrants, which reached a crest in the early 20th century. As illustrated by my immigrant grandfather and father , the initial dreams were quite modest: a steady job, money in the bank (achieved by oversaving and underconsumption), and a closely knit family whose children would represent the dividends that would mature over generations.

The concern over family, and to a lesser extent religion, put a damper on upward mobility that competed with familial responsibilities or that could not be translated into immediate economic benefits. As a result, Italian-Americans have been slow to move into the professions and politics. No doubt my mother is proud of my professorship, but she has never grown accustomed to the fact that I don't punch a daily time clock. And I suffer from the nest syndrome: Even though my children are in their 20s, I expect to hear from them at least once a day, to know that they are safe and well.

Italian-American women had even more obstacles to overcome. I recall childhood visits to relatives, usually on Sunday afternoons, where my older sisters were admonished to find a good husband, have children, keep a clean house, and emulate (but never surpass) Mama in her output and quality of homemade Italian dishes.

That Ms. Ferraro has met a traditional role model as well as a new one should make her attractive to Americans of Italian descent, who constitute about 7 percent of the population. To be sure, Italian-Americans are not monolithic, and some may well be wary of a pioneering woman. But Ms. Ferraro's candidacy should generate favorable attention from young Italian-American women who are removed from the stereotypes of first-generation immigrants and eager to seek a special identity in a society increasingly homogenized and computerized. My daughter, about to receive her MBA, is a case in point.

Of course, much talk will be heard in the coming months about Ms. Ferraro's experience as a politician, hence her qualifications for the nation's second-highest position. Putting aside her service in the House of Representatives and her previous work as a prosecuting attorney (quite adequate preparation for high elective office), it doesn't take a PhD in ethnic studies to know that Italian-American families, more often than not, are run by strong women.

For this reason, the South should not be written off as Democratic territory, as some strategists have argued, as a result of Ms. Ferraro's candidacy. Italian-Americans and Southerners have much in common. In fact, the girl of my dreams for the last quarter-century is a Southerner, and our marriage has illustrated that a pasta-grits coalition is a pretty good version of the melting pot. Southerners have deep commitments to family values: Judging by my wife's relatives, they love good food, children, and kinfolk talks as much as Italian-Americans do.

What is more, I would argue that many Southern women, like my wife, are steel magnolias - the counterparts to Italian-American mothers - who exert far more leadership than Southern males would ever acknowledge. And unlike the Equal Rights Amendment, which failed in the male-dominated Southern legislatures, Ms. Ferraro's candidacy will be evaluated by Southern women in the privacy of a voting booth.

So my ethnic pride has been given a shot in the arm. My parents, like Ms. Ferraro's, taught me that hard work was the key to success in America. My grandfather taught me to be proud of a name that others might find difficult to spell or pronounce - and to be patient in America, which, in his family analogy, was the nation that would always be the apple of the world's eye.

And although Gramp was certain I would be the first Italian-American to run for the highest positions in Washington, I'm equally certain he would be pleased to have me respectfully defer to Ms. Ferraro.

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