I BAMBINI CI GUARDANO
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.