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!