Category Archives: Opinion

“Time to Turn the Tide of Italian Racism”

If you listen to the right-wing groups in Italy, —or anywhere in Europe for that matter,  who vehemently oppose immigration , what you will really hear is that they are opposed to anyone who is not like them.  More accurately, those that do not look like them.   Immigration is rarely mentioned when  those entering the country are white.

The so-called “Emergency” of immigration most notably during the interestingly named “Arab Spring” was , really, no “emergency,” at all, but rather Italy’s failure to put in place any kind of measures that would be able to handle those coming to their shores.  How is Italian society culturally interpreting immigration?  We know that the hegemonic structures in place call the shots by naming things as they see fit. And those names are not good.  So in no time at all, waves of (not unexpected ) immigration become ” a human tsunami” and those vulnerable are “clandestino’s”  (yes, by all means, let us keep them in the shadows) and those selling their wares become the “vu cumpra,”  not simply men and women trying to survive by their wits like so many others.  This his how the discourse amongst the “gente” shape reality.  Difference creates fear, doesn’t it?  And where do Italians get the   idea that they are  and have been some mono-cultural entity?  So much so that the culture must be “protected”against the modern “African” invader?  I have yet to get a satisfactory answer to that question.

Is this a "human tsunami"?

Is this a “human tsunami”?

When my Italian ancestors came from Italy they were bowed but not bloody. They worked hard despite the insults , degradation and exclusionary practices that were so firm in place, they could live no where but the margins of the town in which I still live.   Italians and African-Americans lived side by side , most notably in the south of the town that I grew up in .   They banded together, cared for one another , looked out for one another because the enemy was a common one:  anyone who was against them.  And if anyone thinks that this was easy because they still were able to make a living and raise their families, think again.  There was no shortage of misery.   In an attempt to blend they stifled their language—-the most plausible reason I know of why so many Italian-Americans do not speak Italian, and why my grandparents  and so many others spoke of the “old” country—they  tried, some quite reluctantly,  to put Italy behind them. Their children would scorn the old , traditional ways, because the pressure to assimilate, to be a “real” American was very real.  It would not be until one or two generations later where Italian-Americans could feel comfortable with their ethnicity, with their dual mindset.  “Home”, the United States, though, was a  place where one often felt they were not really accepted.

Italian comic

People begin to act in ways that are expected of them.  So of course, Italians banded together.  No one but your family and your paesani could understand who you really were, what was in your heart.  I read a long time ago that when Mario Puzo received an advance for his infamously successful novel “The Godfather” his mother,  unable to conceive of such a large amount cautioned him: “Don’t tell nobody.” Italians were not supposed to make that kind of money. They were not capable.   That kind of money not only put them on equal footing with “real” Americans, it did something worse: it put them above some of them.

Puzo's Godfather

The media in Italy is an amazing machine—and often one of great distortion.  My friend Ramzi has expressed great irritation over the fact that I often post on those who have made the perilous journey to Italian shores in rickety little boats, often being rewarded with death for their efforts.  He once told me that these voyages , horrific as they are, are such as small percentage of immigration.   “The Italian media at work,” he said to me one day.  Then:  “Don’t be fooled.”  And , in fact, he is right.  I know a fair amount of immigrants in Sicily.  None of them are treated as outsiders.  All of them have jobs.  None of them have encountered any kind of racism.  All of them are white.  And so , the  media is not immune from an inherent or expected kind of prejudice—in fact, they keep it alive.  It is sensational.  It feeds the fear.  It sells the papers.  Fear is  influential.  It perhaps pleases certain politicians.


The media helps to construct the identity or the perception of the identity of the invaders, the enemies, by implying that any number of social ills (and Italy has many) are caused not by any inherent flaw in the national character, but instead those who have come uninvited and unwelcome.  What has happened to the Italian imagination?  Can they not imagine an new society, a multicultural place in which diversity strengthens society?  Italians are not even reproducing themselves, they need the newcomers!  They have never been non-multiethnic–why pretend they can be now?  The prevailing opinion is that immigrants created a vortex of fear—that impression can actually “create” the kind of violence and crime Italians fear. How?  Because despite evidence to the contrary, any crime, no matter how small , will be reported widely in the media, complete with photos and details if the crime was committed by an immigrant—most notably those from Africa.  Crimes committed by ordinary Italians will often omit names.  The exception to this is, perhaps, crimes committed by the Mafia—from the highest capo to the most insignificant foot soldier.   Clandestini come out of the shadows only to be shamed, it seems.

There is so much work to do, but how to change a culture?  How to change perception? The growing racism in Italy is not going to go away any time soon because of fear, because of increased immigration that shows no sign of letting up, because of the fairy tale of a mono-ethnic society, which is being invaded by the unwanted , who should really just “go back to where they came from.”   Can we not see how rich immigration has the potential to make Italian society?  White, Christian and European is on its way out in Italy, there can be no denying the fact.  It is time to embrace a new culture, which should start with institutions and education.

YEAH it does.

YEAH it does.

The only thing that should be kept in the shadows is the old way of thinking and the old way of being:  racist and narrow-minded.  Time to change the atmosphere of aggression and potential violence into one of acceptance , change and education.  To do otherwise is just to stave off the inevitable and compound misery. And God knows, the world  already has more than its share.

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Here We Go Again: Cecile Kyenge, First Black Minister in Italy Faces Racist Slurs


How easy is it to integrate into a new society?  In Italy, it seems, not very easy at all.  Even if you are highly educated.  A politician. A doctor.  Married to an Italian.

Immigration into a nation that has largely and for so long been a nation of emigrants has been struggling with its identity, with its rapidly changing demographic.   If you look at the example of Italy, it would seem that many (not all) work on the assumption that Italians are all alike—one culture, unchanging over years.   We know who we are , and we know who you are but you are not like us.   The funny and all too obvious point is that Italy has never a country that was monocultural , and if  present trends continue, never will be.  By setting up distinctions of culture, divisions are created , boundaries are drawn.  Hatred breeds.

I have mixed feelings about writing about Italy  in this way—I am Italian-American.  I travel to Italy often.  Most Italians are beautiful people who have extended amazing hospitality to me.  But the truth is, the racism is palpable.  I cannot  and I will not pretend or wish it away. There is no integration.  I have argued with people about this—people who try to deny that this is a reality in Italy.  They try to deny what I have seen with my own eyes.  They are the same people that would and often do, deny the accounts of so, so many whose narratives are tell in vivid detail the suffering(s) they have experienced.  You cannot pretend the racism does not exist simply  because it is a bad reflection on your country, your heritage.


In my most recent post, Dr. Kossi Komla-Ebri, a medical doctor from Togo, living and working in Italy would counter claims that regular Italians are not racist and policies that do not help or favor immigrants are implemented against their wishes  in this way:

“I keep saying it to other immigrants: do not be fooled that the government is doing things contrary to the will of the people! (emphasis mine) Of course, there is a minority in Italy that does not agree with this policy. I do not know if it is a minority or a silent majority that does not agree. However, not expressing their dissent, this “silent majority” will always be in fact a minority of more accomplice of the other screaming.” (Interview, Sempre Sicilia, April 28, 2013)


Now the Italian government has ordered an investigation into the case of the Cecile Kyenge, a medical doctor born in the Congo , living and working in Italy, married to an Italian man and raising her daughters.  Kyenge is the first African Italian minister in the history of Italy. BOOM.  Fodder for all of the neo-fascist and ultra-right wing hawks who have already been exhibiting the hatred, stupidity and xenophobic tendencies by making bizarre claims: Kyenge would like to “impose tribal traditions in Italy,” and calling her  ugly and hateful names: “Congolese monkey” “zulu” and others.  The politicians of the Northern League could barely contain themselves with their racist allegations and vulgarities.  Kyenge is a proponent of legislation that would give children born in Italy to immigrant parents automatic citizenship instead of having to wait until they are 18 years old.   This is legislation that is vehemently opposed by the Northern League.

Citizenship for Immgrants Children

Decent people, Italian politicians and others, including Laura Boldrini, Lower House speaker have raised their voices not only against the outrageous racial comments , but in support of Kyenge.  But not for the first time, I must ask:where is the widespread outrage and indignation?

What must one do to prove themselves in a society?  How long will it take?  My maternal grandfather, a carpenter, used to tell the story over and over again about how , when doing work down south for a period of time, he was physically pushed to the back of the bus.  No, he was not mistaken for a black man.   People knew that he was Italian.  And that he belonged in the back of the bus.   This is what Italians, who left Italy for a better life, more often than not had to encounter.  How ironic, that Italians are so unwelcoming to the “new Italians” immigrants from everywhere, but most particularly Africa.

Edmund Burke is often quoted as saying :  “All that is necessary for evil to triumph is for good men to do nothing.”  The world has seen evidence of this so many times.

The racism that Cecile Kyenge has faced in recent days is sickening and unconscionable.  I hope that normal citizens as well as politicians condemn such racism in the strongest terms—-but that may be hoping for just too much. But we live in hope.

white:black handshake



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Can Compassion Become Toxic? The Merits of Not Rushing In

While I have written about a variety of issues here, I’ve not yet tackled the subject of how to help the immigrant, the refugee, the asylum seeker that we may come in contact with.  The term “bleeding heart liberal’ is often used  by some with derision  , and while we know that good intentions are, well, good, what about action?  We know that  intentions alone are not enough.  So how does one help the immigrant and/or refugee?

Bleeding Heart

According to my friend and mentor Ramzi,  a man who knows more about all aspects of immigration than anyone I know, said that a good place to start might be to ask them what it is they actually need.  And the answer  they are likely to give may surprise you.


In March I took 24 brilliant and compassionate students to Sicily. I admit to feeling a bit of  trepidation.  This was my life, my intellectual and emotional interest, the place where I spend an inordinate amount of time researching , interviewing, studying.   I kept asking myself how best to  get across not just the abundance of information I needed to give them to provide the proper context, but how would they interact with the refugees, some of which had become my friends. What would they think?  How would they process what they found My class was focused on immigration and migration in the Sicilian context.   I spent 6 weeks before we left the country for Sicily, where, amongst other activities  we would be meeting and interacting with refugees.  I made a conscious and intentional decision that while I would give them as much concrete information possible, that what I was really after for them was “experiential” and “reflective”.  And I leaned more toward the activist/human element.

Hand in Hand

One among many refugees  that I have come in contact and interveiwed has become a very very  good friend.  I would say this man is like my family.   There is nothing that the two of us cannot say to one another.   We are both glad the other exists in the world. During each class I would tell my students stories about my friend, his life , his struggles.   If they were eager to meet him, I honestly could not tell, but I assumed they were curious.

In Sicily, my friend came to speak to my class with a friend of his, a fellow refugee.  They told their stories, my friend, first.  He is an elegant man, educated. He knows how to frame his story so that his sufferings and his trials can be related to by others.  He neither wants nor seeks pity.  He understands that his struggle is not just his struggle alone.  That the structure of things, overall, must change in order to combat the racism and  exploitation that many immigrants and refugees encounter with alarming regularity not just in Italy, but in the European Union at large.

Students were overwhelmed. They listened with quiet and respect.  I saw tears.  I saw looks of disbelief.  What they saw, two handsome, strong and articulate men who were suffering in a variety of ways, probably did not compute immediately.  In one class I had talked about our “first world” concerns—there are so many—-and how they do not come close, and in fact seem utterly ridiculous in comparison with the rest of the world’s problems.   I knew they had to process.  I knew they would be writing in their required journals—their laboratories where they would record everything.  And write they did. What happened next was something that I was not prepared for: they were overcome with compassion and concern.  To say I was proud of them was putting it mildly.  But I knew that that was just the first wind of knowledge that hits heart before brain.  By the time they would pick themselves up from the floor, they would need to process further.

After all, what do you do  with a heart full of compassion?

It is a hard lesson to sit with the knowledge that we have of a situation before we act.  We live in a fast-paced world where a contemplative lifestyle is not respected in this bottom line world.  We are taught, in fact, encouraged to be people of action versus inaction.  But , in fact, there are times, there are definitely  situations most of all when they relate to the wellbeing of human beings, when it is prudent to press the  “pause” button.  To be circumspect.  To question yourself and try to discern that  if you want to help, how can you do it in a way that preserves the dignity of the person you want to reach out to?

In the education department of my university, a professor has a poster which says “Presume Competence” hanging on her office door.  I love that.  While this poster refers to those mainly with physical handicaps, warning others not to rush in until the signal is given that help , is indeed, required, I can apply it to this situation , too.  Has someone asked for you help?  If you rush in with all manner of  assistance or what you think will be helpful, lifesaving or  life changing, how will you feel if it is rejected?  Not appreciated as much as you thought?

At a church in Sicily, I and one of my students spoke with a refugee who told us how monotonous nearly every  day is for him: “I walk around outside.  Sometimes I go out for some pizza.  Then I come back.  Nothing.”  I asked him if he needed money.  I am sure he did , but that was the least of his worries.  They were taking care of him at the church. What he needed was hard to find: a job.  Finally he laughed, not without irony and just a touch of bitterness and said , “Really, what would I do with money?

My students have huge hearts.  They want to help my friend.  They would like to bring him here.   But I want to tell them, good intentions are wonderful, but dignity is too.  Today I told one of my students, one of the brightest most enthusiastic among them not to “rush in.” Not to ,in any way, get his hopes up, not to presume we know what he wants.  In fact, he cannot come here for many reasons.

I told her what my mentor/friend Ramzi told me:  That no one should underestimate this man’s capacity for survival. That we should keep things light and normal with him.  That to cast him in the role of “poor thing” threatens to rob him of the dignity he has. He is a beautiful person inside and out.  He is a person, not our cause.

We must presume competence.  Even the best of our intentions can become toxic to the person we are trying to help.

What did Ramzi advise we give my friend in abundance?  Friendship.  That is what he really wants.  He wants normalcy in his life.  He wants to talk about everything and nothing at all,  just like the rest of us do nearly every day.  I know my students will hold him up with their friendship. They are like that.

I called my friend  today.  I went outside of my office into the bright and warm day where students were milling around enjoying themselves in the carefree way students often do. I was conscious of how very far away he was.  I held my cellphone close .  I wanted to hear his voice loud and clear.

At the end of our conversation he said:

Thanks too much Micke, your smile is  always  inside me. . . there is  hope in my life and when I  go through your words , really,  I  find my self free to fly around…

bird with heart

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Words Matter: The Associated Press Discontinues the Use of the Term “Illegal Immigrant”

Remember that little ditty our mother’s taught us as a mantra to ward off those who bullied and teased us?

Sticks and stones may break my bones, but names will never hurt me.”

Um, your mother was wrongSo was mine.

Words matter. Words can hurt like hell. Words can break you.

In an interesting move and one that activists applaud, the Associated Press has banned the term “illegal immigrant”.   But before we all get too excited, the AP have expressed a desire to avoid “labels” rather than show sensitivity toward immigrants, though they would like to be sensitive to others’ feelings.  Standards editor, Tom Kent told TIME magazine,” We’re trying to put the emphasis not on describing people but on describing actions or situations that they are in.”  They have also rejected “undocumented immigrants,” because even that language lacks the precision they strive for.

Illegal Immigrants CrackdownWords are important.  Our language shapes our perception of reality and others’ perceptions of our condition(s) as well.  Ask any “single mother” whose “illegitimate” children come from a “broken” home.  No one who is reading this blog today will be ignorant of the endless list of labels that haunt, crush and defeat those who desperately try to bear up under them. You will have been a victim of at least one, possibly more.

Were you called lazy, clumsy, stupid, ugly, worthless, a bastard, a bitch early on or repeatedly in your life?  A faggot?  A retard?  A spaz?  A dago?  A wop?  A kike? A spic?  A loser?


It is nearly impossible to  escape a label once it takes hold, growing roots deep into your psyche and those around you. You can spend the rest of your life trying to live it down, change it , turn it around.  And it is exhausting.

See where I’m going here?

The reprehensible Glen Beck weighed in ,  veritably foaming at the mouth: “They’re illegal!  They’re illegal!  They’re illegal!  They are here illegally!!!”  Glen Beck enjoys taxonomies, it helps him to keep people in dark, cramped boxes, away from him, labeled appropriately.

I wish someone would make Glen Beck illegal. Real quick, please.  We wouldn’t have to call him illegal.  We could just deny him the use of hate rhetoric and all that . Free speech be damned.  I know.  I know. Forgive me.

Alternate terms?  A few have been proposed.  The AP rejects “out of status” for being even more imprecise.  And so it goes.  And while the AP rejected the term “illegal immigrants” for precision and stylistic purpose rather than out of the goodness of their collective hearts, I am totally okay with that, because they eventually, will set the standard and I feel confident they will come up with something acceptable.

Sharam Khosravi, author of ”Illegal Traveller” states that once the refugee, the migrant, the immigrant is thought of in a certain way or is thus labeled, it is difficult or impossible to escape:

The invisible border keeps immigrants strangers for generations.  The Sisyphian plight of integration extends even to the next generation. The border exposes me to a gaze that does not see me as an individual but meets me as a type.  The visual field is not neutral.  The gaze is hierarchically interwoven complex of gender, racial and class factors.



Sartre was right:

L’enfer c’est les autres.”  (Hell is other people)


Calling immigrants illegal contributes to their invisibility.  Denies them access to humanity, respect, consideration and intervention.  In Italy they are called “clandestino,” forever hiding in the shadows for fear of being exposed for their “illegality.”

Khosravi speaks of not only crossing physical borders, but also, then, forever attempting to negotiate the borders in peoples’ minds—and insidious border, daunting, indeed.  “An invisible border,” Khosravi astutely observes, “is, however, impossible to reach.”


He continues:

“ Being at home means belonging, but it also means constructing borders and excluding the other.  Any kind of group identification constructs the social category of the other.”

Group identification.  And who does the identifying?  Whoever is not in the unfortunate position of being labeled.

Forgive me my philosophical rant today.  I have a lot of these issues on my mind, as usual.   Every girl deserves, in fact needs, a “rant” every once in a while.  But wait.  I don’t want to label this a “rant” which has a negative connotation.  Because the words I’ve put down here were not penned lightly.  I am  nothing if not passionate about this.


To close I should mention that immigration activists have praised the AP’s stylistic decision as well as the National Association of Hispanic Journalists who issued this statement:

“Those demeaning titles are not only inaccurate and disrespectful, but a propaganda tool used to dehumanize a group of people and instill fear in the general population in order to establish policy.”

I will end with another little ditty that both my grandmother and my mother, in their infinite wisdom repeated to me often:

eat your words

“Make your words short and sweet for someday you may have to eat them.” 

Thanks, Mom.  This one is not a lie.

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The Rhetoric of Racism: Paolo Berlusconi, Balotelli and a Disturbing Tolerance for Intolerance

While newspaper reports around the world have called Paolo Berlusconi’s (Silvio Berlusconi’s brother) comments about  soccer player, Mario Balotelli, “gross racial insensitivity,” why don’t we just say what it really is:  racism.

AC Milan v Udinese Calcio  - Serie A

Here is how things went down.

The crowd, gathered at an event held by Silvio Berlusconi, his brother, a real dolt if there ever was one,  referred to  the fact that AC Milan signed Balotelli, the “negretto.”  Wow.  That word  literally means  “little nigger” or “little negro”.   It is better understood as as “little black boy.”  Here is the comment he actually made, igniting laughter from the audience :

“And now, let’s go and watch the little black boy of the family, the hot head.”

What?  Seriously?  I waited for the outrage, the raw , hot anger.  And I waited.  I spoke to a friend in Sicily who said , “. . . no one has really reacted.”

News reports noted that the comment went largely “unnoticed” in Italy.   Not until the video  of the remark went viral, when the world was witness to the rhetoric of racism, NOT “insensitivity”, did  people react.



This is not the first verbal assault lobbed at Balotelli, who was born to Ghanian parents but raised by an Italian couple, and , sadly, given the nearly imperceptible rate at which Italians seem capable of changing their attitudes toward the growing and changing demographic of their country, it won’t be the last. He has had bananas thrown at him as well as the verbal assault of racist chants.  But this is not something that Balotelli should have to get used to.  Call me crazy.

Mario Balotelli

Mario Balotelli

The immigrant as scapegoat, the immigrant as an easy target, the immigrant forever as “other.”  

I would pity Berlusconi and his brother and others like them , for being so far gone , idiotic in a myriad of ways, but really, their actions and their remarks are like well-sharpened knives, filed to a point and aiming to hit their target.

When will things change?  Piara Powar,  the executive director  of  Footbal Against Racism in Europe (FARE)recognizes that Italian society is changing, but attitudes are not keeping pace.  What an understatement.  That he called the comment and “outrage” was a first step.  But he seems to be in the minority.  Maybe Italians, having lived so long with Berlusconi (while castigating Americans who would deign to elect Bush not once but twice) have a high tolerance for intolerance.


Paolo Berlusconi now says, in the face of a bit of a tarnished image , that he was being “affectionate” with Balotelli.  But who would believe or trust a word he says?

I don’t.  I really don’t.




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Confronting Vulnerability: Am I a Sucker or a Human With a Heart?

 It cannot be easy to hold out your hand hoping someone will give.

I look try to look away from those asking for money on the streets when I am in Sicily (or anywhere for that matter). I am  more sensitive to it in Sicily because those needing help are often far, far from their real homes and vulnerable in a number of ways.   This is not an indifference to the plight of the less fortunate.  Far from it.  There have been times in my life where the want of such simple things was an impossibility, when just getting what I needed would take gargantuan feats, despite the fact that I have always worked hard.  Lack can grab you by the throat and shake until you can’t breathe.  I am sensitive to it.  I encounter it with more and more regularity.  When writing about and working with immigrants and refugees,  need is a  prominent theme–and it is endless.  I am not a policy maker.  There are others with far greater minds than mine to do that work.  People interest me.   I do not observe them from a distance.  Their stories are not abstract , theoretical jottings relegated to my notebooks.  They  live and breathe, and I along with them.  I do not want to be drained of emotion.  But I cannot live with emotional distance, either.  I won’t allow it of myself.   My eyes is wide and gaping whether I like it or not.


 When I am in Sicily and I am approached, I do not try to figure out genuine need from those trying to shake me down.  How could I possibly ascertain that? What is the litmus test? Either I am ready and willing to give something or I am not.  The reasons why I find it difficult to look at them is two-fold:  I have experienced  that   kind of  need and  I will always find it hard to confront in others.  I also am cognizant of the fact that many locals, while extremely  polite, will look right through or past them.    I can do neither.   But I am a sucker for kindness. And so. . .

When the sweet gypsy girl with the little girl calls out to me “Ciao mia amica!” and embraces me with such warmth , I feel tears stinging my eyes, I melt.   I am in need of coffee, and I have my book bag with me.  My eyes are stinging from the bright sun and cold morning air.  Her hair is a mess, her skin dusky. The child she carries is different from the one I had seen her with the day before, but I reason that she has two:  a girl and a boy.  Or two girls. I am really not sure, because she has a cousine who looks just like her.   The children seem interchangeable somehow.  Her husband is in Rome. She is with the children. If I will give her money today, she will come and find me upon her husband’s return and she will pay me back. She shifts the child on her hip, whose nose is running, sticking to the hair that is blowing in the wind all over her face.

I give her some money and she kisses me all over my face.  I am embarrassed by her display since it is out of proportion to what I had just placed in her hand.  She persists in asking me where she can find me in a few days so that she can pay me back.  It is a game that she must play and I know this.  I tell her that the money is  a  gift to her and her children.    I could not confront this poverty and this need.  To have anything at all in the face of so much need in the world seems to me to be a vulgar thing, I have always struggled with this and I struggle with it still.


A few days later , on a beautiful Sunday, I am sitting in the Duomo with my friend Sarah and  I see the gypsy girl and her cousine stroll into the view.   The gypsy and her cousin, veritable twins, have only one child with them on that day—a little boy, disheveled in the way that the family always appears to be, pushing a rickety little pink baby carriage with neither baby nor doll inside.   He is so tiny, going around in circles with the carriage, whose wheels looks as though they are held by threads.   He talks to himself.  I cannot see the gypsy girl or her cousin.  I express concern to my friend Sarah , who assures me that they are somewhere in the crowd, watching from a distance.  This is something that few would do in the states. But this is Sicily, after all, on a Sunday, in the Duomo for goodness sake.

The little boy abandons the carriage and walks into the array of tables where family’s are soaking up winter sun and drinking coffee and eating.  Out comes the little boy with an enormous chocolate cone. He is still unsmiling.   He takes himself with his cone into the crowd.  I tip my head back and close my eyes to the sun. When I open them , he is gone.


At the table behind us , two women, one breastfeeding a baby are approached by a very old gypsy woman.  She has the same yellowish-brown complexion if the cousins. She wears a thick wool skirt and thicker wool stockings.  She is devoid of any facial expressions and simply holds out a small dish.  She is making me uncomfortable , but I might be the only one who is.   The woman disengages the baby from her breast and swaddles her a little tighter despite the warmth of the day.  I do not know what transpired, but when the gypsy woman walked away, the woman with the baby was wiping up a spilled beverage from her clothes.

Spilled drink

I wanted to analyze.  I wanted to ask the woman “what happened?”   Sarah, serene as can be, was on to something else, looking around, smiling.  But I always want to know.  It’s often my downfall.

Before we leave, the little boy emerges out of the well-dressed crowd in the Duomo.  He is still holding tight to his cone, which has melted , but not by much.  He has a bit of chocolate on his face.  With determination he walks his tiny self past the outside tables into the cafe.  I see him walk up to the counter.  I imagine that he does not like chocolate. Wants another.  They will give it to them. Because Sicilians love children and indulge them


I have given up trying to judge who needs what.  If I can, I give.  If I can’t, I can’t.  But then I feel awful.  This is an occupational hazard I suppose.  Or is it just a condition of being a sucker?  Or , merely humanity with a heart?



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The Rose Sellers in Sicily and the Patience of Saints

Often to make sense of an experience I will contrast it with something similar, something I know.  This is human nature, I suppose.  I, personally, do this on both a conscious and subconscious level.   And yet, when doing ethnography, I know how important it is to just observe a situation as it is.  And I do that too.  But there is one thing that I still find incredibly interesting.  And that is how many Sicilians that I have both observed and encountered treat panhandlers, beggars or whatever one calls someone who is asking for something they need or want with utter respect and patience. I cannot say the same for those of us on the streets of Philadelphia. (I aim here not to be offensive and intend no offence when using these terms.)  In a society that I have come to know as somewhat “tolerant” of those on the “outside” but lacking any kind of “integration” (though I have desperately looked for it) I am awestruck by the way in which they treat “beggars”:  with the most quiet patience  and respect I have ever seen.


Of particular and fascination to me are the “rose sellers”—the men, usually of South Asian origin, who patiently and with great dignity, clutch bouquets of roses of various colors offering them, for a price, to those who seem approachable and to those who don’t.  They enter churches, restaurants, galleries, caffe’s and everywhere people gather.   These men are gentle and quiet.  And while I have never personally seen anyone actually buy a rose, I am certain they do.  Most like tourists on romantic vacations, or maybe young lovers or just the young—caught up in the moment and in need of something beautiful.

I recently had dinner with a good friend and her daughter in a popular and busy restaurant in Sicily.   We were seated in a small room where we were basically all bumped up against one another.  The food was delicious, the mood was festive, the noise level high, the atmosphere rather raucous.   A young child in the corner was having a meltdown the likes of which I have never seen as her parents and extended family ignored her.  The long table next to us had about 8 twenty something’s drinking and having a good time.  My entrée had been forgotten but my friend assured me with a gentle pat on my hand that “it would come.”  In the midst of what felt like utter chaos, in walks a rose seller.  He enters the small room that we were in with the child screaming, waiters with huge trays hoisted right above our heads and the loud laughter of the twenty something’s , smiling, gently proffering his roses.ROSE

This scenario would not, could not happen in, say, Philadelphia.  People do not tolerate peddlers or beggars in places where they are paying for a service. They barely tolerate them on the street.   And yet, these impeccably dressed Italians did not show a single twinge of irritation or anger.   Believe me, I looked.   The scene, for just a few brief moments was nothing short of utterly bizarre—a weird sort of circus.  But of course, I was the only one who thought that it was.

While the scene was strange and wondrous and  the roses fresh and beautiful in their simplicity, the story behind the rose sellers is not a pretty one.  These men and others like them are victims of human trafficking and probably  earn very little of what they actually make and of course, that is not the worst of it,  but that is a story for another post.

When I expressed surprise to my friend Lucia at the patience with which everyone treats the ubiquitous sellers, all from different countries, who approach with a smile and without fear, it was her turn to be surprised. She looked at me as if she couldn’t believe my statement.  Quite simply, picking up her espresso and taking a sip she shrugged lightly and said, “They are trying to make a living, so what is the problem?”  Indeed.

It is something I thing about every day.

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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.”

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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.





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The Immigrant as Scapegoat: Alba Dorata Comes to Italy

The immigrant has always been a scapegoat , particularly, but not exclusively during times of economic crisis.

In the United States ,Republicans are furiously stirring the pot of controversy claiming that President Obama’s recent election was the “fault” of immigrants.  Count the ways.   In fact, the controversy has gotten so vituperative , so many right wing pundits seem no longer willing to differentiate between illegal or legal immigrants: just point the finger at them.  The issue is a complex one and I could never do it the justice it deserves in such limited space; suffice it to say, when something goes wrong , the immigrant will surely get the blame.

The  deteriorating economic crisis in the European Union is a serious one.  In Greece, for instance, where near desperate attempts are being made to implement further austerity measures. The Economist reports Greece’s unemployment rate as of June 2012 was 24.4 % .  Only Spain’s unemployment rate is higher.  Further, the jobless rate is 55.4% among young Greeks.   A situation like this provides fertile ground for far right movements who can whip people into a frenzy of intimidation and violence  by providing a “reason” for the unfortunate situation they find themselves in:  the immigrants. In an effort to appease his people, Greek Prime Minister Antonis Samsaras promised to “reclaim” Greek cities from the negative influence of the country’s illegal immigrants.  As a result migrants were often intimidated and made to provide their legal documents.  Far from solving the problem, actions like these only serve to unite extreme anger and extreme fear—an ideal mixture for, eventually (if not before) the perfect storm.

Immigrant showing his documents in Greece

“Golden Dawn” is a neo-Nazi and fascist group, labels that they , not surprisingly reject. They are anti-immigrant, amongst being against many, many other things, but currently their violence is almost singularly aimed at the nations immigrants who they feel are, in a crippled economy with jobs as rare as hen’s teeth, taking jobs they believe should go to native Greeks.  Members of Golden Dawn are reported to patrol businesses to make sure that owners are hiring Greeks exclusively.  One can imagine the fear and intimidation in Athens, currently a hot bed of increasingly hostile and restless youth, looking for answers that Golden Dawn is more than willing to provide.  With their black t-shirts with a symbol similar to a swastika, they are setting up shop in smaller towns, spreading their message like an unstoppable cancer.   Strength comes in increased numbers , and with sturdy backup, their intimidation tactics are more bold, more violent, increasing fear in an already difficult and confusing time. Xenophobia is not only alive and well, but is thriving in Greece.  And it seemed just a matter of time before Golden Dawn’s influence spread into Italy, though, the Italians, too , have their share of   extreme right wing movements.

Golden Dawn in Athens

Alba Dorata (Golden Dawn Italy) has a branch in Trieste.   It’s founder is Alessandro Gardossi, who was a former member of Forza Nuova , another neo-fascist party.  With the heartbreak of so many lives’ lost in the Mediterranean, and hardship upon hardship, immigrants, migrants and refugees now must contend with a movement that is not only opposed to them in the philosophical sense (Go home immigrant!) but want to intimidate and physically harm them in the most awful of ways.  Any weapon will do , and any immigrant fair game.

Symbol of Hate

Greece and Italy are two countries traditionally chosen by immigrants and migrants either as a permanent destination or a stopping place on the way to somewhere else, one can only imagine the possible escalation of violence fueled by chronic anger and disillusionment.

Martin Luther King Jr. a man of peace amidst a time of great turmoil wrote ‘Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.’  Violence will not deter People will always cross borders.  People will always try to seek a better life .  People will always take terribly risks in order to attempt to make this happen.  Unfortunately, there will always be people who feel deprived of opportunity themselves and who will stop at nothing to make sure that others are deprived too.  And if they look different or speak differently, they are not entitled to a damn thing.  And that cycle of xenophobia not only goes on and on , but , in desperate times flourishes.  And even worse, to the unenlightened, somehow, seems to make sense.



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