Falling in Love with Italy

A Black American Finds Home Abroad

Stranger’s Guide is a quarterly publication that reveals the intricacies of locales across the globe, through both local and foreign eyes. We’re big fans, and we’re excited to announce that we’ll be sharing some of their stories here in the Agenda. We start with a unique perspective on Rome from Saneta deVuono-powell, which can be found in the latest Stranger’s Guide, dedicated to the Mediterranean. Scroll down for more info and a special subscription offer.

 
The fried artichokes are what drew us to the Ghetto, Rome’s ancient Jewish quarter. The golden carciofi alla giudia — Jewish-style artichokes — have long been a specialty of the small Roman neighborhood, and our guidebook led my mother and me to a restaurant where we could taste them.

Rome’s Jewish quarter is the second-oldest in Italy, after that of Venice, which confined Jews to the site of a cannon foundry, or “getto.” In 1555, Pope Paul IV ordered that all of Rome’s Jews be moved into a small flood zone along the Tiber River. Today, the Ghetto is full of what my mother had taken to calling the neighborhood ruins, remnants of other Romes that had been here before. Next to the restaurant was part of a wall that clearly had been there for centuries; was it part of the walls that had kept Jews enclosed in the district until they were torn down in 1848?

As we entered the restaurant for dinner, we were greeted by the smells of garlic, olive oil, damp wool and the sounds of tables overflowing with families of varying sizes, each containing multiple generations. Two teenagers joked and argued with their parents; they seemed to be having more fun than I ever would have thought possible at their age. The quantities of food and wine that arrived at our table extinguished our notion of trying anything else, and my mother and I sat quietly in companionable silence, savoring the flavors of the food and the conversations around us. Outside, families strolled by, stopping occasionally to buy a bag of roasted chestnuts from a street cart or to finish telling a story that required full animation.

Italy is the first country I traveled to where I felt like I belonged. To understand what was so odd about feeling at home there, it helps to have some context. I am American. My mother is White: a mixture of Italian, Jewish and Irish ancestry in which the Italian genes and cultural expressions dominate. My father is Black, and because I was born in the United States in the 1970s to parents who understood racism, I was raised as a Black kid. My maternal grandfather, who was Calabrian and looked too “swarthy” to assimilate into the Chicago suburbs, supported and identified with the Black civil rights movement, but I knew early on that many Italian-American people did not.

So while I proudly identify as African-American because that’s how my parents raised me, I also understood that it was also how others saw me. The Black community in the US has always included a spectrum of colors, a remnant of the “one-drop rule” that, during the time of slavery, dictated that if you had one-quarter or one-eighth African ancestry, you were Black. My cousins on my dad’s side might have made fun of my brother and me for being vegetarian and not going to church, but we never doubted we were kin. The Black community was where I belonged. However, the cost of belonging meant that outside of the community, either at home or abroad, I was always presumed to be from somewhere else.

Growing up in the San Francisco Bay Area, I was routinely asked by White people if I spoke English; they rarely recognized my mother as a relation, despite our similar features. When we moved to New York, Whites, Puerto Ricans, and Dominicans so often assumed I spoke Spanish that I thought, “why not?” and decided to learn it. I got used to being misidentified in the US, but it was only when I began traveling that another complexity emerged. In Spanish-speaking countries, I was thought to be neither from there nor from the US. The image that the US exported was White, with an occasional exception for iconic Blacks like Michael Jordan or Tina Turner. In a reflection of my experience at home, I was rarely seen as coming from the US when I traveled. In Mexico, people thought I was Brazilian; in Nicaragua, I was from Panama; in Argentina, I was Colombian.

By the time I first went to Italy, I had traveled to nine countries. The only place I had been where people claimed me as their own was Cuba. Unfortunately, because of the racial politics, being seen as a brown-skinned Cubana was more alienating than freeing. During my time there, I was repeatedly asked for papers, separated from my White American travel partners and blocked by the police from entering tourist hotels.

In December 1999, everyone was so freaked out by Y2K that I was able to book a round-trip ticket from New York to Rome for only $100. I was to meet up with my mother and Anna, a friend of hers who still had a large family in the southern tip of Italy. I stepped off the plane on Christmas Eve and fairly easily navigated my way to my hotel in the center of Rome. It wasn’t until the next afternoon, at a café, that I realized that no one had asked me where I was from or spoken to me in any language except Italian. It was odd to have someone nod at me and take my coffee order without a question. From earlier travel, I’d expected some form of the exoticized racism that I had experienced in northern Europe. I did not expect it to feel like home. But it did. I fell in love with Italy, and I felt like Italy loved me back.

Italy in 1999 was far different than it is today. It was before Massimo D’Alema’s center-left coalition was replaced by Silvio Berlusconi in 2001. I remember hearing D’Alema (who later criticized the nationalist rhetoric of far-right leaders) respond to the influx of Kurdish immigrants from Turkey by arguing for the need to “defend the rights of the Kurdish minority.” However, even under D’Alema, anti-immigration resentment was common. This struck me as ironic because between 1900 and 1928, the period when my great-grandparents emigrated, millions of Italians, most from the impoverished south, left the country seeking opportunities elsewhere.

In Italy, the politics of regionalism and its connection to race and power seemed to reflect long-standing resentments between the more industrialized and wealthier north and the poorer south. And, in familiar ways, the lines of privilege and oppression followed a color line. Rome, situated between the north and south, took pride in not being like the north but also went out of its way to distinguish itself from southern places such as Naples and Sicily. To me, though, the Romans looked more like my grandfather, and they spoke often of the prejudice they experienced in the north.

My experience of belonging does not mean that racism and nationalism did not exist in Italy in 1999. They did, and the history of the treatment of the Roma communities alone contains centuries of oppression, violence and intolerance. However, most immigrant resentment was not racialized in a way that would be familiar to Americans. This may have been because, at that time, the largest influx of immigrants were Albanians. Because these immigrants were typically taller and more-fair skinned than most Italians, the distinction between anti-immigrant sentiment and colorism was disorienting to me—coming from a place where nationalism is intimately connected to race.

I don’t know how much of my love of Italy was the result of feeling like I belonged, the fact that I was young, or the country itself, but I do know that when I revisited nearly 20 years later, in 2018, my feelings were different. That visit was in an unbearably hot summer; the country was still reeling from austerity measures imposed after the Great Recession. Unlike D’Alema, Interior Minister Matteo Salvini was presiding over a refugee crisis by promoting nationalist backlashes against both immigration and the European Union, fueling heightened suspicion toward anyone with black or brown skin; many of the hundreds of thousands of migrants who had recently entered the country came from Ethiopia, which Italy first invaded more than a century ago. The blatant xenophobia I saw in 2018 was not apparent when I visited in 1999.

My ability to feel at home during that first trip to Italy was likely informed by staying with Anna’s Italian family. When I remarked to my mother how people seemed to assume I was from there, she pointed out that we often were with Italians who were from there. This was true, but I was from the US, and my 22 years of living there had lacked that acceptance. Being welcomed by natives of any White country, regardless of the reason, was a liberating experience.

It also helped that habits of mine, which friends teased me about back home, were all around me. The way people talked with their hands, animating every part of a story. The collective ribbing and overly personal comments and inquiry. The long meals and raucous conversation that outsiders might take as argument. It was all so familiar. One day, as I walked into a store with my mother, the elderly storekeeper told my mother that her daughter was so tall, so beautiful. I could have been offended by his assessment of my looks, but, in its intimacy, it reminded me of my grandfather. And what struck me was that, despite race, he saw us as family.

What added to my love of Rome in particular was the daily chaos that was reminiscent of my childhood in Oakland and New York in the 1980s. These cities had been spaces where the streets were owned by residents, a reflection of how little trust they had in the institutions and capacity of local government. In 1999, the value of the outgoing lira fluctuated on a daily basis. A week into our trip, it dropped enough that banks had to close, forcing us to approach the black market to exchange money. One day, on a bus in Rome, a rider was accused of trying to pickpocket an old woman, and the driver pulled over as an informal tribunal was formed to determine what had happened. But what was most profound about my trip to Italy is that I could enjoy the colors, the scents, the casual interactions without the constant anxiety of being made to feel like an outsider.

I spent my last few days in Rome alone, after my mother and Anna had left. I’d made a list of final activities, including attending a concert and buying some presents to bring home. Unfortunately, somewhere between a café and my hotel, I was pickpocketed. With the help of the hotel staff, I found an internet café where I emailed my brother and asked him to send me money. Then, I mapped the route to a Western Union and decided to walk there and wait. The path was labyrinthine, in typically Roman fashion, so I drew myself a picture from screenshots on the computer. With my sketch in hand, it still took me a few tries to make it.

When I found the Western Union, I was in a part of town that was inhabited by North African immigrants, most likely from Morocco. Children playing on the cobblestone streets by the plaza spoke to each other in Arabic. I sat and watched them while drinking tea at a coffee shop and thought about how so much of what I loved about this place was how the histories of peoples, cultures and architecture were layered on top of one another. In the shadow of the Pantheon, you could almost imagine what life had been like 2,000 years ago, when other people migrated here and away to other parts of the world. I liked to think that I was part of that long wave of migrants, moving across the world, some returning to places that were home to our ancestors, 50, 100 or 1,000 years before. Whether the immigrants here recognized me as part of that wave, I could see myself in their mannerisms and their faces. It felt as if I could glimpse into a future where migration, race, and nationality could be as complex and nuanced as many of our histories.

 
By Saneta deVuono-powell
 

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