I’m on Astor Place drinking an espresso, watching the few early risers going about their business—walking their dogs, jogging, buying the newspaper. A young woman and her companion are sitting at the table next to mine. She’s about twenty-five, her blonde hair pinned back, her rectangular glasses perched at the end of her button nose. Her t-shirt reads ‘I Want Your Boyfriend’. Her companion is about her age, his hair in disarray, also blonde. I can’t tell if it’s normal ‘bed head’ or if it’s just an affected style. His jeans are dirty and his stretched out Strokes t-shirt hangs loosely off his skinny frame. They’re both drinking cappuccinos and talking about summer classes and a party they had been to the night before in Brooklyn.
The young woman takes a tentative sip of her cappuccino, says to her companion, “Can you believe Tony last night?”
“He’s Italian, right?” her companion says.
“Yeah,” she says. “Italian men are the lowest rung of the cultural ladder.”
Her companion laughs, a little too much, a little too hard. I guess he likes her and thought by laughing that hard and that loud he’d score some points and would endear himself to her, I don’t know. He looks like a braying donkey. She’s proud of her witticism.
Thompson Street, SoHo.
I’m waiting for my friend to come down from her apartment. Directly across the street from her building is a small pastry shop, one that had been in the neighborhood long before SoHo became ‘SoHo’, back when the area around Thompson, Prince, and Spring Streets was still largely Italian. I stop in to get an espresso and I wait for my friend on a small wooden bench outside the shop.
Two hipsters are sitting on the bench next to mine. One is tall and skinny with light brown hair, a sort of ‘Greg Brady’ bouffant which is in desperate need of a trim. The other is also thin, but shorter. He has reddish-brown hair and a patchy red beard. He has a tattoo on his bicep, something indistinct, a tribal design perhaps. Whatever it is, it looks odd on his skinny white arm and it doesn’t make him look as tough as he thinks it does.
Walking down the street, directly past the shop, is a little old man, deep into his seventies. He’s wearing a dusty old suit, pork pie hat. He has a newspaper tucked under his arm. In the crook of his other arm, a small bag of groceries. He has a deep olive complexion, typical of many southern Italians. He’s smiling, enjoying the beautiful morning for what it is. The sun is shining and there is a cool breeze coming in off the Hudson River. He looks like a happy man, a sweet man. He sort of reminds me of my grandfather.
The two hipsters stop talking as the man passes them. ‘Greg Brady’ looks directly at the old man, then turns to his friend, begins to chuckle.
“Now I know why they call them Dagos,” he says.
When I heard the young woman on Astor Place make her remark I merely shook my head. She was ignorant, after all. Most of these pseudo-cultural sophisticates are. She’d probably never been around an Italian in her life and only saw them in movies or on television. When the hipster made that remark, I got angry. The word ‘Dago’ is a highly offensive term to Italians—as well as to Spaniards and Portuguese. They had to know it or else they wouldn’t have found it so hilarious.
A part of me hoped the old man would have heard them, turned back and smacked him one across the mouth. Considering his age, there’s no doubt he’d heard that term before. The old man is from a generation that had to put up with this sort of thing all the time in New York City as well as in other parts of the country, most likely a child of the same wave of immigrants that my grandparents were part of. Whether he did specifically or not, I can’t say, but men his age, of Italian descent, know very well the feelings and the images other people had of them at the time.
It wasn’t all that long ago when Italians were treated like dirt by their fellow Americans. They were ‘criminally inclined,’ ‘sneaky,’ ‘swarthy,’ ‘uneducated,’ and ‘untrustworthy.’ In the early part of the twentieth century they were treated as ‘invading hordes’ looking to ‘take jobs away’ from ‘real’ Americans. They were seen as ‘suspicious foreigners,’ ‘subversives,’ Catholics ‘only loyal to the Pope in Rome and not America.’ As late as the 1940s, Italians weren’t even considered ‘white’ due to their Mediterranean complexions. President Roosevelt had Italians—along with the Japanese—placed in internment camps, restricted their movement from towns and cities across the country for fear that they would be more loyal to Mussolini than they were to America. In many places across the south, Italians were lynched, beaten, and/or run out of town. After all, they weren’t ‘real’ Americans.
How familiar this all starts to sound.
The majority of Americans aren’t even aware of this history, nor—disturbingly—are many Italian-Americans. Even though Italians have come a long way in America since first arriving on its shores, it’s becoming apparent to me, the more I look into it, that we still have some way to go. Our protagonists of this piece see themselves as ‘sophisticated’ and ‘hip,’ which is quite ironic coming from folks like this, especially since no other ethnic group would be a target of their derision. Tony was on ‘the lowest rung of the cultural ladder’ according to the young blonde as she casually sipped her cappuccino. The old man is reduced to a ‘Dago’ as the two hipsters sipped their cups of espresso. What’s more insidious are Italian-Americans themselves, the ones who echo these anti-immigrant sentiments, the ones now rallying around Donald Trump. How quickly they forget their own grandparents and great-grandparents and how they were the target of the same derision. Is it a classic case of ignorance or a matter of ‘I got mine, now fuck you’?
The irony isn’t lost on me.
Over the past couple of years, I’ve been looking deeper into my genealogy, and, because of this, I’ve come across a number of websites on the topic. I’m also increasingly disturbed by the amount of ignorance contained within the message boards, especially when it concerns those of Sicilian and southern Italians specifically. Most of it stems from the unfortunate scene in the Quentin Tarantino scripted film True Romance. The now famous—or infamous, depending on your point of view—scene between Dennis Hopper and Christopher Walken is quite well known among film buffs. Dennis Hopper’s character knows he’s about to be killed so he begins to wind up Christopher Walken’s character, a Sicilian mobster (naturally, since he can’t possibly be anything else), by going over the history of the Moorish invasion of Sicily in the ninth century as a way to insult him, demean him. It isn’t historically accurate, but that doesn’t stop many from fully believing it as it was written in the script. However, there is some truth to it. Sicily—and southern Italy—does have a Muslim/Arab past.
From the year 827 A.D. through around 1092, Sicily was—for all intents and purposes—part of the Caliphate of the growing Islamic empire, and they had imposed Islam as the major religion and way of life. The Muslim rulers were somewhat tolerant of the Christian and Jewish residents, as they had been in Spain. Although they were not forced to convert to Islam, the Muslims allowed their Christian and Jewish citizens to worship as they pleased—only not out in the open. Any proselytizing meant certain death. No new churches or synagogues were allowed to be erected, although existing ones were to be left alone. However, many mosques were built all throughout Sicily. The capital Palermo—then Balram—had as many as three hundred mosques, almost as many as in the Spanish city of Córdoba. Some of these mosques were actually converted Christian churches. Many of Palermo’s cathedrals and churches still show Arabic inscriptions on its walls. It is not too dissimilar from parts of southern Spain where you can still see the legacy of Moorish rule.
One of the areas where Arabs had an impact on in Sicilian culture was its language. Sicilian is in fact a language, not a dialect. It is much older than ‘Italian’, which is really the Tuscan dialect that eventually became the national language of a unified nation. The capital city of Palermo was derived from the Arabic name Balram. The city of Marsala’s name was derived from the Arabic name Mars Allah which meant ‘Allah’s Port.’ Other city and town names were also derived from the original Arabic: Karkint became Agrigento, the Arabic word for ‘castle;’ qual’at became Latinized in the towns currently known as Caltaniesetta, Caltavuturu, and Calatafimi; the Arabic word manzil, meaning ‘stopping place,’ can be found in the names of the towns Mezzojuso, Misilmeri, and Mussomeli. Many words in the Sicilian language also have their roots in Arabic. One example is the Arabic word for ‘coffin’—tabut.
The Sicilian word for ‘coffin’ is tabutu.
The Arabs also brought scientific knowledge, things that were their inventions: algebra, the astrolabe, navigation—the works of al-Farghani would later play a role in Columbus’s ‘discovery’ of America, agriculture, the Zero, the Arabic numeral system, which we use today, star maps, celestial globes, astronomy, medical works, and many translations of Greek sources which would have been lost if not for them being translated into Arabic and which would later be re-translated into Latin.
Food is another area in which the Arabs had left their mark. One of the staples of the Sicilian and Italian diet—pasta—was in fact introduced by the Arabs. The Arabs also introduced rice, sugar, oranges, lemons, zucchini, almonds, and couscous to the island, taking their irrigation skills they developed in Spain and transported the technology to Sicily in order to grow many of these items.
Another Arab contribution to Sicily was known as The Book of Roger, written by the geographer Ash-Sharif al-Idrisi. Born in Cueta, Spain, he settled in Sicily when he was in his mid-thirties and became an important figure in the court of King Roger II, the Norman king after the Normans expelled the Arabs from the island. The Normans had captured Sicily from the Arabs around the year 1092 but the Arab presence remained in Sicily until they were finally expelled in 1243, most of them winding up in Calabria on the Italian peninsula. Al-Idrisi was a geographer and The Book of Roger was presented to King Roger II in 1154. This was a major work of geography for its time and many navigators would use this book in their travels mainly because of its use of longitude and latitude, which were also an Arab invention.
This historical fact has not only given ammunition to those who are already prejudiced against Sicilians and Italians in general, but it seems to profoundly disturb those of Sicilian descent on the genealogy message boards I’ve encountered as well. Also, debate gets heated at times, with many of Sicilian descent desperately denying that this event even occurred at all. Arguments ensue as to whether Sicilians are actually ‘white’ and whether or not this a good or a bad thing. It seems that some people still have issues to settle.
One of the things unique about America is the fact that it is probably the only country on earth where one could settle and actually become the nationality of their chosen country. I could move to France tomorrow and spend the rest of my life there, but I would never be ‘French.’ ‘America’ is also an idea. Many choose to come here due to the wretched conditions of their homeland or the simple fact that they feel there are more opportunities for them here.
For my family, this was most certainly the case. My family hails from Sicily, Salerno, Calabria, Bari, and Tunisia, with a distant connection to Spain. At the time my ancestors lived in these regions, all—with the exception of Tunisia—were part of the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies. When my great grandparents were living there, Italy was not yet a unified nation. That wouldn’t occur until 1861. In the days of my ancestors, the conditions of Sicily—and in southern Italy in general—were horrendous. Mired in extreme poverty, corruption, prone to foreign invasions and conquests, there was no other choice but to seek greener pastures elsewhere. Even after the unification of Italy in 1861 Sicily was looked upon as ‘Italy’s breadbasket,’ otherwise those from the north couldn’t care less about its people and the conditions they were living in at the time. This prompted my great grandfather to take the short trip across the Mediterranean to Tunisia in order to look for those greener pastures.
Sicilians had been living in Tunisia for centuries and in fact a sizable community had already existed there by the time my great-grandfather and grandmother arrived. Finding work on the canal being built in the city of Tunis, and living in the area known as La Goulette, my great-grandparents set about making their living and settling into their new life. Years later, my grandfather was born, and it wasn’t until he was two years old that my great-grandparents decided to try their luck in America.
They settled in New York City, in East Harlem, which was then an Italian neighborhood. Like all immigrants, they put up with a lot of hardship, struggles, and other obstacles in order to try to build a better life for themselves and their son. Like a lot of immigrants, they put up with a lot of discrimination and intolerance. Italians were not looked upon too kindly in those days and were viewed much like Mexicans and Arabs are looked upon today—as swarthy invaders who were nothing but criminals at heart. Swarthy they may have been, but my great-grandparents were hardworking people who did what they could in order to make a better life for themselves and their children.
Just like the immigrants of today.
Two generations later, one would think that negative perceptions of Italians would have dissipated being that the Italian community has more than assimilated into American life over the past one hundred years. One would think that those of Italian descent, out of all people, would be more sympathetic to the plight of today’s immigrants and refugees.
Regarding our protagonists in this episode, what can one say other than it’s a simple case of them not being as ‘sophisticated’ as they like to portray themselves, as they partake in the traditions of the very people they look down upon; but it’s far worse when it’s a lapse in historical memory, when empathy is replaced with bigotry and intolerance.
Julian Gallo is the author of Breathe and six previous novels: November Rust, Nadería, Be Still and Know That I Am, Mediterráneo, Europa, and Rhombus Denied. He lives and works in New York City.