Tag Archives: Immigration

Birds of Sicily: poems that explicate the immigration experience

I guai della pigniata sabe sol’ o cucchiao

(The troubles deep in the pot are known only by the spoon—Sicilian proverb)




This collection explicates the cycle of immigration of a man who fled Sicily and feared vendetta for his entire life.  The rough terrain of Sicily, both literally and figuratively figures prominently. The vagaries of displacement, adjustment, abandonment and the politics of place , juxtaposed with the migratory patterns of birds can be found in these poems.   It is a timeless issue in a world that is ever on the move.



 Bird the island with the naked eye and you come upon the rare, the accidental, the vulnerable, the extirpated.  The island didn’t give them anything then.  Beaks, sharp as the points of knives, strike before being struck.  It is our way, they might say. By mountain, by sea.

 O mare, O mare!

 Nature has a passion for erasure, subjugation, for keeping the powerful unbowed.  For survival, while feeding yourself with one hand, you deny your mother’s love, look askance at your father’s sad smile, with a fierce, but quiet disdain.   There now, do not worry.  Walk the sun baked estate with impunity.

Thank you for your support!



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How desperate do you have to be? A meditation on compassion

More refugees will be coming. They are coming.

I wish I knew the names of even a few of them.   I wish I knew some characteristics. Their names.  The names of their parents.   I wish I did not have to lump them all into that unfortunate term “refugees”, but there you have it.   With the continuing unrest in North Africa and the increasingly unstable and violent situation in Syria (with possible impending US air strikes) the desperation of so many in the contact zone rises exponentially.


Why do they leave?  How do they get where they are going? What do they bring?  Who do they leave behind?  Will they ever be able to return? What what the price they had to pay to leave?
But most importantly, will they survive the journey?
Witness this:  Just a few days ago in Siracusa , Sicily two boats with  carrying over 300 people between them were rescued.  Amongst all of those nameless, faceless people, on one of those small boats, on that most dangerous of voyages a new life came into the world.  A four-day-old baby girl, born at sea,  was found , miraculously doing very well—with part of her umbilical cord still attached.
For those who oppose immigration, make rash judgements about the lives’ of people who are just like us but who have found themselves in untenable situations, or who verbally bash and politically oppose their existence. think for a moment what kind of situation would make a heavily pregnant woman, step into a dinghy  to sail night and day , exposed to the heat of the sun by day, and the dark unknown at night?  These trips come with many promises, but, predictably with no guarantees.   Desire , hope, fear and desperation are prime motivators.  Those who oppose them their right to a life in relative safety lack what seems to be a rare commodity these days: compassion or at least the ability to put yourself in someone else’s shoes.
I have always found the belief in something, in theory at least, to be easy.   We can be anti this or pro that, but until something touches us personally, until we become the victim, the bullied,  the afflicted, the denied, the scorned, the hated and despised we don’t really know, do we?
So here is a personal appeal to those of you who think that Italy has too many immigrants, too many refugees, to those of you who have marched against them, denied them jobs, refused them service, beat them in the streets, or smiled benevolently to them within the confines of your social service agency but then pretended you didn’t know them when you passed them on the street: STOP. Just STOP.  Dig deep and find your compassion.  It could be you or me someday. And with the way the world is going, it probably will be.
Just imagine that baby girl being born at sea.  How fearful her mother must have been. The potential for disaster.  Then imagine: What kind of life will she have?   Now ask yourself:  how desperate do you have to be?
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“Chi Nasce Qui e di Qui”—If You Are Born Here, You Belong Here

When I posted a one question poll asking whether or not the children of immigrants should be granted  automatic citizenship, I was not prepared for the type and number of questions I was asked , before  many  would  hazard an answer.  It actually delighted me that people thought the issue important enough to want to clarify what I meant  , exactly.   Many people wanted to know the context and asked ’are you talking about the USA?’  Others wanted to know if the children were born in the country in which their parents immigrated  to  or if they arrived with their parents.  Some took the opportunity to ask me what, exactly, was my interest in Italian immigration.   One respondent said she did not  answer questions ‘outside of the writing life.’  Still another said he was vehemently opposed to both immigrants and their children having any kind of status in ‘our’ country, but decided not to take my poll.   One person, joked that my poll would hardly provide the proper “crossection,” of the population needed, which, of course I knew.  This is a blog, afterall, and not a scientific experiment.  Still, 82 respondents is not too shabby, even if I did have to twist a few arms.

The Results

And so, I will admit, that I left the question intentionally ambiguous.  I simply wanted to get a sort of general impression of how people think about immigration and who “belongs” and who doesn’t.   I thought of every possible response and every  category EXCEPT for the one which would exclude any possibility of citizenship for children of immigrants was answered.  Even the  ‘I don’t know’ section got a few votes. While Italy does not currently have a policy for the children of immigrants, there is no lack of support for one.  The proposed Sarubbi-Granata Bill would grant citizenship to the children of immigrants born in Italy.  Supporters make so much sense on this point: if they know the language, were born in the country, go to the same schools as everyone else, etc. etc.  it is beyond ABSURD that they would not be granted automatic citizenship.  Not only do they deserve this, it could go a long way in mitigating so much of the racism directed at  them, simply because they are seen as not really belonging—not Italian, or not Italian enough. Italian President, Giorgio Napolitano continues to speak openly and passionately in support of immigration reform

The so-called “Balotelli generation” is the present and future of Italy, a reference to Mario Barwuha Balotelli, an Italian soccer player for both Manchester City and Italy’s national team, adopted by an Italian couple.   Shamefully and paradoxically, that Balotelli is a beloved national hero has not protected him from racism in Italy.

Italian politician (MEB-Member of European Parliament) and journalist, David Sassoli,  heads a campaign called “Chi  Nasce Qui e di Qui”—Whoever is Born Here Belongs Here.  This campaign has the support of many whose opinions count.  We can only hope that it continues to gain momentum and that the children of immigrants in Italy, in fact the EU in general, will get what they rightly deserve: citizenship in their country of birth.

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Immigration: An Up Close and Personal Account

“If they can get here, they have God’s right to come.”—Herman Melville

Perhaps belonging, that sense of knowing, with your heart and soul that you are in the right place, both literally and figuratively, has been a preoccupation of mine for as long as I can remember. And I have come to realize that I am nothing, if not my preoccupation.

I come from, thankfully, an accepting, loving  and gracious family— people who would rather die than think they’d made anyone, for any reason, feel unwelcome or unwanted.  My parents were, and still are, civic-minded and kind to a fault and my siblings and I were raised in the very same tradition.  And so  immigration sets alarm bells off in my head and gives me an uneasy feeling in the pit of my stomach.  Not because I oppose it—far from it— I believe that human beings should be allowed to cross borders, but rather because I understand, all too well, the inherent pain, fear, displacement and lack of dignity inherent in trying to build a life of safety and dignity in a place far from your home.

No, I am not an immigrant.  But I have had close associations from earliest childhood with Italian immigrants.  Indeed, my grandparents were immigrants and every Italian –American stokes the family lore of who came over, the reasons why and under what conditions.  My family is no different.  It is not exceptional, but rather it is the background music to my life.  The stories are so woven into the very fabric of who I am,  that I  scarcely, really,  take notice:  this is who I am; this is whom I come fromPeriod.   Or is it?

I grew up in a predominantly Italian-American town, a suburb of Philadelphia.   My parish was predominantly Italian and Italian-American as was the patron saint we revered: San Francesco de Paola.  Nearly all of the immigrants in my town came from the same place in Calabria.  In fact, my father’s mother came from that town and my grandfather came from Palermo.  Our traditions were Italian. Anything not Italian was ‘merican!  We stood out, even in a town where we were the majority.  My sense of belonging was thick and deep.  I would not have wanted to be raised any other way.  My traditions  sustain me.   I remain grateful.  But there was another side to it all. To be Italian-American is to have one foot in and one foot out of the culture.  Which culture?  Both. The unspoken sentiment was to be of the American culture, but separate from it, too.  A difficult thing to do, indeed.

In the early ‘70’s Italian immigration to the United States was fast and furious.  Many students in my parochial grade school were Italian immigrants.  In my class alone, perhaps two –thirds were from Italy. Dropped into class the day after their arrival in the US.  They all bore the same look:  scared and clueless— their clothes a bit different.  Their lunches were strange—they brought egg and pepper sandwiches, wrapped in tinfoil and over ripe bananas—this in contrast to our luncheon meat sandwiches on white bread and Fritos.   Few spoke any English at all. They were largely left in the schoolyard alone, and in class stared straight ahead with their hands folded.  They were taunted by our teachers in class—often in sly and subtle ways,  but often , too, with  blatant cruelty. Nobody wanted to play with them.   They were Italian.  But we were Italian-American.  I do not ever remember a year from first to eighth grade when I did not have Italian immigrants in my class.  By the eighth grade, they spoke English and were pretty well integrated.  Immigration seemed to have slowed down. But there would be others.

And while the immigrants that I grew up with experienced their fair share of discrimination and exclusions, those of us who were children and grandchildren of immigrants felt it too.  To some extent, I still do. To be Italian-American, means to be, somehow, anti-intellectual; to be overly excitable, hands waving when telling a story; to be loud, greasy, ignorant, spaghetti twirling, Mafia lovers.  And just as my teachers in grade school would slip in their sly insults to the Italian kids, I, too, have experienced the same derisive comments, the insults veiled as “just joking around,” my entire  life, as have my parents, and their parents before them.  This, too, has been woven into the fabric of Italian-American lives’.  I often wonder if there is a single one amongst us who hasn’t had the experience. I could devote my whole life to the writing of this subject alone and never exhaust myself of material.

My grandfather, Leonardo,  was from a small hamlet in the province of Palermo.  He never, ever wanted to come to this country, and so  remained bitter until the end of his life.  He spoke perfect Italian, Sicilian and good, but heavily accented English.  He was a shoemaker.  He came to the United States with his mother fleeing an extortion attempt by the dreaded  “Black Hand,” (in Sicily  “A Manu Niura”). As well, at the time, Mussolini was taxing unmarried men.  It was the perfect storm.   My great-grandfather was already in the United States, working to eventually return to Sicily with money. Of course, it never happened.  Soon all three were living in what would be my beloved  hometown—-the few Sicilians amongst a majority of Calabrese immigrants, most of whom were relegated by  to homes in neighborhoods on the edges of town where they lived with African-Americans, most of whom had arrived in the east from the south.  These neighborhoods remain to this day, a testament to two “fringe” groups who lived , for the most part, harmoniously, side by side.

What does all of this have to do with immigration, migration and social justice in the Sicilian context? Well, for me, a lot.  Our interests take hold early and that interest will grow and grow  until it cannot be ignored.

My interest in immigration and migration in general, and Sicily, specifically, grows out of a deep and abiding belief in the human dignity and basic human rights for everyone. Consider this:  if I should mail a box of  laptop computers to Sicily, that box of electronic equipment would be treated with more respect and  care , in fact, possess  more rights and protection  than an actual human being trying to cross a border with just the clothes on his back.  And if you can stop and allow yourself to really think about that, it is a sobering thought, for sure.

I thought it might be somewhat illuminating for me to self disclose a bit as to my interest on my subject here.   We are, after all, our preoccupations.  While my investigation of immigration in the Sicilian context may seem a bit irregular, and, indeed, a bit haphazard, I can assure you it is an assiduous and serious interest of mine, one that I only become more and more entrenched in.  I continuously form questions in my mind about immigration and social justice.  I travel to Sicily. I work and observe.  This is my own method, my heuristics, my way of investigation and knowing.  I do not aim to arrive at conclusions, per se, but a validation of meaning and experience. And the process is continuously ongoing.

It is important for me to see and understand all aspects of immigration in reverse and in context.   Sempre Sicilia is a place for me to share, with you, what I find.   As always, thanks for reading.

Nota Bene:

For a scholarly though highly readable investigation into the lives’ of Italian-Americans, I would like to recommend Blood of My Blood: the Dilemma of the Italian Americans by Richard Gambino.  I have not read anything before or since, that illuminates the realities of Italian-Americans as portrayed in this book, while shining a light on the inherent and often brutal realities of making it in a new land

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