Myth making or myth management is a national sport of immigrants and the future generations that follow. Cesare Sacco, my nonno, was a man who generated more myths than anyone in the recorded history my family. My favorite myth involved the following.
Cesare Sacco was the tax collector for Miglierina and probably a couple of other small towns in the provincia di Catanzaro. His job was to collect taxes, mostly from the contadini, and then return that money to the government–minus a percentage for himself. If he indeed had served as the ufficiale esattoriale, it might have been awarded to him for military service against the Turks and because he was one of the few in Miglierina who could read and cipher.
The story continues that Cesare Sacco ran off with the tax collections, hopped a ship out of Napoli and headed off to America. My cousin Gene said sardonically that Cesare needed “seed capital” to start his candy store in south Chicago, near the steel mills. Whenever I’ve discussed this myth with Italian historians, they have stated that these kinds of stories happened frequently with emigrants from the Mezzogiorno.
As a professional researcher, who must question all myth making, I’ve had serious doubts. First, most contadini paid their taxes, not with currency, but with possessions like a goat, a chicken, or a a bottle of olive oil. It would have been difficult to off load goats and chickens in exchange for a ticket at the port of Napoli. Even if Cesare had sold off all the goats and chickens he collected, it would have been time consuming and suspicious to anyone in the provincia. There are no secrets preserved in small Italian towns. Third, when Cesare returned home to Miglierina in 1959, some 45 years after he supposedly absconded with state funds, he would have been arrested by local authorities. Memories don’t decay quickly in the Mezzogiorno! Especially bad ones.
Here’s what I found out about the mestiere.
“Practiced from the second half of the 1800s until around 1980, the official tax collector was the one who had the task of collecting taxes. Whomever held this public employment was to “bring the comforts of Law” to the homes of many towns in the area. Usually the peasants did not want to pay taxes, and the tax collection officer was forced to seize something, but as in the homes of peasants was only the bed, they could do nothing because the bed you could not take. They had to settle for a goat, some pigeon, a few bottles of olive oil and a little ‘flour. This profession had a very negative socio-economic impact in the local community whereas the official tax collector was looked down upon with hatred. This job is now gone, as is currently the state no longer designates a person who goes from house to house to charge taxes.”
Carlo Levi, in his work Cristo si e’ fermato a Eboli, is even more informative, quoting an ufficiale esattoriale rooming with him while in exile:
“The taxes are heavy, it’s true, but that’s not my affair; I didn’t lay down the taxes, my job’s merely to collect them. You know how the peasants are, they claim that every year’s a bad one. They’re loaded with debts, they have malaria and they’ve no food. But I’d be in a pretty fix if I listened to them. I have a job to do. Well, they don’t pay, and I have to seize what I can lay my hands on, stuff that’s quite worthless. Sometimes I come all this way for a few bottles of oil and a little flour. And with that they scowl at me; there’s hate in their eyes. Two years ago, at Missanello, they shot at me. Mine’s an ugly business. But a man’s got to live” (p. 29).
I can’t see my nonno doing this kind of job because he has always been popular anywhere he’s lived. Additionally, my nonno was crafty with a PhD in furbizia (craftiness). He would have known that tax collectors got ambushed, their bodies dumped in deep ravines–only to be found by the cackling of Calabrese crows, feasting on a dead body.
So here I am, the myth buster, ready to propose two new possible myths.
Perhaps, he wasn’t a tax collector after all, but the guy who ambushed the tax collector and ran off with the collections. It’s even more romantic for me to think that Cesare Sacco–the great, great grandson of a brigante also named Cesare Sacco–assassinated a local baron–the feudal enemy of all contadini— robbed his manor, and ran off to America.