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.

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