12 November 2008

Blogging after 2006

Since I've returned from Italy, I've realized that people still come across this blog and I am happy to see folks reading my work here.

Since 2007 I have been blogging some where else. You can follow my pieces on many different topics related to Italian and Italian American culture at: http://www.i-italy.org/bloggers/raccogli-e-passa. The larger website, i-italy.org may be of interest to you as well.


16 July 2006


We leave for the U.S. in about ten days. How do I close my blog?

I could easily write pages on multicultural issues in Europe in relation to soccer and the recent World Cup. The French team was the opposite of the Italian team in many ways. Most relevant for me was how the French team, including the now infamous Zidane, represented the new multicultural Europe, while the Italian side looked pretty much the way it looked the last time gli azzurri won the tournament. The Italians may well be the only European team in the mondiale whose players all have European backgrounds. Although Italy had two foreign-born players—Simone Perrotta (England) and Mauro Camoranesi (Argentina)—both had Italian parents.

I could tell you that here in our town, two of the three Moroccan families have left for the summer (Back to Morocco, some say; just across to the larger city of Foggia, say others). D and Z never did get to say goodbye. One family is still here (father, mother, and two school-age daughters who appeared in town on and off over the last four months but who speak next to no Italian and who were not enrolled in school). Word is that they all have tuberculosis and presumably have had some medical care. We were just told this afternoon, by various neighbors, who warned us to stay away from them and not let D play with the girls. We haven’t been able to confirm if it’s true.

Instead, let me finish with a few more details. We took a trip down to Matera (about three hours away) and I met with Dorothy Louise Zinn of the Universita’ degli Studi della Basilicata. She took me to the Associazione Tolba (see my post “HELP FOR ITALIAN IMMIGRANTS”) where I got to see a mostly-privately funded organization that seems to be doing a lot of good work for immigrants in the Matera area. They offer free Italian classes, they help people find work and housing, they assist with paperwork. Further, the actual space is open to immigrants as a hang-out spot. They publish some books and pamphlets of immigrant stories (both of their lives back home and their lives here in Italy) and they have a small library of books in languages other than Italian.

The physical space they offer (they have two such “hang-out spots” in town) are particularly valuable to domestic workers, who often meet up with other domestic workers on their days off (traditionally Thursdays and Sundays). Tolba opens up their community rooms on those days, and, especially in the hottest and coldest months, they get a lot of visitors.

The folks at Tolba also told me that they would be happy to help start a kind of immigrant center here in the area of Alta Irpinia, but that they would need a single person—an Italian, presumably—willing to look into getting space from the province or one of the towns and who would be interested in being an organizer (getting the word out, getting people there, etc.). Tolba said they’d donate books and some general know-how in order to get such a place up and running. What’s too bad is that I don’t think I can think of a person who’d be interested in volunteering to do such a thing. If only we were going to be here longer!

And so it ends. And here I close my own return migration.

03 July 2006


My blogging days are numbered since we return stateside toward the end of July. For now I’ve got a few more interviews lined up and a few more soccer matches to watch.

It’s a challenge at this point to try and come up with large, sweeping generalizations about what I’ve learned these past months—I don’t necessarily even see the point in such an exercise.

Nevertheless, I can say that migrants of all kinds are shaped in great part by various juggling acts. One is between their expectations and experiences—the balance between the two defines an individual’s life as a migrant. Another is how an individual’s identity develops through a kind of back and forth between how that individual sees himself/herself and how others see him/her. Neither of these ideas is new to migration studies, but it’s been useful for me to be reminded of them firsthand, as it were, by people’s stories.

It’s in part because of this constant exchange that the experience of young children is intriguing to me—their expectations are by definition limited and thus their experiences seem on some level less mediated. Stories recounted from this, dare I say, “innocent position” potentially reveal more directly the relationship between power, identity, and culture.

At the same time, I’ve also been fascinated by those individuals who have given some consideration to their experiences of mobility. That is, they seem to have given some thought to the effect that moving around has had on their lives, the different perspective it has afforded them. It would be a stretch to say that they’ve theorized their migrancy, but that is in a sense what they’ve done (Gramsci’s “all men are philosophers” idea works here). This goes as much for a recent immigrant from the former USSR as it does for someone who returned from Belgium thirty years ago. And unlike what you might expect, education level doesn’t seem to determine how much someone has reflected on the large historical forces that have influenced the course of his or her life.

Alla prossima…

13 June 2006


I said in my first post that given the nature of emigration and immigration in Cairano, the town I am living in, I didn’t need to go much farther than the piazza to find material for my project. This has, in fact, been by and large true.

Having a particularly chatty three year-old along with me (D spoke Italian before we arrived) has had unexpected benefits for my project. For starters, he has helped me meet informants, mainly by acting as a kind of ice-breaker: I met immigrant nannies at a nearby park I had gone to with my son; older Italian men and women alike all stop my son to squeeze his cheeks, which has more-often-than-not turned into a conversation that has something to do with emigration; and my most successful conversations with Moroccan women (with a few words and lots of hand gestures), were all about D—is he sleeping now? does he like school?

Moreover, my son’s relationship with Z, whom I’ve talked about before—the five-year old Morocco-born girl who lives near us—has given me an interesting perspective on the relationship between returning emigrant and new immigrant. Under the description of my research, D himself is a returning emigrant (the grandchild of emigrants) and Z is a new immigrant. Neither had any choice in their current status, and yet both are affected by their parents’ itinerancy.

D’s first playmate and friend here was Z. Clearly she understood immediately that he, too, was an outsider, and she took to him, paying more attention to him than the other kids would. When we picked D up at school, the two were always together—fighting or playing—and it took weeks before D mentioned to us any other child from school. One time, at our place, Z and I were looking at a map of the world. She pointed to Morocco and told me that’s where she was from, then she asked, “E D****?” She knew he was different.

Being a good two years older than D, she has become not only his friend, but a kind of older sibling. She taught him how to draw flowers, and she’s wiped his tears when he’s fallen; just recently, in step with her older-sibling role, D sat still long enough for Z to draw colorful hearts up and down both his arms with Magic Markers (while at school, mind you).

This said, D has in the last month or so embraced the local culture enough that now, much to our disappointment, he will talk about Z not by her name but as “la marocchina,” and has commented with a nod of disapproval, as we’ve seen other adults do, when she does something she’s not supposed to. Unlike other children, whose public moments of misbehavior are overlooked, Z’s immigrant status is always invoked when she plays too rough or picks on another child.

I was told by locals that when the first Moroccan family arrived in Cairano, there were some “issues” at first. Some (Italian) parents, it seems, thought the boys (then circa 8-10 years old) were being too pushy (“prepotente” was the word they used) at the playground. I asked what happened. The town policeman visited their house, talked to the father, and, “non c’erano piu problemi” (“there weren’t any more problems”). I tried to get the other side of this story from the Moroccan family. But I learned nothing—either they don’t want to say anything bad about the townsfolk or they are so used to such experiences that they don’t remember.

Where does this leave us? Yesterday morning Z stopped by. She and D sat down at our kitchen table and ate cherries and American-style chocolate cupcakes I had made. Just the day before, one of D’s Italian-born friends had refused the same cupcake, “schifo” (“disgusting”) the little boy had said. My son, who under normal circumstances would eat himself silly with cupcakes, reacted by telling me he didn’t like cupcakes any longer. This out-of-character response surprised me almost more than his recent description of Z as “the Moroccan”—is his desire to want to fit in so strong that he’d give up his favorite treat, I wondered?

My son’s fickleness aside, the variations of D and Z’s relationship demonstrate in a very minor way how racism is as much about fitting in at the playground as it is about global politics and economics. That we notice superficial differences among ourselves is only natural, what’s worrisome is that we so quickly make moral judgments based on these differences.

09 June 2006


Most of the new immigrants I've spoken with did not want to be video or audio taped. I take lots of notes and then type them up soon afterwards. Here are some miscellaneous highlights from one interview with a Ukrainian couple. The interview took place in early April at their home. The woman did most of the talking, and, unless otherwise noted, the opinions are hers.

Passages in quotation marks have been transcribed from my handwritten notes of the conversation and translated from the Italian.

"We are in need of nothing. We have everything we need, but still, something is missing"

"We have many Italian acquaintances and friends, but not real friends that you hang out with/socialize with, have over for parties, celebrations, etc. Everyone has their families and their own ways of doing things. If Italians come here, and I serve them some Russian salad, they say, oh yuck, mayonnaise. Then I feel bad that they haven't eaten and it ruins the party. It's not a party if people don't eat your food and they [Italians] don't have an open enough minds. We are more open. The only person we are friends with who isn't like that is an older gentleman, in his 60s, who is single. He lived in Holland for 40 years, and he understands, he says, he was like us. He eats and tries everything too, and he comes to our celebrations and parties, since he has no family. Otherwise, we just socialize with other Ukrainians or sometimes Poles or Russians.

On the topic of life in the Ukraine versus life here:

"Yes, things have improved there [in the Ukraine], but life is still expensive and difficult. The cost of living is lower but so are the salaries and there's nothing to buy and nothing to buy it with. You buy a banana (she picks up a banana from the bowl of fruit in front of her) for your child and you watch how they weigh it and make sure they don't rip you off. You cut the banana up and you feed it carefully to your child, and that's it. That's it for fruit. The same for meat. Here we can have meat every day and fresh fruit. It's amazing, it's not fair what we can have here."

"My mother, as you know, was sick (she had previously told me her mother, who came to Italy for a visit a few years ago, ended up staying for a year, because she became ill. And she didn't pay anything for her hospital bills.). She now needs help. I can't go there and help her, but I can afford to pay two women to take turns taking care of her. I buy her all her medicines and send them to her."

"It's not right. It's not my fault that the situation is like this. It's the fault of the politicians [she's referring in part to the post-communist era in the former USSR, she had been critiquing earlier], and us, the general public don't have anything to do with it. It's the fault of the economic situation. It's always the fault of economics."

She goes on, emotionally talking about the fact that she has to be in Italy in order to have a comfortable, middle-class existence.

"I have everything here, a house a car, my license. I got my license here, I would never even thought to get it back home, because when would I ever have a car? Now we have two. My daughter has everything she wants, just like teenagers here. She has a 1000 euro fancy computer, she has to have that. Life goes forward. That's progress. I'm not like one of those old people who say, 'I lived perfectly well without anything, so my daughter doesn't need anything either.' No, why shouldn't my daughter have things? She needs them to succeed, it's right that I can give her these things. But it's not right that I have to be here in order to do it."

The conversation moves in many directions. We talk a long time about the lack of jobs in this part of Italy and the antagonism they say sometimes exists between immigrants and Italians-especially young Italians, they say, who don't have a steady job. At a certain point, the husband, who has, by and large remained quiet and only nodded approvingly or not at what his wife has been saying, brings up the immigrant situation in the U.S. Pointing to their television he mentions the immigrant rallies and discussions of stronger border controls in the U.S. that he sees on the news, and he asks me, "Isn't this the same as what happens there?" His wife chimes in, before I can respond, addressing me rather than her husband: "it's [the situation in Italy is] the same as America, those poor people who pick your fruit and are treated so badly. Why should they be sent to jail? It's not right. I see that on the news and I feel pity, I sympathize, because that could be us too."

08 June 2006


I had a long conversation with the vice-mayor of Cairano today. We talked about a lot of different things related to this area and my research.

We talked about new immigrants in town and why they would chose to move here. He thinks they decide to move here because they find “condizioni favorevoli” (favorable conditions): people are “tolerant” and “sympathetic” due to the “sensibilita’ di questa vita ancora contadina” (sensibility of the peasant way of life that still exists here). Further, he suggested they move here because they can find simple, inexpensive housing, and they can make some money through the “mercato povero” (the low-cost, simple markets). He also said that “integrazione” (integration or, what we might more easily call, assimilation) is key and that he, as both vice-mayor and former mayor, has been involved in helping new immigrants integrate. Of course, for him, as a city official, integration has for the most part to do with following the law.

He told me about helping Ukrainian women, on at least two occasions, fill out their resident papers in order to get their permesso di soggiorno. (There goes my bubble; I thought I had been special—see my very first post.) Also, he suggested that one of the surest ways to guarantee a family’s success at integration in a town is to have their children attend school.

I certainly wanted to hear more about this idea, and so I asked what he meant.

He described to me a series of conversations that he and a police officer had with one Moroccan man whose children were not attending school. I asked how the father took the news that he had to send his children to school. Not well, he said: “We had to be a little ‘cruel’—the police had to go there and, with some sense of authority, tell them that the children had to go to school. Not with any violence, of course. Just using the authority that the police give. The kids had to go to school. We couldn’t have that here. In the bigger urban areas they get lost, but that can’t happen here.”

We all know what the questions are here (don’t forget what happened in France over the past year!):

What’s gained by such attempts at stability?
Does integration of immigrants happen through institutional means?
Does it require other elements as well?

These stories (from this post and the last) of authorities telling immigrants they had to send their children to school have reminded me of a similar story I heard during one of the first interviews I did. Back in February, I spoke with an Italian woman from the town of Bisaccia who had lived in Switzerland for over thirty years.

She told me that when she was pregnant with her first daughter she was working in a pantyhose factory and renting a furnished room in a house, until authorities came and told her that she and her family had to live in a larger place if they had children. I paste below the translation/transcription of what she said. (She was speaking rather freely and moving around topics loosely. She said she found life to be quite nice in Switzerland and that the Swiss were very pleasant towards Italians.)

Sure, you always find some Italian who does something he’s not supposed to do, and then, someone says, “Oh that guy did that because he’s Italian,” but then even they realize that everywhere you find honest people and people who are [trails off]…no, I have a good memory of my life there. Although everything was always in order. I see, these immigrants who come here [to Italy] today—poor things, even they live in places that are very, well, uncomfortable [trails off]…. Instead, there, no, you went with a work contract in order. For instance, when I was married, we rented a furnished room in an apartment. Then, the next year, my daughter was to be born. That is, the police…they, they tell you, “You, can’t live in this room with a baby,” and so you have to look for an apartment with at least two rooms. Because you had to live right, like they lived.

07 June 2006


I’ve talked about housing before (see the above post about returning Argentine emigrants). There I put the cost of a standard two-bedroom apartment at less than $450 a month. In fact, though, the houses that the Moroccan families are living in are even cheaper. They are the houses that weren’t updated or repaired after the 1980 earthquake; most lack heating and are in a state that would probably seem uninhabitable to most people reading this blog. In the U.S. we’d likely call the people who collect rent on such places slum lords; having not met any of the owners of the rentals here, I’ll refrain from name-calling for the time being.

When I ask local Italians, former emigrants or not, about the housing situation of Moroccan families, the most common answer is, “Well, who knows how they were living back home” or “They live differently from us—it doesn’t matter to them.” These are unsatisfying answers for lots of reasons. Many people, it would seem, even in Alta Irpinia’s small towns, would rather look the other way and ignore the state of some of their neighbors. Unlike the Eastern European immigrants, the Moroccan families I’ve met haven’t got much help from their Italian neighbors. The Ukrainians as well as the returning Argentines all told me about how generous their new Italian neighbors were when they moved into their places (Many people they didn’t know brought them “used but clean” linens, second-hand kitchen supplies and furniture—everything to make a house livable). This was not the case for the Moroccans. As in the rest of Europe, a bias against North African Arabs—and perhaps against Muslims generally— exists here.

It’s interesting to see how this racism works itself out with respect to immigrants’ daily lives. While locals may be less generous in certain respects, they seem to be particularly sympathetic to children, regardless of where they come from. A personal example: one of our neighbors, a retired woman (a former emigrant herself, having spent many years working in France), feeds Z, my son’s friend, at least a few times a week. “What can I do?” she tells me. “She comes over around lunch time, she knows when we eat, and she’s hungry. I can’t let her go home hungry.” This woman is also sensitive to the fact that Z should not be eating pork, and has tried—rather unsuccessfully, she tells me—to tell Z she can’t eat the pasta with sauce on it on the days she uses pork to make it: “But she’s hungry, and even when I tell her that her mother said no, she eats it anyway. I walked over to her house with a piece of pork to ask her mother. I made myself understood. And her mother shook her head and said no. That’s clear in any language. But what am I going to do?”

On a more institutional level, I’ve heard about assistance for children. But it’s not clear that the Moroccan families necessarily see the benefit of the help. The idea that there may be benefits to sending children to school seems to be a challenging point to get across to (at least these) Moroccan families. I’ve found that immigrants who live in larger cities (i.e., outside of this area), easily keep their kids from school. Why? I can only guess.

In the smaller towns of Irpinia, though, a new family, especially from a foreign country, immediately stands out. And, for instance, one 18-year old I spoke with told me he spent his first three years in Italy (from 10-13) working as a street vendor with his father in the city of Foggia, about an hour away. It wasn’t until they moved to Alta Irpinia that the town police came to his house and told his father that he had to send his son to school. Unfortunately, he’s not alone with this kind of story.

While it might seem extreme to have the police knocking on your door to tell you that you have to send your son to school, it’s good to know that some people in the town were trying to take care of its newest residents. A country needs some social infrastructure, a way to let people know first what the rules are and second how to follow them. (I don’t know the real motivation behind the police’s actions, but in many ways, it doesn’t matter.)

What I really want to know is something I haven’t been able to find out because I’ve spoken mostly to sons and not parents. That is, I’d like to know if the Moroccan families see the long-term benefits in sending their kids to school. (I’m not talking about an Ivy League education here, just basic literacy.) I also can’t help but be reminded of many immigrant stories in the U.S. of families who do not/did not understand the benefit of sending their kids to school when first arriving in the U.S