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Italy’s testy political history lends context to America’s ‘immigration crisis’


By Joseph R. Cannavo

If you have been keeping up with news in Italy, you might get the sense that Italy is having an immigration crisis, much like we are being told we have here. Since it is the policy of this publication to remain apolitical, I will refrain from giving any opinion on the immigration question, here or in Italy.

What I do wish to address is the fact that while Italians may actually have a problem with “foreigners” invading their country, I get the impression that they seem to be having a problem with each other. More often than not, Americans, including Italian-Americans, seem oblivious to the fact that Italy and the Italians as a nation and as one people goes back only to 1861; even that date not being the date of the country’s final and total unification. That came in 1870 when the Papal States fell and Rome became the nation’s capital. Finally, 1,385 years after the fall of the Roman Empire, Italians were united as one people and one nation.

However, years of foreign occupation and internal conflict within the many city-states that had endured over the centuries resulted in the 19th century Piedmontese-Italian statesman Massimo d’Azegli’s assessing the newfound country inthisway:“L’Italiaèfatta.Restanoda fare gli italiani” — which translates loosely to “We have made Italy. Now we must make Italians.”

His assessment was spot on, Italy was one, but the people were 20 principal subcultures. The result was that Italy now had one of the most colorful, diverse, and rich set of folk customs, dialects and cultures in all of Europe. Nonetheless there was a downside that lingered on, a divisiveness that made the people consider themselves first as Sicilians, Neapolitans, Venetians etc.; then Italians. Great in some ways, but not great in that politically there have been times when it was though that Italy would not hold together. However, by 1946 with the end of the monarchy and the establishment of the Republic of Italy, it seemed Italians were now one. Then in 1991 la Lega Nord, or in English, the Northern League, was established as a federation of regional parties of northern and north-central Italy, notably including Liga Veneta, Lega Lombarda, Piemonte Autonomista, Uniun Ligure, Lega Emiliano- Romagnola and Alleanza Toscana.

Spring forward to today with the LN as a force in government to be reckon with and we find that the LN advocates the transformation of Italy into a federal state, fiscal federalism and
greater regional autonomy, especially for northern regions. At times, the party has even advocated the secession of the North, referred to by party members as “Padania” and consequently Padanian nationalism. All this makes me think about how we as Italian-Americans often without realizing it respond to this question, “What are you?” by answering, I am Sicilian, Calabrian, Abruzzese, etc.; which is a result of growing up with grandparents or great- grandparents who left Italy during the period that this way of thinking was “politically correct.” Don’t take me wrong. When asked what I am, I proudly respond Italian-American of Sicilian descent. Though I do speak fluent Italian, I still speak in Sicilian when the occasion arises and instilled in my family a love of that Italian subculture.

In fact, I advocate for the richness of the dialects and culture to be taught and preserved in Italy and for Italian-Americans to learn more about their regions’ ancestral heritages. However, while Italy may be dangerously lapsing into become 20 different region-states, here in the U.S. let’s first be Italian-Americans then boast about our Italian region of origin. Otherwise “united we stand, divided we fall.”


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