Applying domus-logic to holy figures

“Holy figures were also celebrated by the people for their place in the domus: the most cherished and important Catholic figures in Italian Harlem were sacred figures in domus relationships. The Madonna held her infant in her arms; Saints Cosmos and Damian were brothers who died together; Saint Ann was loved as the mother of the Madonna. Covello discovered that southern Italians conceptualized the Trinity as the Holy Family, with Sant’Anna, Jesus’ nonna (Grandmohter), always in the background as an additional figure.”

Robert Orsi, The Madonna of 115th Street, p. 86.

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Being cristiano

“The meaning of the words good and bad were determined by the domus. The immigrants in Italian Harlem spoke of their deepest and most fundamental aspiration as the desire to be ‘Christians.’ (The opposite of living like a Christian was to live like a Turk.) A Christian was defined as a person rooted in and responsible to the domus. One woman explained the word to her children: ‘When you all grow up and are earning money and are married, we must buy or build a house which will hold our whole family together. That’s the only way to live like Christians. The American way is no good at all for the children to do as they please and the parents don’t care.’ Another young woman held out as an example of Christian living the insistence of a young woman that an importuning suitor come and meet her family before she allowed him to walk her home from work. The old woman emphasized her point: ‘He came three times and then both families got together to arrange for the engagement. They were ready to be married when the war came along. This girl will marry and be blessed because she revered her parents and did the right thing. I call that living like a ‘cristiano’ not behaving like a Turk.’ A Christian had a domus sensibility; he or she was ready to sacrifice without question for the good of the domus.”

Robert Orsi, The Madonna of 115th Street, p. 86.

Blood ties

“According to the values of the domus-centered society, there were no individuals in Italian Harlem, only people who were part of a domus. Italians had a very intimate sense of the way a person was formed in and according to the values of the domus. Many in the first generation believed that a mother’s blood was mixed in with the milk her child suckled. This blood-sharing was thought to be the essential foundation of personal identity and morality. ‘Blood’ was the symbol of this deepest intimacy: it was the spiritual expression of value placed on family solidarity and loyalty in the domus-centered society.

“Individuals were warned that to violate the blood bonding of the domus meant disaster. There were a number of levels to this blood unity. It referred, first of all, to the blood-bond existing between mother and child, the essential blood tie; it also meant the special bonds that exist among siblings: the brother-sister relationship or the brother-brother relationship was thought to be closer than the father-son or father-daughter relationship because brother and sisters were of the same blood, had suckled their mother’s blood. But a blood-bond was also thought to exist among Italians. According to one of Covello’s sources: ‘Italians must marry Italians. They may be Sicilian, Calabresi, Neapolitans–but they have the same blood. They belong to the same nation. Hungarians should marry Hungarians. Jews marry Jews. Everyone in his blood.’ If one married outside the blood, one might not be able to incorporate his or her children into the domus and this meant that the blood violator and his or her offspring would be doomed to living like ‘animals.'”

Robert Orsi, The Madonna of 115th Street, p. 82.