Monthly Archives: December 2012

Of Immigrants, Babbo Natale, Vulnerability and the Spirit of the Season

I am currently in Sicily.  The holiday is a beautiful time to be here.  I spend a lot of time in cafe’s and despite this being the land of delicious wine, enriched by volcanic soil, my drink(s) of choice are coffee and lemon soda. In that order.    And so, in spending time writing in cafes writing about my meetings with immigrants, I am observing  others who I have not had deliberate contact with, but , rest assured, they are in my orbit and I am in theirs.

la Limonata!

la Limonata!

Yesterday was an interesting, albeit an exhausting day.  While I consider this place my second home, I must be quite intentional in my day to day living.  So “a way of being” at home, in the suburbs of Philadelphia, does not directly translate here. Interactions are , in my opinion, entirely different.  If Sicilians close ranks within themselves, imagine how the immigrant feels.  Despite my status as an Italian-American, I am, while I am here, most certainly American.  This is incredibly obvious to refugees and immigrants who may sense  this better than some of the locals.  Possibly it makes me an easy target.

Yesterday, as I waited for my friend Mody for no less than four times at the cafe where we always meet (and I kept missing him) I had a few interesting encounters.  Initially , as I was walking to meet him, a Sri Lankan immigrant that I know , literally grabbed me from behind in the dark, then, thinking I would be as pleased as can be to see him, slapped me rather hard on the back (something he would never have dared to do to a native Sicilian) pleased that he scared the life out of me.  My anger, pretty much against my true nature ,agitated him (as did my lack of interest) in such a way that I felt unsafe.  I ‘ll spare the reader the rest of the details. Suffice it to say, I felt shaky the rest of the night.

Later, walking with a friend of mine and her daughter, we were approached by a young immigrant with her small child. She held out a can.  She knew my friend, who she engaged in lively chit chat with while I stood next to them. She really didn’t pay any attention to me at all, but I dipped into my change purse and pulled out a handful—no doubt there were a few one Euro coins in there, too.  I noticed an American dime, but my fingers were too cold to pick it out.  I dropped the change in her can, and she still didn’t pay attention to me, instead, sending my friend and her daughter off with warm wishes.  I didn’t think much of it as we walked on window shopping and checking out the local food fest.

American dime

Later, as I parted ways with my friend, and on to make another try at meeting Mody who missed the bus and was now bicycling to see me (I still missed him. It was just too cold), I see the young woman with her child approach me and tell me ,  kindly, but firmly that my money was “no good.”  What she said exactly was “I tuoi soldi non va bene!”  I was hungry, shakey, a bit irritated and felt confused at first. “Che?” I asked her.  She shook her can and repeated herself, even going so far as saying she had already reported to her friend that the American gave her money that was no good.  I reached into my wallet and pulled out some more coins, which she wanted to see in my flat palm before I dropped them into her can.  She rewarded me with a rather strong hug for someone who looked quite fragile.  She told me she hoped Babbo Natale would bring me everything I wanted for Christmas.  As a parting gesture she reached up and kissed me once on each cheek, the Italian way.  My irritation dissipated.

Babbu Natale on a Vespa, naturalmente!

Babbo Natale on a Vespa, naturalmente!

Are you already laughing at what you think is my stupidity?  Well, I’m not finished yet.

Back once again to the cafe , I vow I will sit for only 5 more minutes.  I am approached, due to my annoying habit of making eye contact with nearly everyone, by an African who places a clear jewel box in front of me with jewelry.  He actually follows my eyes to what caught my interest and tells me “Venti”—20 Euro. I laugh and say “no”, tilting my head upward and clicking my tongue in a true Calabrese gesture, but , I actually liked the bracelet—surely  not entirely silver, but mixed with  a cheap nickel.  I had 4 Euro in 2 Euro coins in my hand, waiting to order a cappuccino for me and my friend.  He asked me how much I had.  I opened my hand, doubtful he would accept that for the bracelet and , in fact, he took it right out of my hand and gave me the bracelet.  He told me it was my last chance—tomorrow he would be in Catania.  True or not, what did it really matter?

The locals would scoff at what they would perceive to be my vulnerability—certainly my extreme American stupidity—but , really, it cost me nothing.  In my worst times (and I have had them, aplenty) I have still been better off than those I encountered yesterday. By a long shot.

I am lucky and I know that.  I am here in a place I now feel is “home.”  I am doing work that I love.  I am learning more than I thought I would.

Perhaps this image speaks for itself!

Perhaps this image speaks for itself!

If I see the young woman with the can, I will, no doubt make a contribution to it again.  And I won’t think twice about it.  And I hope I do see her. I’d like to tell her , Babbo Natale, most definitely was good to me this year.  I’d also tell her that I hope, will all sincerity , that he will be good to her, too.  And I will mean it from the heart.






Forever Foreign? The Use of the Term ‘Illegal Immigrants” and the Need to Choose Our Words Carefully


Anyone who has ever been called a derogatory name knows that not only does it hurt, but it influences how you think of yourself.  Have you ever been called fatty?  Stupid?  You may not have been either, but you might have started to feel that way.  The naming of immigrants as “illegal” is a controversy that has been brewing here in the United States for quite some time as well as abroad, most specifically in the European Union.

I would posit that calling an immigrant illegal directly and often indirectly influences not only how he or she feels about himself, but also how others treat him or her.   It encourages discrimination so widespread that it can prevent those who are already vulnerable from having any modicum of a normal and safe life.  I have read and heard the arguments that encourage society to “call it like it is”—that the word “Illegal” simply means that you have “broken a law.”  Journalist Ruben Navarette defending the journalists right to use the “illegal terms writes in the  “Opinion Corner” on the VOXXI website:

‘This is a squabble among elites.  Ask an illegal immigrant if he cares what he is called for whether he is more preoccupied with his day-to-day struggle to work and provide for his family, avoid deportation and ensure that his children get legalized, and you’ll see that changing the language of the debate does not even register.’

Right beside Navarette’s assertion is a photo of a many holding a young boy on his shoulder holding up a sign that says ‘Ninguna Persona Es Illegal!’  (No person is Illegal). Hmmmm.  Interesting.  Looks like it matters to somebody, Mr. Navarette.

I could not disagree more.  I believe that language shapes our perception of reality and I tend to abhor labels, particularly negative ones that have the potential to discriminate against people who are already, in so many ways, have the cards stacked against them.


The dehumanization of immigrants, in general, is appalling.  Those of us who reside in the country we were born in or who legally are able to live in peace and make our livings in another cannot know the day to day pressure and agony of being a non-person in a society in which you desire nothing more than to live in peace and safety.   Mr. Navarette, is, no doubt, a good journalist and feels that journalism is not designed to make people feel good and, as a result, he calls it like he sees it and urges other journalist to do the same.  He does not like the term “undocumented worker,” which is certainly gentler and does not invalidate someone’s basic humanity.

Not illegal

In Europe, calling immigrants illegal goes beyond heated rhetoric and often results in racist and rage-fueled riots.  The far right in the EU has fanned the burning flames of racism, increasing the fear of the ‘invader’ who threatens jobs, brings disease, increases crime and threatens a traditional way of life.  In Italy, you can be punished for providing illegal immigrants with shelter. In France a Muslim woman cannot wear a burqua.  Just imagine.


Ah, the nomenclature is changing and it is difficult not to get caught up in the controversy, but immigrants are living, breathing human beings.  They deserve our protection.  And as my grandmother used to say: “ make your words short and sweet ones because one day you may have to eat them.”

Tagged , , , ,

Reasons for Immigration and Migration? Not as Clear Cut as You Think

Immigration and migration is never , ever far from my mind.  And while I focus on Italy, Sicily in particular in this blog, I think of immigration and migration in just about every setting imaginable. It is a subject I am passionate about.  For me, the issue of migration is not  exclusively a  men’s issue or a women’s issue. It is a human issue.

I have written about my own experiences with my own family’s immigration and the immigrants who  I attended school with, side by side.  I saw their struggles, their pain.  I saw how being treated like a stranger  in a new country can make you defend the place you left, because , even if conditions were bad (or you just wanted better), it was , for lack of a better term the evil that you knew.  I understand this on such a deep level and as I am getting ready to conduct more ethnography in Sicily, I am reminded of what a friend of mine, an immigrant himself told me recently:  people leave their country of origin for another country because they want something.  I wasn’t sure I heard him right and so I repeated “Because they want something.”  I said it like a statement,  in monotone, thinking hard.  It was not a clarifying question.  I was dumbfounded.  “Certo,” he said, rather smugly, I thought.  “But,” I continued.  “No but,” he said, his finger poised in the air, “there is no but.”

Crossing borders

This is something I had to think about.  I had to wrap my mind around the word “want.”  Want seems like a word that I associate with frivolous things.  Wants versus needs was a concept my parents taught me very early on and so I and my siblings have always known the difference.   When I “wanted” something it was an extra—-I could live without it.  When I “needed” something it was essential to my survival or my well-being.  This is where things began to get murky with regards to my understanding of the needs of immigrants and migrants—refugees and asylum-seekers are clear cut cases. Or are they?  But maybe I was little mixed up.


While I research immigration and migration and as I conduct my ethnography, a very personal ethnography ( I am not a totally objective observer—not only can I not escape my own point of view—impossible— I do not want to be emotionally distant from my the situations and people I choose to interact with.  My friend Carolyn, an anthropologist, has given me so much encouragement with this form of ethnography—-not distancing and drawing on my own experiences.  But with that said, clearly, I needed to recalibrate a bit.


And then I realized that the issue of immigration really is not very clear cut at all.  In many cases, it is so true: immigrants often want something. They want a better job, better education for themselves or their children, they want experiences, they want to be close to family member who have gone before, and on and on and on.  But sometimes, in fact, they immigrate because of need—because they can’t make it where they are.   Tough  economic times and  soaring unemployment was rampant in southern Italy in the early ’70’s and as a result my hometown saw the proliferation of immigrants from Maida, Calabria, where half of my family originated.  I saw their struggles, their humiliations and their resentments.  I saw how we Italian-Americans (we were born here!) often felt superior to those right “off the boat”.  In fact, of course, no one came by boat.  But that didn’t matter to us.  Immigration , contrary to what many people believe, does not follow political laws, but rather economic ones , so for the most part, if the economy is going well, there will be an increase in immigrant workers.  Of the economy sputters, immigrant workers decrease.  Immigration patterns tend to develop wherever there are opportunities for employment.


The other reasons for refugee immigration is different—for the most part.  While there are some who may try to claim refugee status in a country under false pretenses (because, indeed, they want a different life), the usual reasons are corruption, inequality, unfair and/or unjust resource distribution , class differences, etc.  Poverty, surprisingly, is not the main reason.

vulnerable immigrants

And so my friend is quite satisfied that I’ve come around to his way of thinking.  My process of knowing is just that—a process. And immigration in an increasingly globalized world is increasingly  complex.  But what is not a complex idea , what is actually very easy for me to understand and the premise by which I operate is that immigration , in fact, in all instances the crossing of borders is a human issue.  Immigrants , though they are treated like political pawns, are  often dehumanized , are scapegoated with sickening regularity and are  all too often  treated like an unwelcome “guest,” they are people, often vulnerable and both need and deserve our protection in many ways, including legally. Of this I have never  ever been in doubt.  And, like I knew he would, my friend agrees with me.





Tagged , , , , , , ,