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Laura E. Ruberto (December 31, 2007)
Laura E. Ruberto
On the road to Calitri (AV)

From Southern Italy to Southern California, rural Italy's turn as the Golden State.


I want to thank the i-italy editors for inviting me to participate in this worthwhile new project and for doing their bit to expand the diversity of voices on their pages. I’m thrilled to be involved in this collaborative effort and hope to see the site continue to expand with contributors and readers from around the globe.

For my part, I intend this California-based spigolatura to pertain to various topics related to Italy and its diaspora.

So: I’ve long been fascinated by people on the go—migrants of all kinds, moving in all directions, in relation to and well beyond Italy’s real and imagined borders. Thus it’s no surprise that I should introduce myself here with a piece that takes me from California to a small Southern Italian village, via New York, Argentina, and Morocco.
Last month I was taken aback when, sitting in my San Francisco Bay Area kitchen one morning, I noticed a familiar scene on the cover of the New York Times Home and Garden section. Without even reading the dateline, I knew it had to be somewhere in Alta Irpinia, the landlocked portion of Campania east of Avellino. The one-and-a-half page spread focused on Angela Paolantonio, a Los Angeles woman with roots in the small Alta Irpinia town of Calitri. She had visited the town in the last few years, bought her grandmother’s old house, and started returning there regularly. Paolantino’s particular kind of return migration—prompted, it seems, by a little curiosity, a need for change, a kind of nostalgia for an unknown past, and the basic fact that even a weak dollar goes far in these parts of Italy—illustrates how folks often feel connected to their cultural histories even when they don’t have a lot of direct knowledge about them. It also shows how ethnic identities are built on, against, and in between certain fissures.
Less abstractly, Paolantino’s story hit me hard for utterly personal reasons. Not only was my father born and raised in the hill town of Cairano, right next to Calitri, but I had done my own kind of return migration to the area only a short while ago. In 2006 I received a Fulbright research grant that sent me to Alta Irpinia, where I spent half a year gathering interviews from new immigrants (mainly from Morocco and the former USSR) and returning emigrants (mainly from the US, Argentina, and Belgium). In my research I wanted to know why people returned to these almost-empty and still economically depressed villages, why new immigrants would come to such rural destinations (rather than more prosperous cities) and what kind of interactions the two groups had. Did the area’s history of emigration make the place more inviting to new immigrants? What did the former emigrants think of new immigrants?
In my previous blogging days I invoked Leonardo Sciascia in trying to describe these Southern Italian hill towns. As I said in those posts, he “called these towns ‘paesi-presepi’ (crèche, or nativity scene towns), a description that some locals regard, fairly enough, as patronizing” (see the 22 February 2006 post, “Il lavoro e il presepio”).  Although a number of well-known figures hail from Alta Irpinia—the director Sergio Leone, the literary critic Francesco De Sanctis, the singer Vinicio Capossela and the theater impresario Franco Dragone—the area is, for better or worse, best known for its small, quaint farm towns, desolated by more than a century of emigration and a series of earthquakes (most notably that of 1980).
Today these small towns are beginning to be repopulated with new immigrants from Morocco, the Ukraine, Albania, and even Burma, as well as more and more returning emigrants, mostly retirees who left the South in the 1950s, and Italo-Argentine families who have returned in the wake of Argentina's recent economic collapse. And yet the region remains one of Italy’s poorest, a point that both new immigrants and returning emigrants know quite well (dirt-cheap housing pushes many new immigrants to towns like Calitri and similarly pulls returning emigrants back where their pensions go far). The economic factor really can’t be stressed too much—in fact, things are so bad in Alta Irpinia that the European Union has earmarked it as economically depressed and under-developed and has placed it in a recovery program until 2013, a position it shares with parts of rural Poland and Portugal.
It makes perfect sense, in fact, that a tiny hill town in Southern Italy can create an intersection where the likes of New York, California, Albania, and Morocco meet. That Italy continues to play a role in the modern shuffle of people is not terribly surprising; what it means for personal identities, community histories, political perspectives, and economic shifts is something we can only begin to consider. 

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No Truer Words

For some reason, only today 2 Apr 2015 did your words appear on my screen. Took a while! The EU investment at least in Calitri ran out about a year ago. Much of it was used to repair the Castle up top. We are an American couple who have found a home there along with many other expats, though we are not there permanently like some. I document our adventures in and around Calitri at: have been for 9 years. See you sometime at Zabattas' !


lruberto's picture

Calitri/Second home

Paolo and Maria Elena -- thank you for your comment and the link to your website (which I think was pasted incorrectly but I figured it out -- I will be sure to check it out more fully.

I didn't know that the EU funds for Calitri were gone now!

I'm sorry our paths have not crossed when I've been in Calitri (most recently summer 2014, although my homeless is Cairano). I have continued to write about the area both here on my blog and in some of my academic scholarship. Please email me directly to keep in touch [email protected]

Alta Irpinia

ProLoco Sustainable Tourism is widespread throughout small town Italy...noted a 2004 National Geo Traveler Article. The Alta Irpinia picture of sharing the new EU distinction of infused cash help soley with Poland or Portugal - is bleakly painted. Not only the deeper southern Italians suffer from generations of job flight or small town economic poverty - From living on the inside - it seems it si spread within most small mountain village/communities of Italy whether in Abruzzi, Umbria, Puglia, Lazio...Alta Irpina communities are participating now in spite of their non-tourist-draw status, are now proactive in the resale of houses while keeping the authenticity of their old villages generating taxable income for further infrastructure improvements (and jobs...) in the town. New business spring up and more is offered to the 'stranieri' who venture in...As for ‘paesi-presepi’ (crèche, or nativity scene towns) being thought of as patronzing locally, I would venture to guess again that those comments are academically pushed/slanted as my own friends in the town are enamored nay proud of this 'endearment' a poetetic reference to the romantically lit town seen from say a passing traveler on a road below in the darkness...

And finally - Love Cappolsella and his music - he is a friend of my cousin, and to me the Paolo Conte of Alta Irpinia. Cheers, Angela

lruberto's picture

Meeting up in Calitri

The ProLocos in the area can be a vibrant aspect of these towns, especially in the summer when the populations of most towns swell with returning emigrants. Throughout the towns that rise up from the Ofanto River you can see lots of money (amazing agriturismi, Gambero Rosso-rated restaurants, huge town festivals, etc.), but few would deny the general economic depression and political power struggles that keep the area from developing in step with other parts of Italy (i.e., the north): college-educated youth, if they return, have few job prospects; northern-financed factories open and close at random; unfinished municipal projects sit for years; immigrants from Albania, Morocco, and the Ukraine live in houses condemned since the 1980 earthquake (with Italian natives collecting rent on them in some cases); schools close because there are not enough children to fill them, etc. As an academic and an Italian American who has participated in my own kind of return migration to the area, I find the area to be a complex, fascinating, and at times disturbing example of the effects of transnational migration and globalization. Yet this does not take away from the fact that I remain stunned by the family history that surrounds me there, by the beauty of the towns’ architecture, views and hidden treasures, and by the people (native and not) who opened their doors to my family and me. Perhaps some day we can meet at the mercato on a Thursday in Calitri! -Laura


Laura - I guess as an artist / romantic / photographer though well read non-academic I perhaps see thru rose colored glasses. Pero, I cannot deny all that you wrote - See you in Calitiri! Angela PS Do you live full time in Alta Irpinia?

lruberto's picture


No, no, I'm back in California, but I hope to return before too long. I just discovered this Italian-language site, maybe you know about it already -Laura

destefano's picture


Ciao Laura e benvenuta. Glad to see you're blogging here and I enjoyed your first post. I too saw that Times article and drew some similar conclusions, especially about the pull of cultural history, even when one's knowledge of roots is partial or vague. But even more interesting is the re-settlement of Calitri you describe, which is happening elsewhere in the Mezzogiorno, and not only.

George De Stefano

lruberto's picture


Thanks, George! The other angle on this topic, that I didn't mention here, is the continuation of emigration from the area, but now in the form of the "brain drain" Tamburri and others have talked about on this site. -Laura