I’m sitting in my chair reminiscing about my dad who died 42 years ago today. I started re-reading Carlo Levi’s Christ Stopped at Eboli to get closer to understanding the life of peasants, contadini.
I myself, a college professor in America, am only two generations removed from being branded as a contadino. Being the grandson of contadini is a badge of honor that I carry everywhere. Every one of my classes hears me mention it the first day of class. Even when I talk to student groups in Italy, I reveal my identity as a grandson of Calabrese peasants. Most of them are northern or central Italians from middle or upper middle class families.
I remember fondly making a presentation to young Italian students at a university in Rome, eager to participate in a study-abroad program we developed at San Diego State University. Impressed with our nationally ranked international business program and my directorship of that program, I had to include in my presentation that I am Calabrese and the grandson of contadini. I even modified my accent to reveal my Calabrese roots when I spoke Italian to them. They broke out in laughter, but with huge respect, when I informed them: Si, ragazzi, siamo tutti paisani. Venite studiare con i vostri cugini in America. (Yes guys, we’re all countrymen. Come study with your cousins in America).
Once while meeting with officials at the University of Bologna, the world’s oldest university, they asked me if I were Italian. No, io sono calabrese-americano. They seemed startled that I didn’t say yes, as if a Calabrese-American professor were a freak of nature. I just smiled as we proceeded with business.
Americans of Southern Italian extraction are leaders in all walks of life in America: Tony Bennett, Jo DiMaggio, Frank Sinatra, Sly Stallone. It’s proof to political bigots like Lega Nord, that, given the chance, meridionali from Napoli to Bari, from L’Aquila to Palermo, we rock and we kick ass. And many of us Italian-Americans from Il Mezzogiorno. . . you guessed it . . . are grandsons or grand daughters of peasants.