Sicilian Culture

The People, The History, The Culture

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Dances with Luigi

Excerpted from Review by Prof. Emeritus James Mancuso

Paul Paolicelli (2000) reconnects to his Italian American ethnic identity. At the time of the beginning of his reconnection, Paolicelli was of the news director for the NBC television affiliate in Houston, Texas. Paolicelli reports two incidents that spurred his reconnection. At one point, he happened to be in the city of San Francisco during an earthquake. He gave himself the assignment of doing an on-camera report of the earthquake. The CEO of the parent company sent the executive of the Houston affiliate a note; "that new Italian reporter ain't bad."

Shortly thereafter, Paolicelli was invited to to a reception for the Italian Premier, Giulio Andreotti. The reception was hosted by the Houston Italian-AmericanCultural Society. The woman from the organization told Paolicelli that she was trying to invite all the "prominent Italians" from the Houston area. When he attempted to explain that he was not Italian, that he was American, the woman proceeded to ask whether not his name was of Italian origin. Paolicelli responded that his grandparents had come to the United States from Italy. The woman proceeded to insist that that being the case Paolicelli would be considered to be an Italian.

"I didn't so much mind, it was just that I didn't know much about being Italian. My family was as American as you could get; raised in the suburbs, been a Cub and Boy Scout, played in Little League, the beneficiary of excellent public schools, and was a veteran of the U.S. Army. Italian, especially at this time my life, just wasn't a ready or often-used adjective when I was describing myself."

These incidents occurred at a crucial time the Paolicelli's life. He was past age 40. His connections to his Italian American family in Pittsburgh, PA, had dwindled into the memories. His dream of having children remained an unfulfilled dream. He had recently undergone a divorce. He had money in the bank - money that he had saved with the intention of providing an education for the children that he never had. He decided to put the money into a bank account, to go to Italy, and to "get back to something spiritually important."

Paolicelli's spiritually important task involved his becoming more familiar with the story of the man for whom Paul had been named -- a man that Paul had never known. Paul Paolicelli's grandfather, Francesco Paolo Paolicelli had immigrated to New York City's Greenwich Village then moved to Clarion, PA. Paolo was killed in a steel mill accident when Paul's father was nine years old.

Paul's grandfather slipped and fell on a railroad track. The vehicle moving down the track severed his legs from his body. A friend who cradled Paul's dying grandfather in his arms heard him repeat over and over, "poveri figli mie,' poveri figli mie';" - "my poor kids, my poor kids."

The phrase hung in my imagination. I wanted to know more about this man for whom I was named - more than just the sad scene at the end of his life. I wanted to know about the beginning. I wanted to know this man."

Paolicelli took some Italian lessons; and, in 1991, he found an apartment in Rome.

In Italy, Paolicelli readily absorbed the tremendous amount of data that allowed him to comprehend Italy, the Italians, and Italian-Americans with insights that would be acquired by very few descendants of the Italy-to-The-United-States venturers. Additionally, he traveled to and explored the villages from which his grandparents had emigrated. His accounts of these explorations should stimulate any descendants of l'avventura to undertake similar explorations.

Paolicelli's insights allowed him to spell out the framework into which he could fit his experiences:

"In America, the [Second World] war ended many of the ties to Italy. Because of the war the people in America changed. Their attitudes and their outlooks were thoroughly American now. A new generation took over - a generation born in the United States, whose primary definition of themselves would be simply 'American.' The birthplaces of their grandparents would become only distant curiosities."

"For those first-generation Americans, Europe had become an embarrassment. The new third generation, those of us from the noisy, self-centered, postwar group called baby boomers, were far more interested in being the envied and victorious Americans than in identifying with any of the war's losers.

Paolicelli vowed to overcome the mistaken abandonment of interest in the heritage of the participants in l'avventura"

Paolicelli, among other assets that allowed him to overcome that abandonment, had the advantages of having Luigi for a mentor, who had familiarity with American ways, and was bi-lingual, who facilitated Paolicelli's navigation through the social and bureaucratic networks of Rome and South Italy (hence the title, subtitled: A Grandson's Determined Quest to Comprehend Italy and the Italians.)

Paolicelli discovered the ways in which Roman dance halls differed markedly from the dance halls in The USA. In Rome, few of the dancers drank alcoholic beverages. Popular ballads represented sons singing to a mother, inviting her to go dancing. Whole families sat at little tables and took turns dancing with each other.

Paocelli learned about the ways in which the attitudes of Italians toward mendicanti differ radically from the attitudes of Americans.

Stewart, an Australian who begged in Rome reported, "Italy's the best," he said. "People here don't look down their nose at you. I was always being hassled in England. One night in Germany a policeman broke my arm with his club because I didn't move fast enough. I was drunk and couldn't move very fast, so the bastard hit me. The Italian police leave you alone or take you to a hospital."

"They are god's children, " Luigi said at one point. "And it could be you or me if things were just slightly different in our lives."

Of course, as most visitors to Italy have proclaimed, Paolicelli found Italian food to be remarkable. He found it hard to believe that food with which he was familiar in the USA took on entirely different texture and taste qualities in the kitchens of Italy. A picnic of homemade foods became a sublime feast."

He learned about the tremendous contributions that the Italian immigrants had made to American society, while contributing significantly to the well-being of Southern Italy.

Paolicelli learned about the fabled self-sufficiency of the Southern Italian contadini - the same self sufficiency that allowed those who had emigrated to The USA to save very high portions of the meager earnings that they garnered from their low-paying jobs.

He learned that even at the rest stops on the autostrada the snack bars "rival the best Italian-American restaurants. The traveler is offered a complete array of food, ranging from prepared hot meals to cold sandwiches, packaged meats, all sorts of sausages, huge mounds of cheeses, fresh breads, pastries . . . ." etc.

At the same time, Paolicelli learned about the problems that stem from the elitism of the northern Italians, and how that elitism had rubbed off on to Italian-Americans - those Italian Americans who go to great lengths to claim that their families originated in northern Italy or had been impoverished nobility who had fled to America.

Paolicelli began to become aware of the conditions, beyond poverty, that preceded l'avventura.

Thus, Paolicelli had first-hand introduction to the utter ineptitude of the governments that had dominated Southern Italy and Sicily - particularly that of the notorious Bourbon dynasty that had ruled Italy from 1734 until Garibaldi's invasion of their kingdom in 1860.

In tracing his family's genealogy, Paolicelli reported that his grandfather, two other brothers, and a sister had emigrated to The USA, he told that the three brothers had died in rapid succession shortly after their arrival in their new country.

The listener responded: "Those poor people... All the heartbreak, the suffering they went through." "Yes, it was difficult for their children," replied Paolicelli.

"I was thinking more so of their parents. The children, after all, had a future. But the future for your great grandparents was their children. Imagine to send three boys off to America and to lose them all so quickly and forever."

Here, Paolicelli developed an insight that few descendants of l'avventura can develop. How difficult it is to imagine the emotional scene of parents parting from their loved, adult children. How difficult it is to imagine their efforts to hold back the thought that they would never again see those children. How easy it is to imagine the shock, the grief, and the despair that would follow having received a message that one of those loved ones had died during an epidemic, or that a son had been killed in a mine or mill accident, or that he had died of following years of suffering from anthracosilicosis or abestositis, or that a daughter had died during childbirth, or that she had been killed in a raging mill fire.

"Why had I never thought about this?" asked Paolicelli.

". . . . I felt a closeness with Francesco I knew would always be there. "And respect for a man I never knew in life."

Paolicelli now understood the full impact and significance of the frequently used Italian phrase that guided the parent-child relations of many Italian and Italian-American parents - ti voglio bene: I want you well.

"It was sacrifice, after all, that made all our American lives so much better. It was Francesco's sacrifice and ambition, Pietro DePasquale' self-assuredness and determination, it was all of them having the desire, the youth, the sheer guts to get up and go; to find America and to define it for us. To forge a home there, despite their lack of language skill or formal education. To be willing to leave their parents and families and to establish new ones across the ocean."


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