All Sicilians have this blinding obsessive love of there Sicilia which exists beyond any hardships, lack of education, lack of economic betterment or even famines which have occurred on the island, everyone holds onto their beloved Sicily despite everything. Of course until they were pushed away from their homeland when things on the island became so unendurable and people could literally no longer live. Only then did economic depression forced them to leave their close-knit communities to migrate in massive numbers all over the world.
Only then did my Grandparents find the strength through adversity to cut their family bonds and unravel themselves enough to move overseas. Yet the umbilical-chord at their core still remained in tact tingeing their lives with an idolized nostalgia for their Sicily. It’s a passionate patriotism which led most to create their own Sicilian web either with their own family or in new Sicilian Diasporas. There are many children and now grandchildren of these Sicilian migrants who still reflect this idealized notion of Sicily inherited from their heritage. I too assume to have been caught up in this wave of historical patriotism.
My grandparents generation isn’t the first to have left the island the inhabitants of this region have immigration in their blood. Sicily’s ancestry is made up of generations of colonising Greeks, conquering Romans, tyrannical Normans, cosmopolitan Arabs and imperial Bourbons. The constant rampage of countless other dominations whose influence has ingrained Sicilians with a sense of restlessness. There is a latent angst which exists side by side with the Sicilians connection to each other and their land in a paradox which pulls them away from Sicily while also keeping their culture in the foremost of their mind.
Internal migration within Sicily has always occurred as the itinerate worker population have always slavishly followed the ebb and flow of seasonal work but never before had overseas migration occurred on such an immense scale as it did in the Sicily of my grandparent’s youth after the second world war.
These were poor people, uneducated, often living in a semi-feudal economic system. Work for them was about survival. It was hard physical labour based on the land, cultivating small plots for themselves, mostly using a bartering system to provide important products like bread, meat and other necessities for everyday life. Apart from producing for themselves, the only other activity was agricultural work for large property owners; wheat harvesting in summer, collecting hazelnuts in autumn and olives and oranges in winter.
The property owners were Barons or wealthy landowners who took advantage of the poor uneducated majority. There was no getting ahead for these people, no hope for reward or betterment. This was their life. It is a world I could never imagine. A world which should have been filled with sorrow.
Yet the stories my grandparents shared were far from sorrowful. They told of energetic friendships and families that they had known all their lives. They shared stories of laughing and joking, of dancing, singing and teasing. They described the wonderful animals they had in their lives, of mad people, wise people, of their stoic grandparents, a feisty older generation who were as savage as the times and who lived lives with so much hardship that they seemed carved from stone. My Nonni’s stories are from the place which grew out of Greek and Roman mythology and their tales became my family’s mythology.
The harshness of my grandparent’s Sicily isn’t what I heard in their anecdotes. Rather it was the language, the laughter of a carefree adolescence willpower and a formidable strength of character. They created their own jokes, their own language and way of relating to one another. They had their own poetry, song and dance. It is this that made me fall in love with their Sicily. The yarns were not only wistful memories of a youth spent working hard, being repressed by their elders and poverty, there were also many great moments of humour and joy.
My grandmother spent her evenings in the once harsh Sicilian winter indoors with her five sisters huddled around the fireside, eating roasted chestnuts and listening to her father recounting the lives of the saints, reading passages from Dante, remembering old family anecdotes, inventing songs and poetry about everything from local politics to Sicilian legends. This experience gave her a voice with a passionate desire to tell and listen to stories an ability which she has passed onto her children and grandchildren.
My grandparent’s history is full of exotic superstitions and ghosts as if they came from a fairytale land. Each fable is told with that enigmatic tongue, full of words I find too hard to understand, a dialect which is no longer spoken, a dying language which is a product of their Sicily. It was their own language formed by their isolation and the landscape of endless mountains, which created words forged by their own inventiveness and creativity, an intimate product of their isolated daily lives.
I have absorbed the images of my grandparents’ Sicily, a strange mix of characters, landscapes, history and language which has blended with my own imagination to create a personalised mythology. Their stories come from deep in North Eastern Sicily in the Province of Messina.
The tales were played out in the hamlet of Campo Melia high up on a mountain ridge between the towns of Raccuja and Sinagra, where dozens of houses were once filled with family and friends. Today the buildings are silent headstones gradually being overwhelmed by the natural overgrowth in an abandoned countryside. The remaining inhabitants are a handful of elderly people and their families who tenuously hold onto their memories of home until death takes them, too and their families finally move away.