I grew up in southeastern Kentucky near Straight Creek, a…
In Camerota, where the locals dance salsa every night for all of summer in a club called The Cyclops, I step into the butter yellow church in the piazza and find the most sorrowful Madonna I’ve ever seen. She stands on the right side of the altar, her eyes red-rimmed, her young face pale, haggard, shining with sweat. Wearing a brown gown adorned with a few rustic stars, she gazes wearily toward the heavens, a hotel hand towel draped over her right arm as if she’s laundered linens all day beneath Mediterranean sun. Her bare feet are bound by single black straps of leather sandals, and the sacred heart pressing down on her chest looks as heavy as the steering wheel of an ancient boat. Her crown appears as if it’s been tossed to the ground beside a patch of lilies. Plucked of their white blooms, the stems rise like ditch weeds from the rocky earth around her.
There are no other visitors in San Domenico, the mother church of this town on the Cilento coast of Southern Italy. A local charwoman beats the floor with fierce, muscular strokes of a stick broom. Haloed by clipped white hair, the sweeper’s face is angular and serene, barely flushed from her labor. She bears little resemblance to the woman who must have modeled for the sorrowful Madonna. The model for the statue must have been used twice because her image was recycled into a second version of the Madonna placed on the left side of the alter. The second Madonna’s brow has been dried of sweat, and she’s adorned with lace and crown. A crowned infant Christ settles on her hip, a white ribbon tied around his wrist, a crucifix dangling from its end. This Madonna’s feet are unbound from the black-strapped sandals, her toenails painted silver, but her brown eyes remain red-rimmed, weary. They look directly out, as if she knows already the weight of crown and crucifix.
The two statues of the Madonna must be effigies for all the mothers of Camerota who knew the weight of sons lost during La Miseria, a time of unimaginable poverty in early twentieth-century Italy, when seven million peasants and day laborers emigrated to North and South America, when 87% of those leaving were from Southern Italy. My own maternal grandfather, son of tenant farmers from Palermo who emigrated to the States during the depths of La Misera, when two-thirds of the island emigrated, never spoke about it directly. Whenever I asked about the country his parents left behind, he said, “C’era una volta,” once upon a time, over and over. He said, “If you drop a heel of bread, you pick it up, and kiss it.”
The mothers of Camerota kissed their sons before they sailed to Caracas to become thriving merchants, importing salami, olives, tinned tomatoes. Later, the mothers began fearing the bullets of political unrest in Venezuela more than famine. They feared the men would marry Venezuelan women and have children, leaving the women of Camerota to die in a paese fantasma, a ghost town filled with only the old and infirm. They called their sons home to marry Italian women. The men made several crossings in the 1940s and 50s, bringing back Spanish boats and dances, food, wives and children, South American street names and saints.
Mingled among the suffering Madonnas in the mother church are a painting of a shipwreck in a storm and statues of Saint Gerard Majella, Saint Domenico di Guzman, and Saint Louis Gonzaga. All South American men who left the safe harbors of their families to become great wandering monks in Italy, all three died of religious austerities, fatigue from excessive pilgrimages. The mother church keeps these religious figures with the collective memories of the town, its history of suffering and migrations. I’ve heard that this history is the reason the Italian-Venezuelans of Camerota are particularly friendly to foreigners, especially the African migrants, recent refugees from poverty and wars who’ve been crossing the stretch of Mediterranean between Libya and Southern Italy in what has become the world’s greatest refugee crisis since the Second World War.
In April 2013, a boat carrying migrants from Eritrea, Somalia, and Ghana from Libya to Italy sank off the coast of Lampedusa, drowning over 360 people. The Italians 43 responded by creating Mare Nostrum, which means “Our Sea,” a military and humanitarian rescue operation that offered medical treatment, food, and legal aid for those seeking asylum. Though it saved an estimated 130,000 people, Mare Nostrum ended after a year, on October 31, 2014. The cash-strapped Italian government could not sustain its nine-million-euro-a-month budget. Factions of the European Union that opposed the rescue operation believed that the Italians were creating a “pull factor,” encouraging more immigrants to make the dangerous sea crossing, thereby sentencing them to death at sea.
But isn’t this “pull factor” only half the reason for most mass migrations? What about those who are pushed by desperate circumstances from their home countries? In November of 2014, Mare Nostrum was superseded by Operation Triton. Run by the European Border agency Frontex, Triton focuses on border patrol, and functions on a budget of three million euro a month, relying upon voluntary contributors from EU members and nonmembers, mostly smaller countries like Ireland, Portugal or Malta that feel in sympathy with the migrants and Italy.
Outside the mother church of the Italian-Venezuelan town of Camerota, June sun heats the cobblestones in the piazza. Morning swallows shriek, dodging dark pink bougainvillea that cloaks the arched door of a café across the piazza from the mother church. Coffee cups clank from within, and the bakery next door perfumes the air with powdered sugar. The locals dust sugar over everything they eat for breakfast: cream puffs, biscotti stuffed with almonds, hazelnuts, and citrons. They powder and slice cornetto, fill them with wildflower honey taken from bees that gather pollen from passion flowers growing on the Cape of Good Fortune, the rocky arm that embraces the marina where tipsy boats glide through swells of sapphire water into grottoes called “Love” and “Cathedral.”
The children and grandchildren of the boatmen who crossed and re-crossed the Mediterranean have transformed themselves into merchants and artisans. On the Lungomare Trieste, the vendor’s street above the marina, I step into a shop and find a case full of bracelets that look like small, silken fishing ropes. The merchant speaks in Italian peppered with Spanish, explaining how she was raised in Venezuela by a mother and grandmother who clubbed sea grasses with a baton into ropes used by sailors. Made to honor the work of the mother women in her family, the bracelets are soft, the color of dried oregano. They resemble the sea grass ropes that women in black kerchiefs stretch along cobblestones in the oil painting of old Camerota set artfully behind the bracelets. The merchant walks me through her shop, opening each glass case filled with a lovely wonder she’s fashioned with her hands: an amber necklace meant to resemble driftwood curving along a petrified piece of driftwood, earrings the color of sapphire draped over a framed postcard of the sapphire water flowing into the opening of a local grotto. She explains how each piece of jewelry chronicles an element of her family’s history, which is really the village’s history of migration—the push from starvation and joblessness toward work and food in Caracas, the eventual pull back to this safe harbor in Southern Italy, where the rocky cape slopes into a good-tempered sea that endlessly cradles and carves the stone into grottoes. Walking through her store is a little like floating through the sea grass ropes that women in black kerchiefs stretch along cobblestones in the oil painting of old Camerota set artfully behind the bracelets.
The merchant walks me through her shop, opening each glass case filled with a lovely wonder she’s fashioned with her hands: an amber necklace meant to resemble driftwood curving along a petrified piece of driftwood, earrings the color of sapphire draped over a framed postcard of the sapphire water flowing into the opening of a local grotto. She explains how each piece of jewelry chronicles an element of her family’s history, which is really the village’s history of migration—the push from starvation and joblessness toward work and food in Caracas, the eventual pull back to this safe harbor in Southern Italy, where the rocky cape slopes into a good-tempered sea that endlessly cradles and carves the stone into grottoes.
Walking through her store is a little like floating through the sea grottoes inside the nearby Cape of Palinuro, where sunlight siphons from chambers beneath the water, stoking it into an ethereal blue that looks like the beginning of creation. As you nudge your boat around each corner you must blink and imagine wondrous shapes—a dolphin’s head or monks in prayer formed by stalagmites, a whole nativity scene sketched by water and age within walls streaked silver with sulfur. We turn another corner in the store, and reach a case filled with necklaces strung with Chiclets. Yellow, green, orange, white, and pink stones shaped like teeth, they remind the merchant of the gum she bought from markets in Caracas when she was a child. She strings them into “treasure necklaces,” hiding mother-of-pearls, polished sea glass, tiny hummingbirds and orchids carved from Italian coral between the colorful stones.
The merchant is small, sturdy. She flits to the very back of the store. There she dips head and hands into a case filled with her most treasured pieces, sleek drops of obsidian suspended within whispery thin treble clef pendants, a bracelet of lava rock moons surrounded by haloes of silver. The black jewelry blends harmoniously with the black notes on a piece of sheet music she’s placed in the back of the case. The music is called “Silenzio Cantatore,” Silent Song, her favorite Neapolitan barcarole, a boatman’s chant whose rhythms imitate the strokes of a paddle. I read a portion of the lyrics, a sad and romantic folksong about a wounded Italian soldier on a faraway battlefield, pining for his lost love: Maria, in the silence, in the melodious silence, I don’t tell you the words of love, but this sea tells you them for me!
Beside us, the window holds the mid-morning light at a distance. I realize that I’m in the presence of an artist with a talent for weaving a longing for her family’s South American history with gifts from the Italian earth and sea. I realize, too, that there’s no way to honor this woman’s work with a significant purchase, no way to repay her for all the stories 46 she’s given me. Already, I’ve spent too much of her time, and I feel that I should buy something. But I’ve spent most of my cash at the bakery near the mother church, on a cornetto and a bag of cookies stuffed with almonds, hazelnuts, and citrons. I need to save the rest for my taxi ride back to Pisciotta, the neighboring fishing village twelve miles north where I’ve been living for the last week.
I have enough change for a postcard. I select one that looks like an oil painting of a scene from old Camerota called “Lavorazione dell’ erba,” herb work. In it, a woman sits on a wooden bench beside the old taverna, holding a baton over a bundle of grasses. Surely this muscle work was heavy and unending. Signs of La Miseria surround her, yet she’s much more beautiful than the haunted Madonnas inside the mother church. Her body softened and aged by motherhood, her abundant breasts hang loose inside her rustic blouse, and her legs are swathed in a pale blue skirt that’s ripped down one side. The harsh sun has darkened her neck and arms into the deep brown of her baton. Her bare toes curl comfortably in the dirt beside the stone as she gazes at the grasses she’s about to pound. Her face is burnished, as if lit from within by the belief in the usefulness of her work.
buy the postcard. The merchant smiles, begins rooting around in a basket on the floor beside the cash register. She studies me, then sifts through the shells, picking up one after another, discarding several more before she pulls out an alphabet cone shell mottled brown and white, the slender opening along its side a deep coral pink.
“I want you to have something from here,” she says. “For listening.”
On the way back to Pisciotta, I talk to the taxi driver, Memmo, a native of Camerota. Tall and barrel-chested, his face looks as if it were chiseled from one of the local cliffs. He’s transformed his own car into a taxi, and hung a tiny green gym shoe from his rearview mirror along with his cab license. For the price of a two-way cab fare, he’s tossed in a personal tour of his hometown. The green shoe swings wildly as he drives the winding road between sea and cliffs, one hand on the steering wheel, the other pointing out all the beaches, bays and natural arches we speed past. “Guarda!” he says. Behold! As he relates, the beaches of Camerota are the cleanest in the region. The bays are the deepest. The natural arches are the highest. Above all, I must return that evening to dance the salsa all night long at the Cyclops Club because it will be the most fun I’ll have my entire time in Italy.
I explain that I won’t be returning to dance the salsa that night. This disappointing news silences him for a moment, so I show him the postcard of the herb worker with hopes of reviving the conversation. “My Babo did this, ” he says, explaining that his mother was from Venezuela, that she clubbed grasses into fishing ropes in the harbor like the woman in the postcard.
Just outside Camerota, Memmo halts the cab, and picks up a young woman walking along the road. She’s African, a recent migrant. She’s walking away from Camerota, wearing the uniform of a domestic, heading toward a few holiday villas in the neighboring hills above and below Pisciotta. A guest worker, the girl lives safely away from the barely habitable reception centers farther south in Italy and Sicily. Still, she has at least ten more miles to walk before she reaches Pisciotta, and it’s the Mezzogiorno, the hottest part of mid-day, when the locals lock up shops and cafés in order to drowse through the heat.
Memmo’s offer is robust, but the girl argues gently with him in fluent Italian accented with French. Memmo wants to give her a free ride all the way into Pisciotta. She refuses with a laugh and a firm, “No, I can walk the rest of the way.” As the Italian cab driver and the African girl argue amiably for another mile, I sense that Memmo feels bound by the same history of migration. I sense that the girl feels less of this affinity with Memmo, much less at home here. When we reach a fork in the road, the girl wins the argument, and Memmo releases her from the cab.
The road to the left is an easy coastline road that leads down to the Marina of Pisciotta; the road to the right climbs an incline toward the town’s historic center that lies near the summit 650 feet above. The girl closes the taxi door, heading right, climbing the road up the cliff. I suspect that she’ll clean houses all afternoon and evening, and maybe walk the road back to Camerota after dark. We continue driving, Memmo casting fatherly glances through the rearview mirror until he no longer can see the girl. When she disappears entirely, Memmo shakes his head, his broad shoulders hunched in defeat and bewilderment.
“That was very kind,” I say.
“Kindness is not expensive,” he says. “What does it ever cost to be kind?” According to the International Organization for Migration, in the year since Mare Nostrum was replaced by the less-generously funded Triton Operation, deaths at sea between Africa and Southern Italy have risen nine times. In April 2015, an Italian naval ship attempted to rescue a boat packed with 800 migrants. Those on the upper deck leaned toward the Italian ship, and capsized their own boat. Twenty-eight survivors were pulled from a sea of bodies. The dead not found in the water were discovered locked in the boat’s lower hold.
Thousands of migrants continue to arrive daily from such places as Algeria, Egypt, Somalia, Niger, Senegal, Mali, Zambia, and Ghana. Many have been forced onto death trap boats at gunpoint by smugglers working the ports of Libya. The concrete reception centers on Lampedusa and in Calabria bulge with migrants who await papers, jobs and housing in more affluent cities in Northern Europe. The harbors of Sicily and some towns on the Southern-most coast of Italy have become graveyards of splintered, unseaworthy boats.
Now that I’ve spent a day among the lively migrants of Camerota, the medieval village of Pisciotta looks as still and ethereal as a ghost town tucked into a swath of olive groves near the cliff’s summit. Memmo and I drive the rest of the way in silence, and he drops me off in the empty piazza. In my room, I sit near its only window overlooking the terracotta rooftops of villas sleeping within the silvery- green olive trees lacing the cliff that slopes to the sea. I pull out the shell given to me by the merchant of Camerota. I’ve since read that the snails that live within this sort of shell use a venomous tooth to harpoon and paralyze their prey. It’s best to handle the live ones with care. Now emptied and removed from the sea, it’s a perfect cone, its slender opening the color of a healthy ear. I run my finger through it, wondering if the unspeakable dangers from the African girl’s past have left her unable to accept the present kindness from the Italian taxi driver. Was it the “push” from her home country or the “pull” of Italy that brought her here? Wouldn’t it be better to think of the Mediterranean again as “our sea,” rather than a plank of lethal water between Libya and Italy that must be policed? How much would it cost if more, and more affluent, countries from around the world reached out a kind hand to assist this historically cash-poor region of a single, small country in the European Union?
I watch the lapis blue swells from the deep push toward the pale green shallows near the harbor, mingling, pulling the weaker water back into the sea. If the sea is telling me the answers to any of my questions, I’m too far above the shore to hear it. Instead I hear the Breath of Africa, a wind that blows through the villages of Southern Italy in summer, casting a spell of melodious silence once believed by ancient mariners to be the song of sirens. n