Saturday, December 19, 2009

African-Italian Becomes Prime Minister of Italy!

No, not really. But I must break here to make an observation about a city that I hold so dear. Black Neapolitans are everywhere and constitute the largest minority population in the region. Nevertheless, after two years of roaming these nooks, I have yet to see a black barista, waiter, or shop keeper working anywhere in the city -- occupations that usually provide on-the-job training.

So I'm driven to ask: Why?

The Italians I've talked to say that black Neapolitans are a new group who landed on these shores during the last twenty years only. They then vehemently deny any discrimination. And yet, even my Italian-language Lonely Planet guide to Naples frequently mentions black Neapolitans in the sole context of males who sell stolen purses along the streets or female 'umbrella girls' who stand on the side of the freeway in mini-skirts waiting for a Fiat Punto to stop.

Curious about this, I have researched this issue in a little more depth and found, first of all, that African-Italians have been a part of Italy, and particularly Naples, since ancient times. From the great warriors of Hannibal to the imported slaves for Roman patricians, this port town has had a close relationship to the continent of Africa and its people for more than two thousand years. I've already mentioned the Africans who settled here during the Byzantine era -- San Gaudioso and his followers. Both he and the African woman Santa Restituta (whose remains he brought with him) are revered in Naples as saints. Furthermore, the artists who created the precepe displayed at the San Martin's Charterhouse added an abundant number of kings, sheep herders, and musicians who were black.

An article about two years ago in the national political magazine L'Espresso did a survey asking "Who Is Italian?" The article found that Italians don't define themselves as a cohesive nation based on the usual criteria of language, geography, or place of birth. Instead, they define themselves as "Italians" based on their art and history. So if black Neapolitans have contributed in such abundance to Italian history, do white Neapolitans treat them as national brothers... or as foreign immigrants?

In the Naples area, blacks are relegated to living almost exclusively in the suburb town of Castel Volturno where they have their own churches and shops. One black Neapolitan, in fear and reluctance, admitted that blacks aren't able to live outside this suburb town because white Neapolitans refuse to sell or rent to them elsewhere. And blacks aren't necessarily welcome in Castel Volturno either. On September 18, 2008, for example, six blacks were gunned down in a suspected mafia hit, the Camorra unhappy that people of darker skin color were starting to become successful in their slice of the Campania economy.

On a national level, even while the well-known Jean-Leonard Touadi (of Congolese background), serves his country as the third black-Italian member of Parliament, legislation under Berlusconi has become increasingly disturbing. The Bossi-Fini immigration law maintains that if a legal immigrant looses his or her job, s/he immediately is considered an illegal immigrant and is subject to immediate expulsion. If they subsequently remain in the country, they become a shadow worker. The government also has been talking about segregating schools for the children of immigrants.

The use of the words 'African immigrants' rather than 'black Neapolitans' within the media is itself interesting. Currently, Italian citizenship laws favor jus sanguinis (right of blood). This means that U.S. citizens, Argentinians, Chileans, Canadians, Australians, New Zealanders, Brazilians and Venezuelans who are descended from an ancestor (parent, grandparent, or even great-grandparent) born in Italy may apply and receive Italian citizenship automatically by descent. However, those who don't have Italian blood or haven't married an Italian citizen can become naturalized only after 10 years of legal residence, provided they do not have a criminal record and they have 'sufficient financial resources.' (In contrast, EU citizens living in the country without Italian blood or marital bonds can naturalize after four years and thereafter can refer to themselves as Neapolitan Italians.)

Unfortunately, I can provide no pictures of black Neapolitans. Whenever I approach them with a camera, they refuse to be photographed (unlike caucasian Neapolitans who are more than willing). They also refuse to participate in any sort of interview and avoid conversations about their lives. Why so much fear? Their reluctance leads me to believe that they indeed have something to fear. And what a shame within a port town that has been a salad bowl of diversity for thousands of years.


Diana and "Guido" said...

I think this is a very interesting and important issue and I commend you for looking into it. di

Barbara Zaragoza said...

Thanks Diana.

And good to see you here too! Merry Christmas!