FRANK PONTE: Frankly Speaking
During this interview, The Pin was asked if we felt that we were carrying the cultures of our parents. It’s sad to admit that the cultures of our Nigerian parents have not been carried on through us. Neither of us speak the languages of our parents’ ethnic tribes and we don’t understand the history of the Nigeria our parents grew up in. This tends not to be the case for those whose parents immigrated to Australia from Europe in the 1950s.
Meet Frank Ponte.
You could say his cultural identity was formed by the Italian-1960s time capsule created by his family and their love of ethnicity, language and familial cultures.
THE PIN. What brought your parents to Australia?
FRANK PONTE. My father was called out to Australia because my grandfather came out here first, for work, and needed company. Dad came here by boat with tomato seeds sewn into his suit jacket, so that they could grow tomatoes. It was the late ‘50s/ early ‘60s and he was 15 or 16 years old.
What part of Melbourne would they have moved to?
F. I think they were living in Richmond at the time. The inner city suburbs were all slums. From there, I think they went to pick tobacco in Gunbower (VIC) and out in Cohuna near the Murray River, and were being housed and fed. Through that they made connections with other Italians who migrated to Australia. My mum came out around three years after my father with her sister and her brother. When she arrived, she was about 15 or 16. Within two years they were set up and married off. They were arranged through friends of friends of friends.
Where did you grow up?
F. I was born in Melbourne and was here ‘til about 7 years old. I was quite ill with asthma as a kid, and Melbourne was really bad to live in, particularly in the ‘70s. The doctor suggested that we move to the country. So we moved to Daylesford. Mum and dad bought a business there and we lived there for five years and I kind of grew out of my asthma. I went to high school at St Patrick's in Ballarat, and I used to commute from Daylesford to Ballarat every day.
After a year of that they decided to moved to Ballarat for three years. Dad found it really difficult to find work. They had a restaurant and then decided to buy another mixed business - a milk bar in Bendigo. We then moved to Bendigo and I went to Marist Brothers in Bendigo until I decided to move to Melbourne to do Year 12. I did a bit of a circle.
Are your parents Italian?
F. Yes - but they are from different regions. My father’s from the South and my mother's from a region east of Rome.
Is there much of a cultural difference between those parts of Italy?
F. There are lots of differences, particularly the languages or dialects are different. Ultimately it’s Italian, and people understand each other. Though in terms of food and what they do like their speech (unsure what this is trying to say), Italy is a very regional country, so people ask, ‘What part of Italy are you from’?
What was it like to grow up in a country town as a son of immigrants?
F. I got bullied a lot. I got called “poofter”, “wog” and “greasy spaghetti…whatever”. You name it - I copped it. I copped it all. At the time I didn’t know I was gay, but over time I kind of got used to it. Particularly at a boys’ Christian brothers private school, the bullying was out of control. Ballarat was the worst actually. I found it easier in Bendigo.
You were living in rural Australia and were around Australian culture. Did you find that you were introducing a new culture to the household or were your parents quite integrated?
F. Mum and Dad learned to speak English because they were forced to learn it from owning a business. There are a lot of Italians that couldn’t, and still don’t speak English to this day and need family to translate for them. My dad has lighter features so he found it easier to integrate but, mum found it more difficult. My mum’s got quite dark features and it was hard to have them at school because people would poke fun at them and I hated that.
What were the main ideas around race, ethnicity, and culture in your household?
F. I grew up with what my parents came with. Whatever their idea was of Italy in the ‘60s was what I grew up with here. Even the way we say things. We say the words my parents used when it was current in their time, but it’s completely lost now. Our relatives find it really funny when we speak. They say, ‘We haven’t heard that word in 40 years!’.
How did you find the Australian culture then? Did it stand out as being quite alien?
F. No, I guess when you’re brought up in that culture it becomes a part of you. For me, it wasn’t foreign but you were made to feel that you didn’t fit in because of the way you looked, or because of the way you were brought up. People made you aware of the things you didn’t fit into, either by ostracising you or marginalising you.
When do you think people stop being called migrants and start being called Australians?
F. I don’t think you ever stop being a migrant, you’re always perceived that way. I might say I am Australian but, people look at me and think no you’re not! Always.
Do you think multiple cultures and their traditions can be carried through each generation in Australia? Do you think you have carried your parents’ cultural nuances and traditions?
F. I do. I think I have carried my parents’ cultural nuances and traditions that they brought from the ‘60s. Everything that I know is from that era, because I have had no exposure to what has happened in Italy since then. From my perspective, they're the things I attach myself to because it is a memory of childhood, a memory of my culture and my parents. It’s about how I grew up. For me, they’re important.
Do you think that a person’s sexuality is a key characteristic to their identity?
F. Yes. Though there are very certain characteristics of gay culture that I don’t identify with and feel marginalised by and I have a lot of friends who feel exactly the same.
Was it a gradual realisation or was it something you knew from early on?
F. I kind of knew, but I suppressed it. Italian culture is a very macho culture. It’s also very catholic, so you don’t tell people that you’re gay. It’s an issue. That made it a lot harder to express myself and do what I wanted. I even used to find it difficult to express affection in public because you didn’t do that. Now people don’t care as much.
What was your family’s response to you being gay?
F. I think initially it was fear. I never really told my mum because my father said, ‘Don’t tell your mother’. So I didn’t. But I think my mother knew. I feel like they have changed, though it took a bit of time. Now I have no issue with them and how they interact with me about my lifestyle, it’s all really great.
THE PIN. If you could give your younger self one piece of advice about being in the skin you’re in, what would it be?
FRANK PONTE. Don’t be scared to do the things you want to do. Fear, because of bullying, stopped me from doing a lot of things I wanted to do. Following your own path is a really hard thing to do. Especially as a 12-year-old, at high school, having the shit kicked out of you.
- This interview has been edited and condensed
Photo credit: Facebook