Monthly Archives: December 2011

Come Si Chiama?Vocabulary, Primacy and Why a Label is Hard to Shake. Part I.

We perceive something.

We name it.

Remember those boxes? Let’s put everyone in one, shall we? Make ‘em nice and comfy!

Names help us to categorize. They make us feel “safe” because they help to distinguish, “us” from “them.” Or maybe this is labeling, which has an entirely different connotation.  Naming sounds like a good thing.  A “label”  (ugly, weak, lazy, stupid, etc.) is hard to shake once it is bestowed, because of a thing called “ The Primacy Effect.”  If something was defined for you, and it was the first time you heard it and it was associated an example (just one will do) that rang true, your brain catches that and holds on for dear life.  And it is hard to shake what you now “know,” even if better (true or accurate) information presents itself later on.

There is a whole vocabulary in Sicily that surrounds those who are new here, who are clandestine, who are different; in short, for those who don’t belong.  This is just a sampling, but will help you to conceptualize the climate and how these labels are difficult to transcend.  As well, I include terms that are included in the realities of immigrant’s lives’ as well as the national discussion of immigration and migration. Some of these are not  “labels” as such, but merely terminology. These terms arise from any number of the social aspects of any kind of migration or immigration including poverty, crime, human rights, slavery, prostitution, the welfare state and others.

Ramzi , Elizabeth and I sit down and hash these terms out.  Sometimes we disagree. Elizabeth adds balance to the terms, lends a unique perspective while Ramzi and I tend toward stronger, single definitions.

Some of them have several meanings, or a different meaning in a different context.  Some terms, which began as “legitimate” in regular usage, took on a derogatory meaning, a word used to shame and  discredit someone.

Here is a sampling:

Straniero: a stranger.  Someone not from where you currently are.  Antonino, the Italian policeman says, from his point of view “If you are from Milan, you are a straniero!,” making the point that it is not necessarily aimed at immigrants, illegal or otherwise.

Tamarro:  Someone who is rough.  Uncouth.  Lacking in civility or manners.  May also  be someone who has not caught on to the local or national “way of being.”

Razzismo: Racism. Pure and simple.  No one wants to be accused of it. However, it exists.

Extracomunitari: Anyone who is not a citizen of the European Union.  Anyone.  Though there is a vast difference in the way some extracomunitari are treated.  I, for instance, am an extracomunitari, though am treated decently because I am also a turista and am pumping money (though, to be honest, not a lot of it!) into the economy.  Imagine the treatment of those with no economic power.  In fact, imagine it in any society in which you live.

Terrone: sometimes used in a playful way, but more often used as a way for a Northerner or someone from the Central part of the country to disparage someone from the South.  This antipathy is ages old and has deep roots.

Clandestino: These are the “unaccounted for,” the unlucky ones who have suffered through the process of coming to a new country under conditions that are hazardous to either physical or mental health or both.  This form of immigration is considered “irregular.”

Language certainly shapes our perception of reality, no?

More to come.

Aspetta! Whose story is this, anyway?

Tunisino clandestino

Albanese clandestino

Africana clandestine

Esta vida es illegal

(The Ragazzi del Centro Aggregazione Giovanile ‘Voci dal Meditteraneo performing their version of Manu Chao’s song “Clandestino”)


For the past few days I have been interviewing immigrants in Sicily about their experiences as “outsiders.” What I have found is different from what I expected, which was that everyone’s story would be a sad one.  That each person maintained close ties to the homeland.  That they would feel a responsibility to individuals from their home country and act as a trusted guide an intermediary.  I expected, quite frankly, a sort of rage against Italian immigration law.  What I have found, so far, is that everyone has a story to tell.  Many experiences of immigration are universal ones, such as mourning the loss of proximity to family, struggling with a new language, and the ability to easily acquire meaningful work.  Others, quite naturally, are unique, depending on a myriad of factors.    Those who can blend into Italian society seem better off—lighter skin, education, ability to speak the language, etc. quite naturally give them the ability to fend better for themselves. And while the reasons that impel immigration are many (among them structural inequalities built into the global capitalist economy), so, too, are the personal experiences of those who struggle to first build and then, to maintain their lives’.

I have interviewed a famous Tunisian actress, Habiba, an Italian policeman, Antonino (who migrated out of Sicily and then returned), and a Tunisian artist, Nadia, who all tell compelling stories and experiences.  There will be more interviews and more stories, but these will be the first.  I am still processing the things I was told. I look into their faces and think I know what they might say, but it is never what I expect.  Assuming anything about anyone, at anytime, is a rather stupid thing to do, but perhaps here and with these people than I have ever encountered.  But immigration conversations are happening, happily, in other contexts, too.

Christmas Eve dinner with a wonderful bunch of people at my friends’ Ramzi and Elizabeth’s home included a rousing discussion of immigration.  Tony, a Calabrese from Melbourne, Australia, Rosina a Scot, Jane and Jason, English, as is Elizabeth, Ramzi a Tunisian and myself, an American, raised very, very Italian American.  We all tried to make our point about belonging/not belonging in a society.  I told a story of a situation that I would call racism against me back in the States where thanks to the many Scorsese films and the Sopranos, (don’t even get me started on Jersey Shore), Italians are thought of as unsavory, swarthy and useless creatures, prone to dramatic and often deadly outburst.  Uh, no, no and definitely not.  Not by a long shot. Right away, Tony understood.  He totally got it. The others squirmed.  “Well, that has happened to me too!”  But there was a point they were missing, in the way they were grasping my point.  Because while to some I don’t look Italian, they are surprised to know that I am.  “But you are educated.  Hmmmmm. But you speak well.” Okay.  Right.  It is simpler to put people in boxes, we feel safe and maybe a bit righteous when we do this, we think this puts things right in our own minds’ instead of doing the hard work of getting to know someone beyond the label we assign them.

To some I am not Italian enough.  To others I am not American enough.  A few times while I was here,  I had the unsettling experience of not knowing WHAT I was or  “who” I am.  Thankfully, it did not last long.  Are we different in different contexts?  Perhaps.  But one is accepted best, here in Sicily, when you follow the societal rules when you blend, and not stand out too much.  My fierce American individualism fairly bristles at this, though I was born and raised into the same society —-an immigrant Italian community that had exactly the same rules.   I read an amazing book years ago, called Blood of My Blood: the Dilemma of the Italian-Americans by Richard Gambino.  I was much younger when I read the book and have revisited it several times.  But Gambino speaks in such incredibly eloquently about the plight of the Italian-American experience.  It resonates with me in a way I cannot adequately describe. One foot in and one foot out, basically.  Torn between two cultures. For anyone who wants to understand ANY immigration experience, I would recommend the book.  It is now considered a classic for good reason.

None of these immigrants are considered “clandestino” though I wanted to use the song lyrics at the beginning of this post as a reminder that the “clandestini” are, in my opinion, a vulnerable population (for obvious reasons) and represent a large number of the most current (and despised) immigrants to Sicily.

But wait, whose story is this anyway? Mine? Theirs?

For me this journey begins in a highly personal way. To understand the “place” of someone else (both literally and figuratively), it is extremely helpful to know your own.

One last point.  Someone here said to me “You might be Italian, but you do not know all of our ways here.”   I laughed to myself and thought:  ‘Here we go with those boxes again.’

Trying to figure it all out.  My head is fairly bursting.  But really, this is a good thing. Trust me.

If you celebrate, Buon Natale to you!  If you don’t, peace, love and light now and in the New Year!

All Those Amazing Smiles (Christmas Celebration at Stella Maris Refugee Center)

Stella Maris Refugee Center, Sicily


It is quite cold here in Sicily, but the sun shines brightly, nonetheless. It is starting to feel like Christmas.

Yesterday, my guide Ramzi, my friend Elizabeth  and I attended the Christmas celebration for the men at Stella Maris Refugee Center, a place where men can live up to 6 months upon arrival in Sicily.  They are well taken care of, counseled , give English lessons and in general , are acclimated into Sicilian society.

The men greeted me warmly, not a one of them the least bit shy.  They thrust their hands forward , offering gentle handshakes , while a few of them proffered their cheeks, in the ubiquitous Sicilian air kiss–first one cheek and then the other.

Ramzi, who is so easy with people, respectful, always,  in the most unassuming of ways, greeted the men who were thrilled to see him. A musician, he immediately grabbed a drum and began to beat on it.  Another man grabbed another drum and they drummed together.  The young Afghani placed himself in the middle of the circle that formed so naturally and danced while the other men urged him on.  One of the women, a resident director danced with him.  For a long time I heard the drumming that didn’t seem to stop. I felt it right through my chest. Thump, thump, thump. It was a wonderful sound that seemed to go on forever.

One can over- think an experience like this. How to be with these men who I wanted to interview and photograph?  Photographs?  “Go right ahead,” I was told. And, in fact, not a single shy one among them.  They love the camera, they pose, they gather others for the photo shoot, aiming to leave not a single one among them unaccounted for, not represented.  One does not need to prod to get them to speak. They will talk about their country.  Their difficulties in their new found home.  Their politics.  YOUR politics.   One young Afghani resident  asked me “Why hasn’t your new president done anything about the war in my country?”  Before I could answer, an lively discussion ensued between him and a man from Sudan.  Neither listened to the other—the only expressed their opinions, loudly, simultaneously.  I listened, because I intuited they did not require, nor really want a response from me.  In fact, I had none, as is usually the case when a question begins with “Why does your country. . . . ” or any variation there of.  The men smoked , and we all leaned on the railing, in the sun.  When they finished their cigarettes, they slapped each other on the back. Friends again. After all, they must all coexist in this place and from what i can see, they do it with ease and respect.  At least on the surface.

My good friend Elizabeth and I sidled up to the snack table, had the obligatory Panettone which we washed down with a splash of Cola.  Nibbling the sweet cake kept me busy, while my gaping eyes took it all in.

The Sudanese pulled me aside to tell me that he was so grateful to have someone that he could speak English with.  Italian does not feel right in his mouth, he told me and he is proud of his English speaking skills.  We talked about this and that and every once in a while  he would furrow his brow, and I knew something was rising to the surface, something he wanted to say. “If my country ever gets back to normal, I am going home,” he finally said, shaking his head, in the slow, thoughtful way that thinking , feeling people often do.  “I don’t want to see anymore little children with machine guns.”  I told him that I could not imagine this.  “You don’t have  to  imagine this,” he said. “It is real.”  Then he told me that Sicilians are difficult people.  Tough.  “Do this. Do that.  Like we are house pets without a brain of our own.”  What could I see to this. This feeling of inadequacy is one that I do not like, one that I try hard to combat in my everyday life, when I am not in Sicily and not thinking  about immigrants  and refugees. The impulse to just want to wave a wand and make it all better is strong one.

We were still on the balcony and it was very cold.  Down below, the clothes that they wash themselves hung on lines, over railings and one piece of clothing on a tree, with dry branches, no leaves. Stylish jeans , button down shirts and hoodies.  The men take great pride in their appearance.   The clothes flapped like so many flags.   The furrow in my friend’s brow was gone. His brilliant smile was back again.  He put his hand on my shoulder and ever so gently, ushered me into the hall where the party was winding down. Still, the men in the corner thumped their drums, a little slower now, a bit softer. And still, all those amazing smiles.

Ciao, tutti!

I’ve shunned creating a blog for a long time, thinking that what could I possibly say that would make a single bit of difference?  Not that “making a  difference”  should be everyone’s intention with a blog—-but it is mine.  Or maybe not a difference, but an awareness.   And, as well, a reaching out.

I am an academic faculty librarian.  I am a fiction writer and a poet. I am a proud Italian-American.  I am currently engaged in peace studies.  I think a lot about social justice and education.  Social Justice and immigrants.  Social justice and migration.  I am interested in seeing the intersection  and impact of all of these factors .

I will leave for Sicily next week and will be there for one month, engaged in reading and writing about social justice and immigration, while working at a non-profit organization  that helps to educate and acclimate the many immigrants who are coming to seek a better life in Sicily.  I will be interviewing them.  Listening, watching and lending a hand.  My goal is to learn as much as I can.  Dismantle my own preconceived notions about what I think I know .

My mentor, Dr. Ellen Skilton Sylvester, who is currently on a much deserved sabbatical in Costa Rica will be  guiding me along, like she always does.  I am hoping she will contribute to this blog , as well, because her knowledge knows no boundaries.  I had the pleasure of accompanying her to Sicily last March along with 25 transfer students from our institution, Arcadia University.  What we learned about immigration and migration there, with my friend and colleague Ramzi Harrabi, who is so generous in both time and spirit, has ignited a passion in me that I feel I must pursue.  Dr. Lucia Ortisi, at the Mediterranean School of Arts and Sciences in Siracusa lent her guidance and full support.  I have so much to thank all three of them for!

This blog will be a work in progress.  I want to record what I see. What I hear.  How I feel.  And what it all means.  This blog is not a scholarly pursuit as much as a personal one.   My grandfather came to the United States from Petralia Sottana, one of the hamlets of Palermo.  I remember the stories of what he went through in L’America and how, until the end of his life, he wanted nothing but to return. But of course, he had nothing and no one to return to.   I have witnessed immigrants in Siracusa who have come from North Africa, looking for jobs, being treated as criminals and longing for home.  When we posed the question to one man one day, in the rain, in the open market “Why didn’t you bring your whole family with you ?” he looked at us as though we were pazzo.  He responded “Is it better for one of us to suffer or for everybody?  A Sri Lankan immigrant volunteered his story to me when serving my coffee at an outdoor cafe.  “Why does trust take so long?” he asked me.

So many questions, and right now , so few answers.  But the pursuit of understanding is the best endeavor.