Arturo Licata, Sicilian And World’s Oldest Man, Passes Away At 111

Arturo-Licata-1Last week, Arturo Licata of Enna, Sicily, who was the oldest man in the world, passed away just shy of his 112th birthday. He was born in Enna in 1902 and seems to have lived most if not all of his life there. It would be tempting to extrapolate Sig. Licata’s longevity and link it to the Mediterranean Diet, but record-breaking old people have come from all over the world. And anyway, I have no idea if Licata ate lots of fish and olive oil or Cheetos and candy bars. Though if I had to wager, I’d go with the former.

What’s more interesting is the world that Licata witnessed during his 111 years and 357 days on this spinning blue marble. No, I’m not talking about moon landings and Twitter feeds (though Twitter might be considered a step backward). While our technological advances have been extraordinary, the immediate world outside Licata’s door no doubt affected him more as it, too, endured fascinating changes.

When Licata was born, Italy as a nation was but 41 years young, and of course it was then not a republic but a kingdom cobbled together by dubious means and unified more by bayonet than any sense of patriotism. Its neighbor to the northeast was the Austro-Hungarian Empire, a big mustard-stain-like splat on the map that enveloped whatever random Eastern European countries it could without ever taking the time to choose a catchier name. To its southeast and south, across the seas Adriatic and Mediterranean, lay the more memorably-named, indeed welcome-sounding, Ottoman Empire, or what was left of it. Both of these monoliths were one World War away from crumbling, but when Licata was born these events were still more than a decade away. Also in existence was the German Empire, stretching from Belgium to Russia, and of course the mighty Russian Empire, then on its last czar but still a good 15 years away from going as red as a box of Pall Malls. (Pall Malls were introduced just three years before Licata was born.) The Europe in which Arturo Licata came of age was still mired in the ways of centuries past, at relative peace but about to be torn at its tenuous seams.

And as for Sicily itself, that mystifying island was in the throes of one of the greatest exoduses in history. Between 1900 and 1915, some 3 million Italians came to America, the majority from the poor Mezzogiorno region which includes Sicily. (This does not even account for those emigrants who moved to Argentina, Brazil, Australia, Canada, and other destinations.) The majority were farmers or unskilled laborers. Sicily was still largely a struggling agricultural area, though you were probably lucky to be working on a farm rather than in a sulfur mine. If it was the latter, you might even be as young as five years old, working 8-10 hours a day, and in a state of indentured servitude. We know from the news stories reporting Licata’s death that he worked at the age of nine in a sulfur mine.

Licata later spent some time in the Italian army, including during its 1936 invasion of Ethiopia. From a political perspective, Licata saw his homeland shift from monarchy to fascism (there was technically still a king up through the end of Mussolini’s era), then to republic. Although Italy has had brief economic booms in the postwar years, Sicily itself has remained poorer on average, and it still struggles with the scourge of organized crime which was so rampant when Licata was born.

But that’s all newsy, political stuff. I don’t know to what extent any of these sea changes affected Licata personally. But it must have been amazing life all the same, 112 years on an island that’s used to witnessing change.

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New York Times Op/Ed Writer Weighs In On Tourism In The Mezzogiorno, Or Lack Thereof

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In an Op/Ed piece from this past week in the New York Times, Beppe Severgnini offered up his thoughts on why so few travelers venture south of Italy’s “Mason-Dixon” line, i.e. Rome. He points out that only 13 percent of tourists visit the Mezzogiorno, citing failed infrastructure, bureaucratic disorganization (well that’s redundant), and blown tourism budgets, leading to a lack of real promotion of the region. It probably hasn’t helped matters that some knucklehead in the U.S. government was a few years ago quoted in a Wikileaks document referring to Southern Italy as a “failed state,” but for its attachment to the rest of Italy and Europe. These factors, plus the region’s poor economy and the continued presence of the Mafia, all make for great deterrents to Frank and Alice Fannypacker from Dubuque when planning their Italian dream vacation. (The Mafia is about as likely to harm a tourist as it is to start its own LinkedIn page.)

The great irony here is that so much of the Italian culture with which we’re familiar in the New World was brought to us by southerners – mostly Sicilians, but also Calabrese, Pugliese, Napolitani, etc. Theirs are the cuisines, traditions, languages, indeed even the facial features and clothing we think of when we think “Italian.” That’s not to detract from the great destinations of the north, nor is it to say that people can’t differentiate or don’t know who the Medici or Michelangelo were. I only mean to say that by writing off the south, people are missing out.

Part of me wants to tell Mr. Severgnini to dummy up, that the first rule of traveling to the Mezzogiorno is you don’t talk about traveling to the Mezzogiorno. It’s not that I want to rob the region of tourist dollars, but I’m reticent to see Palermo and Cosenza and Bari become flooded with trinket-peddlers and consumers in an approximation, however unlikely, of Rome, Florence and Venice-style tourist trap-ism. (To say nothing of the inevitable price inflation and corporate chains that would come with it.) We already live in a world where every place is starting to look like anyplace, so as much as I’ll tout the south’s great qualities and attractions, here’s hoping that its natural and man made beauty doesn’t become spoiled in pursuit of the Almighty Euro. In Texas’ capital they say “Keep Austin Weird.” Well, let’s keep the Italian South Southern.

 

 

The Kenosha-Calabrese Connection

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The influx of immigrants to America from Southern and Eastern Europe in the late 19th and early 20th Centuries is not just well-known history, it’s a part of our common pop cultural memory. These immigrants’ stories come to us In books like¬†Ragtime and films like The Godfather Part II, in the recounting of sensational trials like Sacco and Vanzetti, in landmarks like the Tenement Museum in New York, and of course in the reminiscences of those who endured the experience.

It’s especially common to hear their stories of squalor and struggle in New York’s Lower East Side, or perhaps in ethnic enclaves in Boston or Philadelphia. Of course, they didn’t all settle on the Eastern Seaboard. The supply of labor went where the demand was, and that was essentially anywhere in the industrialized U.S.: The Pittsburghs and Clevelands and Toledos, yes, but also the Dearborns and the Youngstowns and the Eries. These small and midsized cities on Midwestern rivers and lakes were, a century ago, the booming “tech centers” of their day, humming with industry and opportunity for the skilled and unskilled alike.

Kenosha, Wisconsin, was just such a city. Situated on Lake Michigan on Wisconsin’s southern border with Illinois, Kenosha is one of those random American cities, like Duluth or Fort Wayne, whose name you’ve probably heard but aren’t sure why. Nearly equidistant between Chicago and Milwaukee, it was an emerging industrial port city, home to company factories like American Brass, Cooper Underwear (now Jockey), and Nash Motors, which was later absorbed into AMC and Chrysler (and lives on today with the Jeep lineup).

It was into this setting that Southern Italian immigrants arrived in Kenosha. First, it was a few brave pioneers; later, as news of job opportunities (and perhaps cash) reached their impoverished Mezzogiorno hometowns, family and friends followed. As was and is often the case with immigration, a great many of them from one specific place relocated to another. Kenosha attracted many Italian immigrants from Calabria, mostly from the Cosenza area. This included a great many Maranesi, that is from two Cosentino hillside towns called Marano Principato and Marano Marchesato. It is unlikely the first of these poor hilltoppers who came to the Midwest had ever previously heard of Kenosha, but they most likely had heard of Chicago. As the Marenesi in Kenosha website explains,

Paesani had settled in the Italian colony in Chicago beginning in the 1880s, and the earliest arrivals made their way to Kenosha on foot, courtesy of their jobs on section gangs with the Chicago and Northwestern Railroad. Many of the immigrants moved from railroad labor to indoor manufacturing jobs in the tanneries and foundries which required large amounts of unskilled labor. Other Maranesi followed from Chicago when they heard of the job opportunities in Kenosha.

Eventually the Maranesi began flocking straight to Kenosha, skipping any stopover in Chicago altogether during their fortnight-long trip via steamship and rail. Kenosha became such a magnet for immigrants that in the four censuses taken from 1890 through 1920, its population grew by an average of 78%. (To be certain, many Maranesi settled in Chicago as well. And of course Italians from other regions landed in both places.)

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Tomato garden in the backyard of first-generation Maranesi, in Kenosha, Wisconsin.

Today it’s difficult to comprehend leaving romantic Italy for the flat landscapes, brutal winters, and staid Protestantism of the American Midwest. Even the Italian South, still struggling mightily, seems to us as a never-ending painting of olive groves, vineyards, deep blue waters, and a kind of idealized, simpler life. Those characteristics may have existed then as now, but as one Sicilian man is quoted in John Keahey’s book Seeking Sicily, “Well, you can’t eat quaint.” Italy circa 1900 was a picture of abject poverty. The South, its richest region prior to the 1861 unification, was hit particularly hard with the collapse of the feudal system. By the turn of the last century, the Mezzogiorno was a place where it was still not uncommon to live in a cave, where to be a brigand paid better than to be a farmer, where a child stood a good chance of enslavement, and where seven in ten people were illiterate. By contrast, a life in Kenosha (or anywhere in the northern U.S.), with its proliferation of jobs and the possibility of owning property – perhaps even an automobile –¬† must have sounded like paradise.

(And in fact, Wisconsin was settled by French explorers, and its larger cities were and are among the most Catholic places in the Midwest.)

Whatever the drudgery of daily working life, the Kenosha Maranesi found pleasure and solace in familiar institutions – family, church, community, and the like. The first Italian Catholic Church was built there in 1904, with other churches and social clubs to follow. But by far the center of gravity for Kenosha’s (then) west side Italians was Columbus Park, a seven-acre plot that served as an outdoor community center for the city’s developing Little Italy. In the introduction to the cookbook, A Taste Of Memories From Columbus Park, Catherine Tripalin Murry writes of the eponymous playground,

It was a place for children to play, yet be carefully watched from graceful wood front porches that outlined the old west side park. It was an area of grass and trees for neighborhood gatherings and church events and, throughout the four seasons of the year became a field to test the athletic endeavors of competitive youth…These were the makings of Little Italies throughout America and Kenosha was no exception. Columbus Park became an enclave to return to each evening to be among friends.

Except for a brief lull during World War II, Italian immigration continued into Kenosha well into the 1960s. Although Italians no longer dominate the old west side as they did, today people of Italian descent still make up about 12% of Kenosha’s 100,000 residents. (World-famous Little Italy in New York City counted about 5% of its population as Italian-American in 2010.) It’s a much different place now, another Rust Belt city trying to rebound. Factories like Chrysler’s are long gone. The lakefront has been revitalized, and antique trollies run through the city’s center. An enormous casino is currently being planned. But if you look around, you’ll see signs of its Calabrese past, in places like Our Lady of Mount Carmel Church, or the Italian American Club, or Tenuta’s Deli. Or perchance on a stroll through Columbus Park.

Remants Of The Ancient World: The Griko People Of Italy

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Photo: Jebwalwhales (Wikipedia)

Like a lot of European countries, Italy is as much a collection of dialects as it is a unified people. Certainly by now, 152 years since unification, Florentine “Italian” is standardized and spoken everywhere in the country. But Italians are stubborn and continue to hang on to their many local dialects. As recently as 2006, 48.5% of Italians spoke their local dialects at least in conjunction with regular Italian in their domiciles; of that group, one third spoke only, or at least prevalently, dialects in lieu of Italian when at home!

It’s no surprise that variations of the language continue to exist, but what fascinates me is that mixed among these Latin-based Italic tongues there still exist pockets of Greek-based language. In a few comuni, there remain people who speak Griko, a corrupted form of the Greek language imported to the peninsula thousands of years ago.

Greeks first arrived in Italy around 750 B.C., and colonized mostly its coastal areas in much the same way Europeans would later colonize the Americas. “Magna Graecia” was Greece’s “New Land,” and Syracuse eventually became its most powerful city. The Romans of course eventually swept through, but pockets of Greek-speaking people survived the Latin wave. They were probably bolstered by Byzantine Greek immigrants up to and after the Siege of Constantinople (1453), but the Griki are nevertheless believed to be descendants of those ancient Greek immigrants.

Pockets of Griki can be found today in a handful of comuni in the Salento area of Apulia (Graecia Salentina), and in the Bovesia area of Calabria (Graecia Calabria). I plan to make the Bovesia area part of my next trip to Calabria so I can explore this fascinating culture in person. If anyone reading this has any insight or experience in Graecias Salentina or Calabria, I’d love to hear about it. In the meanwhile, here is a brief film on the Griko of Salento:

And for good measure, a music video in Griko, performed, naturally, on an Imperial Star Destroyer.

Benvenuto!

Welcome to In Bruttium, my new blog about Calabrese, and other “Mezzogiorno” or Southern Italian, culture, history, and destinations. I decided to start this blog as an ongoing project to uncover more information on this region, for a couple of reasons. First, Calabria is, I believe, one of Italy’s least-known and least-understood regions, especially to outsiders. It is not a major travel destination like Rome, Florence, Venice, Milan, or even Naples. It lacks the Hollywood-generated recognition of Sicily, and even the randomness of Sardinia. I plan on covering Sicily and Sardinia to some extent here too. But my main focus will be Calabria – rural, impoverished, wild, ancient, and a bit of a mystery.

My other reason is more personal, as I am of Calabrese descent. I’m only 25% “Italian” – more on the sarcastic quotes in another post – but it’s a big 25%, and it’s all Calabria. My great-grandparents came to America from the Cosenza area, and although this heritage has been watered down over generations, I still feel it in me. It’s mixed in with Irish and German and English, but as the most recently immigrated of my European lines, it stands out. I suppose Italy and Italians have a habit of standing out anyway. From the food to the conversation style to the clothing to the flag colors to the auto traffic, Italy is, well, loud. It begs exploration.

I’ve only been to Italy twice and to Calabria once, but my goal is to return at least a couple of times to seek and report on its hidden treasures, unique stories, odd trivia, varied cuisine, and interesting people. I hope to hear from readers with similar curiosities, who may have interesting information of their own to share. So begin our adventures In Bruttium.