Everyone knows that the first regional group among the Italian community in the US is the one from Sicily. The period of mass emigration, the one starting in 1880 and ending more or less in the early 20's of the XXth century, didn't see at the beginning Sicily as the main region of departure. Some Sicilians had previously gone to New Orleans (at the end of XIX century, 90% of the 30,000 Italians who lived in New Orleans were from Sicily), or to California: their contribution, a huge contribution, to the mass emigration had a profound acceleration starting from 1900. Many of them populated a specific street of the original Little Italy in Manhattan: going down Elizabeth Street at that time you could much more easily hear the Sicilian dialect than Italian or English. Sicilians were very much discriminated at that time: in 1911 in Louisiana they were described as "not white".
As time passed, some of this changed, until the movie "The Godfather" (from a very successful book written by the Sicilian Mario Puzo) brought again Sicily at the center of the stage, once more not in a very pleasant meaning. Nowadays, millions of Italian Americans, dozens of groups, several feasts and festivals are proud of their Sicilian heritage and happy to celebrate it: to choose one of them and ask about his "sicilianity" hasn't been easy. Prof. Gaetano Cipolla, President of Arba Sicula, is probably the perfect choice. We thank him very much for his generosity in answering our questions.
Prof. Cipolla, what is Arba Sicula, and which are your activities?
Arba Sicula is a non profit organization founded in 1979 for the study, preservation and promotion of the Sicilian language and culture in the world. We have over 1900 members throughout the world. We have at least one member in every state of the US, even in Alaska and Hawaii. Our web site www.arbasicula.org explains our goals and our activities.
We publish a journal entitled "Arba Sicula" that contains sections on Sicilian poetry, prose, art, history, film cuisine, book reviews. The journal is entirely bilingual (Sicilian/English). Every page is translated into English. It is usually 160 pages, sometime larger. We also publish a 20 page magazine entitled "Sicilia Parra" twice a year, informing our members about our events.
In the last 35 years we have organized hundreds of programs (recitals, concerts, dance groups, theatrical events, lectures and films) for our Sicilian communities. These events, held at St. John's University, are free to our members and their guests and usually include refreshments. It cost $30.00 a year for seniors and $35.00 for regular members. Overseas membership costs $40.00.
Since you've emigrated in the US in the 50's, you've been dedicating your life to keep the Sicilian language and culture alive in the US. What did you learn about the Sicilian people in the US?
The Sicilians who live in the United States maintain an emotional bond with their island and they try to pass along their love to their offspring. Basically Sicilians try to create another Sicily wherever they go. They create stores that carry the usual Sicilian food, they set up pizzeria where you can order arancine, pasta chî sardi, capunata, they create bakeries where they can buy Sicilian bread.
Since Sicilian emigration is no longer possible the native Sicilians are dwindling and with them the Sicilian language is also suffering. However, the second and third and fourth generations are interested in cultivating and enriching their knowledge of Sicily. Arba Sicula runs a very successful tour of Sicily every year for its members and for others who want to discover the island. This year (our 20th year) we are holding two consecutive tours because of the great interest people have in going to Sicily. Sicily is the best kept secret, but the word is getting out and Arba Sicula has had an important part in that.
If we ask you to mention a few important personalities who really have represented, or represent now, the pride of being a Sicilian in the US, which names would you give us?
There are hundred of personalities of Sicilian origin who have made a name for themselves. Try searching Google or Wikipedia for "Famous Sicilians". Frank Sinatra, Al Pacino, Frank Capra, Joe Di Maggio. Arba Sicula has about 7 Justices of the New York Supreme Court in its membership. The man who invented the Moon Rover was a member and came on one of our tours of Sicily.
Is there a story of someone not particularly known or famous, that is useful to tell the experience of the millions Sicilians that came to the US in search of a new life?
Sicilians make up 40 percent of the Italian-American population of 26-28 millions. Each one would have an interesting story to tell, similar and yet unique, relating the struggle that they had to overcome to fight against the barriers of discrimination, insult, violence and defamation to become an integral part of the society. All immigrants to America have had to face difficult times, but Sicilians were singled out for a much more brutal treatment, especially during the first years of their arrival.
Fortunately things have gotten better, but there is a lingering suspicion of Sicilians, thanks to the media that seem to consider Sicilians synonymous with organized crime, then not to be trusted. Arba Sicula was founded also to present a truer image of Sicilians to the world. On April 25, I gave a lecture at a conference on the Mafia at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, on a misguided attempt by the National Defense Institute to teach Sicilian to their military personnel and police. They created a textbook full of terrible stereotypes against Sicilians presenting them as illiterate gangsters who can't even speak Sicilian. They speak a hybrid Sicilian that I called Sicul-English.
Mafia has obviously hurt very much the perception of Sicily and its citizens in the US. Giuseppe Petrosino was a true Sicilian hero, fighting the black hand in New York at the beginning of last century: but mafia killed him in Palermo in 1909 ...
The Mafia has indeed hurt the Sicilians' reputation. The media has also done its best to magnify the problem. I maintain that the Mafia is an aberration, a departure from the norm by a small group of individuals who have soured things for all others. The great majority of Sicilians is law abiding, hard working, honest, family oriented, and dependable who do not deserve to carry the stigma of the Mafia. We need to combat the stereotypes at every opportunity. Sicilians must learn about their heritage because if they knew it better they would have a great deal of information to counter the stereotypes.
Arba Sicula is creating an impressive library of books on our language, history, traditions, poetry and art so as to better inform our members. I have created two series of books for Legas. "Pueti d'Arba Sicula"/"Poets of Arba Sicula" has 13 volumes to its credit dealing with the best poets writing in Sicilian. The books are always bilingual. We believe the poets are our best ambassadors. The second series is called "Sicilian Studies" and we published 27 volumes. We also give grants to Sicilian writers to tell the story of Sicilians because too often our stories have been told by non-Sicilians.
Is there a difference, according to you, between Italian Americans and Sicilian Americans?
Sicilians have had three thousand years of history. They have always had an identity of their own. Even at the time of the Greeks, Sicilians fought to assert their identity as Sicilians. All the different dominations did not change that. Even though they have been Italians since 1861 they maintain their cultural identity.
In the larger American context, the differences between Sicilians and other Italians may have become somewhat blurry, but if you ask a Sicilian what he is, he will still answer "I am Sicilian," usually followed by "and I am proud of it." I do not know any other Italian who will volunteer this information. What they mean, of course, is that they do not identify with the negative stereotypes of Sicilians. They consider what people say about Sicilians untrue and slanderous.
Sicily is the Italian region from which comes the highest number of people who emigrated to America. Nowadays Sicily suffers from a different, opposite problem: thousand of desperate people flee from Africa and find Lampedusa as the first place in Europe to land, causing several difficulties to a village and a region that do as much as they can, but are clearly not in the condition to satisfy such a big number of desperate people. Sometimes tragic accidents happen, and unfortunately, many people have died. As a Sicilian that went away, even if not on a boat in such desperate conditions, what's your feeling about this?
It is a sad state of affairs in Sicily and in Italy at the moment. I watch the Rai broadcasts with dismay and helplessness. The economic conditions in Sicily are terrible. Unemployment is extremely high, infrastructures are poor or non existent, hospitals, schools, transportation are in desperate need of repair.
Last year on the 150 anniversary of Italy I was asked by a magazine to answer the question of whether Sicily was better off now or before it became Italian. My answer was yes but with many reservations. Italy has not invested in Sicily or the South. With an enviable array of natural, artistic and archaeological riches that few other places in the world can claim, tourism is not what it should be. The divide between North and South is not getting smaller, in some cases it is expanding.
The problems with desperate people who flee North Africa is similar to the devastation that caused 25 per cent of the Sicilian population to leave the island between 1890 and 1915. It is a sad and depressing spectacle. I recently saw a documentary about how Sicilians were forbidden to offer aid to the refugees lest they be accused of aiding illegal aliens enter the country. I was proud to see a Sicilian fisherman stick to his conviction that at sea if you can help you don't let people drown, even at the risk of going to jail.
I do not know what the solution is. Sicilians know that hospitality is a sacred duty. Sicilians honor their guests. But what can they do it they have no means to even feed themselves? They should not be made to bear the brunt of malpractice, bad governments, greed and injustice that drive people to flee from their home. It is a larger problem that requires world attention.
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