‘Be Italian,” urges Fergie in a song in the musical “Nine.” I don’t have to be Italian; I am Italian. Well, actually half, the nationality I claim from my father’s side.

We Italian Americans have a saying that there are two kinds of people: Italians and those people who wish they were.

Growing up in South Portland in the ’50s and ’60s, I didn’t recognize a lot of diversity. But now I know that names in my school like DiBiase or Esposito were Italian.

An elementary school friend named Concetta Colello, whose parents owned Commercial Fruit on India Street, only wanted to be called Connie. To this day, she still does.

My cousin Philomene, named after my grandmother, goes by Phil. Toni, a former student, is really Antonetta. Asked why she didn’t go by her full name, she answered, “Oh, people mispronounce it,” and then she shrugged.

“Embrace your ethnicity,” I replied.

But when I was younger, I didn’t want to embrace my Italian looks. Understand, I grew up in the era of models such as Christie Brinkley with classic all-American looks.

My olive skin and naturally dark brown hair weren’t American, I felt.

But, oh, if I had looked Italian like Sophia Loren looked Italian! Most of my experiences of realizing my Italian background were visiting my relatives in Rumford or going to the North End in Boston to the European or Mike’s for pastries.

I’d go to St. Peter’s Church in Portland with my father for Father’s Day each year, and occasionally my family would attend the church’s street festival in August. That was fun.

Now I’d like to be more Italian. I’ve somewhat darkened my blonde hair, but I can’t change my looks too much. The “Jersey Shore” look is not my style; besides, I’m way too old for it.

Plus, it’s hard to be recognized as Italian with a last name like Sullivan. I’ve toyed with changing it back to the original Maida, but I have so many relatives, it would be complicated.

I’ve taken Italian language courses, so I know a few words and phrases. Unfortunately, I’m not a cook of Italian food, but I certainly like to eat it. “Mangia, mangia,” I hear my grandmother’s voice.

A couple of years ago, I became a member of the Italian Heritage Center. Here is a place where people look like my relatives, so I feel at home. The gatherings are fun and sometimes noisy, filled with people having a good time. The atmosphere reminds me of the Sons of Italy Hall in Rumford, where I attended both happy and sad occasions.

Two of my friends, both not Italian, have attended events with me there and always want to return. I bet secretly they’d like to be Italian.

Recently, a stranger at a fast-food restaurant looked me in the face and asked, “You’re Italian, aren’t you?”

“Yes, I am,” I answered — and proud of it.

 

– Special to the Telegram