I want to thank the i-italy editors for inviting me to participate in this worthwhile new project and for doing their bit to expand the diversity of voices on their pages. I’m thrilled to be involved in this collaborative effort and hope to see the site continue to expand with contributors and readers from around the globe.
For my part, I intend this California-based spigolatura to pertain to various topics related to Italy and its diaspora.
So: I’ve long been fascinated by people on the go—migrants of all kinds, moving in all directions, in relation to and well beyond Italy’s real and imagined borders. Thus it’s no surprise that I should introduce myself here with a piece that takes me from California to a small Southern Italian village, via New York, Argentina, and Morocco.
Last month I was taken aback when, sitting in my San Francisco Bay Area kitchen one morning, I noticed a familiar scene on the cover of the New York Times
Home and Garden section. Without even reading the dateline, I knew it had to be somewhere in Alta Irpinia, the landlocked portion of Campania east of Avellino. The one-and-a-half page spread
focused on Angela Paolantonio, a Los Angeles woman with roots in the small Alta Irpinia town of Calitri. She had visited the town in the last few years, bought her grandmother’s old house, and started returning there regularly. Paolantino’s particular kind of return migration—prompted, it seems, by a little curiosity, a need for change, a kind of nostalgia for an unknown past, and the basic fact that even a weak dollar goes far in these parts of Italy—illustrates how folks often feel connected to their cultural histories even when they don’t have a lot of direct knowledge about them. It also shows how ethnic identities are built on, against, and in between certain fissures.
Less abstractly, Paolantino’s story hit me hard for utterly personal reasons. Not only was my father born and raised in the hill town of Cairano, right next to Calitri, but I had done my own kind of return migration to the area only a short while ago. In 2006 I received a Fulbright research grant that sent me to Alta Irpinia, where I spent half a year gathering interviews from new immigrants (mainly from Morocco and the former USSR) and returning emigrants (mainly from the US, Argentina, and Belgium). In my research I wanted to know why people returned to these almost-empty and still economically depressed villages, why new immigrants would come to such rural destinations (rather than more prosperous cities) and what kind of interactions the two groups had. Did the area’s history of emigration make the place more inviting to new immigrants? What did the former emigrants think of new immigrants?
In my previous blogging days
I invoked Leonardo Sciascia in trying to describe these Southern Italian hill towns. As I said in those posts, he “called these towns ‘paesi-presepi’ (crèche, or nativity scene towns), a description that some locals regard, fairly enough, as patronizing” (see the 22 February 2006 post, “Il lavoro e il presepio”). Although a number of well-known figures hail from Alta Irpinia—the director Sergio Leone, the literary critic Francesco De Sanctis, the singer Vinicio Capossela
and the theater impresario Franco Dragone—the area is, for better or worse, best known for its small, quaint farm towns, desolated by more than a century of emigration and a series of earthquakes (most notably that of 1980).
Today these small towns are beginning to be repopulated with new immigrants from Morocco, the Ukraine, Albania, and even Burma, as well as more and more returning emigrants, mostly retirees who left the South in the 1950s, and Italo-Argentine families who have returned in the wake of Argentina's recent economic collapse. And yet the region remains one of Italy’s poorest, a point that both new immigrants and returning emigrants know quite well (dirt-cheap housing pushes many new immigrants to towns like Calitri and similarly pulls returning emigrants back where their pensions go far). The economic factor really can’t be stressed too much—in fact, things are so bad in Alta Irpinia that the European Union has earmarked it as economically depressed and under-developed and has placed it in a recovery program until 2013, a position it shares with parts of rural Poland and Portugal.
It makes perfect sense, in fact, that a tiny hill town in Southern Italy can create an intersection where the likes of New York, California, Albania, and Morocco meet. That Italy continues to play a role in the modern shuffle of people is not terribly surprising; what it means for personal identities, community histories, political perspectives, and economic shifts is something we can only begin to consider.