Cultural Recuperation and the Case of Southern Italy
by Diane Lefer
Last month I learned about a genocide I had never known of before. It happened not in an isolated unknown part of the world, but in Southern Italy, the ancestral home of members of my own family. Even more shocking to me, Southern Italians themselves are only now beginning to learn the facts of this ethnic cleansing, in large part thanks to the books of Pino Aprile, journalist and Southerner. Terroni: All That Has Been Done to Ensure That The Italians of The South Became “Southerners” had an electrifying effect on my friend Enzo Fina who comes from Lecce, in the heel of Italy’s boot. Enzo is half of the duo Musicàntica, the other half being Roberto Catalano, ethnomusicologist from Sicily. Based in Southern California, they keep the music and traditions of Southern Italy alive.
“You grow up knowing there’s something that isn’t right,” Roberto told me.
“You have feelings, even if unconscious,” said Enzo.
Terrone, singular, or terroni, plural, is the epithet used to describe Southerners as filthy and backwards. When the book came out in English — though I found the translation somewhat hard to follow — I had to read it. I learned that the so-called Unification of Italy in 1860 was, for the South, an invasion and occupation with as many as a million people killed; women and children massacred; men shipped north to die in a concentration camp, their numbers unknown as the bodies were dissolved in caustic lime; hundreds of thousands imprisoned without any charges or trials; torture; rape; iron works and steel mills and agriculture destroyed; railroad tracks torn up; police duties entrusted to (thereby establishing the power of) the Mafia and the Camorra; the gold from the treasury of the Spanish Bourbon Kingdom of the Two Sicilies carried north to pay off the debts of Piedmont.
The sacking of the South didn’t end there. The inequality between North and South grew even greater with the policies of Mussolini’s Fascist regime. And Aprile demonstrates how the legal, tax, and treaty structures of Italy continue to redistribute wealth so that it flows north, leaving the South with higher taxes, inferior schools, high unemployment, a lack of even basic infrastructure. Then the South is blamed for backwardness.
I wanted to know what it meant to my friends to live with these holes and gaps in history, and then suddenly learn the truth. But I also thought that the revisionist view of the South, while controversial in Italy, might be a neutral way for Americans to introduce the conversation about erased histories and cultural recuperation.
“When you’re the 6th or 7th generation after all the killing,” said Enzo, “you don’t know what really happened. What you feel is a kind of unnamed paranoia and that we are the kind of people who aren’t good enough to be rich, we aren’t good enough to create anything. But we don’t think about it consciously. It’s just the way things are.”
“You grow up with the notion that Garibaldi came and freed the South from tyranny,” Roberto said.
My education in New York taught that Garibaldi was the Father of His Country, the American Washington who defeated a monarchy. And Unification had to be a good thing, coming at almost the same time as Americans shed blood in our own civil war and preserved the Union.
“I knew that General Nino Bixio butchered women and children in a town near where I was born,” Roberto said. “What they did was worse than anything the Bourbons had done. Why? I go back to visit the little town my family comes from. You see empty houses, silent streets, all abandoned. Why is it that everyone leaves?”
Roberto had never heard the word terrone till at age 13 he was sent to a boarding school in the North and that’s what the other boys called him. “They’d also say, ‘You come from Terronia, but you are not really one of Them.’ That enraged me once I understood what it meant, that because I had blue eyes and blond hair I was not a stinky terrone. The word hurts. Look, with African Americans, in this country, we don’t even say that word anymore, we call it the N-word. So this is our T-word. Though it’s not the same. I’ve never been hanged or dragged behind a Chevy truck by people shouting terrone. Though in 1960,” he added, “immigrants from Sicily went up to Milan and they were burned alive.”
I’ve since learned that these days in the North, African immigrants are often called terroni and Southerners referred to as africani.
“With it comes a mindset that tells you that you will never amount to anything,” Roberto said. “You’re lazy and you’re a bum. You don’t produce anything. But as I read Aprile, I thought yes! yes! Then you look back to things you’ve seen and heard. The rampant poverty. Electricity arriving in the 1970’s. You know you are backwards and remote but now you ask, Why is that?”
Aprile gave the answers, showing that the poverty and abandonment of the South isn’t natural, and it didn’t just by accident happen.
“When you’re from the South,” Enzo told me once, “you go into a job interview already assuming you won’t be hired.” But he always believed — as in a hypothesis or a dream — that it had once been a different. “Until Pino Aprile, all I had was the feeling that there had once been this energy and power in Southern Italy. You go to Florence and see all the beautiful buildings and you think, Oh, they are rich. You go to Lecce and every town in the province has a beautiful church and beautiful houses but nobody cares about them. They are old. They are getting broken. There’s nothing but misery.” In fact, I’ve since read English language travel guides that compare Lecce to Florence and urge tourists to try this off-the-beaten-track destination to see the extraordinary baroque buildings made from the distinctive local sandstone. “So I always felt once it was different,” Enzo said. “Then they call us lazy, but I saw my mother working all the time. It didn’t make sense but I didn’t have documents, I didn’t have proof, so I didn’t speak.”
I thought how often silence is misconstrued as ignorance, hostility, lack of interest so I asked Enzo more about self-censorship.
“I think my personal story was a lot like the history of the South,” he said. “I was always treated badly for being different. I had long hair, I didn’t fight or play soccer. They would call me names and I got beaten up many times. Till I realized I never said This is who I am. This is what I really am. If you don’t speak up, people can say and believe whatever they want. Once you talk, you have an identity.” But the feeling of insecurity lingered on. “Even now,” he said, “when I write something, the first letters on the page are very very small. Only after a while do I write freely.”
At the university in Lecce, he kept his thoughts to himself. He can still remember the first time he spoke up in class, how he stammered trying to get out the words. “It was difficult, but I freed myself and then others asked me to speak for them. I’d tell them, no, you say it. Then I started feeling not alone and that’s powerful. You start talking and then many other people also speak. That, to me, is the revolution.”
Another turning point came when he traveled to Spain and found people — including Carmen García, now his wife — who were strong in their opinions and sense of self. The couple emigrated to the US, but Enzo was still silenced. The first time he was a guest lecturer at UCLA, he answered every question with “I don’t know.” Of course he knew the answers, but this was habitual behavior, trying to make others feel comfortable by not claiming to know more than they did. And he grew up believing “if someone is so proud and so busy showing you something, don’t trust. Be careful.”
For all his certainty that the history of his region had been distorted, he didn’t talk about it, expecting people who thought they knew more would put him down. “The first time I saw Pino Aprile interviewed, it was like hearing something you dreamed, something you knew but it never before came to you in words. Pino Aprile has documents. He has proof. He’s not just expressing opinion. For me, the hole was exactly this,” said Enzo, “a sense of absence from growing up in a place where your history was unknown.”
He didn’t know that before Unification, Naples was the third most important city in Europe, with a vibrant free press, and efficient administration. The South was the most industrialized region of what would become the nation-state of Italy. In those days, Northerners emigrated due to poverty; Southerners did not as every peasant owned at least some land and public lands were available to anyone willing to cultivate them.
Enzo grew up curious about the briganti — the infamous “brigand” guerrillas who were eradicated after Unification by Piedmontese forces. Some people talked about the brigand as a kind of bogeyman, but why then did the word, used as an adjective, express respect? According to revisionist history, the brigands weren’t only common criminals but a resistance including Bourbon soldiers, civil servants, and teachers suddenly dismissed and left without employment; peasants suddenly left landless; civilians outraged by atrocities. (Sound familiar?)
As in any colonialist educational system, “Everything you study is about a different place,” Enzo said. “You memorize patriotic songs and try to understand what they are talking about. You sing about the Piave River and you don’t know where that is, and you sing about a war between the Piedmontese and the Austrians. It wasn’t our war. It’s all about a place that isn’t your place. You are stuffed full of a culture that isn’t your culture.” And so there’s a sense of inferiority, but also dislocation.
As Musicàntica, Enzo and Roberto have performed and also lectured at venues as prestigious as the Getty Villa and the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, but, in Roberto’s words, they sometimes find “A lot of Italian Americans want to keep tradition alive, but not the sounds we play, the music their grandparents were accustomed to. All that is part of the tragedy, it’s ‘primitive’ and backwards while in this country, they’ve stepped up and become emancipated.”
“Roberto and I were born into the last part of a thousand-year-old culture,” said Enzo, the culture connected to Mother Earth, “the agri-culture. We’re the ones who saw our society change, from working the land to polluting it. When I was growing up, there were maybe 15 cars in the whole town. Now the cars appear, too many cars, but our roads are still small ones, built only for people walking or maybe for a cart.”
He believes, “What’s happening in Southern Italy also reveals how things are going for humanity. What has happened there was a first step in globalization. Now the European Union cares about industrial development, not about 3,000-year-old olive trees,” and so a German company has established a solar panel factory on what was once fertile agricultural land” — though, he was pleased to add, the Obamas now use olive oil from Lecce. “There’s a coal-burning power plant in Puglia and people are getting cancer and the famous artichokes are full of carbon dust. The electricity is exported for profit. We don’t even get the energy.” As for the stereotype that Southern Italy equals Mafia, “Where I’m from, we never had Mafia till the power plant. Mafia came for the construction and offered farmers a lot of money for the land and if people still didn’t sell, they put a bomb and destroyed all you had. Once the construction was over, the people were unemployed again and we’re left with all the pollution.”
Aprile writes about Milan banks laundering Mafia money and I thought of El Paso banks flush with cash from the Juarez cartel. Southern Italian agriculture was undermined just as small farmers in Mexico have been forced out of the market by NAFTA. Sicilians go abroad or migrate north to Milan of supposedly unified Italy (where they are nonetheless viewed as foreigners), a despised and underpaid labor force blamed for taking “Italian” jobs; displaced Mexicans head north to the maquiladoras on the border, or, without documents if they must, further north to the US. Southern Italians and Mexicans leave behind a broken culture and desolate villages and towns.
“They exploit the South and take everything out of it,” said Roberto, “and then they say we always suck their blood.” In the US we scapegoat immigrants and welfare recipients and the poor.
I thought of supposedly race-neutral laws and policies that create huge disparities in school funding; government funding programs that aren’t called “welfare” and have almost exclusively benefited whites; racial bias in how laws are actually enforced; regressive tax structures that fall especially heavily on the working poor. Of a political structure that continues to vacuum American wealth up to the 1%.
Aprile writes how funds intended to develop the South have been routinely diverted to the North and I think of banks bailed out and given money virtually interest-free from the Fed while they continue gouging consumers and taking people’s homes.
I thought of Ali H. Mir, Director of Muslim Student Life at the University of Southern California, who spoke of the unknown history of Muslims in the US, not all recent immigrants to America, he said, but part of this country since the colonial era as many Africans brought to these shores in slavery were Muslim. I should have known. Years ago in Georgia I saw a journal written by an enslaved African but though it was written in Arabic it never occurred to me the man was Muslim. Why was this reality erased? Because African American history didn’t count, or because Muslims weren’t supposed to be here?
“We are everywhere,” was an old slogan from the gay rights movement and yet I thought of the many gay and lesbian Americans who even now are silent about their lives.
This year the Yale University Child Study Center found a consistent pattern of mistreatment of African American students, especially boys, from kindergarten on. Did it really take a Yale study for us to notice?
In Arizona, thanks to Tucson’s Mexican-American studies program, 94% of students in the program graduated while less than half of the Latino students who didn’t study their own culture managed to get through high school. But the curriculum has now been banned on the grounds that it promoted resentment and encouraged ethnic solidarity.
I wondered if Enzo and Roberto, now that they have the facts, harbor the resentment that politicians and bureaucrats in Arizona claim to fear.
“If I hate Northern Italians, I’m being used as a puppet,” Enzo said. “If Northern Italians are racist it’s because they have been manipulated. We are the fruit of that manipulation.”
Roberto noted that while some boys in boarding school taunted him, others became close friends and while he loves Sicily — “It means the world to me” — he always considers himself Italian. What he envisions is an Italy that is truly unified “by respect and understanding.”
In the meantime, Enzo can’t stop talking about Terrone and Pino Aprile. “It’s like when you get a nice gift and you want to say Look! Or if someone gives me a beautiful glass, it becomes more beautiful once I share it and everyone can drink from it. A musical instrument is more beautiful when it’s played and everybody gets music. Then imagine someone else plays the instrument and gets richer from finding out how to do it.”
I wish the State of Arizona understood this: Everyone should celebrate and share the knowledge that confirms the dignity of all.
Knowing the truth about history is not divisive, Enzo said. “It’s like you discover a key and can open a door and enjoy everything that’s inside. Then the key lets everybody come in and enjoy.”
Diane Lefer is an author, playwright, and activist. Her latest books include The Blessing Next to the Wound, nonfiction co-authored with Colombian exile Hector Aristizabal, and the crime novel, Nobody Wakes Up Pretty, from Rainstorm Press, which Edgar Award winner Domenic Stansberry describes as “sifting the ashes of America’s endless class warfare.” Lefer writes for LA Progressive, and is a Contributing Author for New Clear Vision.