Naples:life,death &
                Miracle contact: Jeff Matthews

Immigration & Emigration

There are 9 numbered items below. Most of them appeared at the dates indicated on different pages in the original version of the Around Naples Encyclopedia or its recent incarnation, Naples: Life, Death & Miracles. They are consolidated here onto a single page.

(1) directly below    (2) the extracomunitari    (3) emigration    (4) multiculturalism    (5) The ships are leaving
              (6) They're not Gypsies!      (7) Gino Strada and EMERGENCY      (8) On-line museum   (9) Istat

                                                                                             entry Oct. 2002

                Fermi photoI had an interesting discussion last night with the gentleman who runs the little bar down at the corner. It was about the Nobel Prize this year for physics. One of the winners was Riccardo Giacconi, an Italian who has been living in the US for the last 40 years.

Italy, drives away—as emigrants—not just the "tired, poor and huddled masses," but great numbers of doctors and scientists. The classic case, of course, was Enrico Fermi (photo), who went to America in the 1930s to protect his Jewish wife from Fascist Italy's racial laws.

Giacconi said in an interview that he had left Italy in order to be able to work, meaning that even as an up-and-coming young physicist in Italy it was simply too hard to fight a system that keeps you from getting anywhere unless you are "connected". The guy at the bar says things haven't changed much and trotted out numerous stories from his own experience.

He liked my own favorite story. I ran into a young Italian doctor once who had just come back from an internship in the US. He told me that on his first day in the US he was strolling on the campus of the university hospital where he would be working, when an "old guy" yelled at him from across the way: "Hey, do you play tennis?" He did and wound up as the doubles partner of the "old guy"—who, it turned out, was the head of the hospital! Young doc was made to feel totally at home and welcome, which amazed him and continues to amaze most Italians I tell that story to. The idea that a person at the top would befriend someone just starting out is, well, not something that happens here. In the words of the guy at the bar, "You climb over people to get to the top and then try to keep people from climbing over you."

2. The extracomunitari
entry Jan. 2003

In Italianextracomunitari refers to those persons from outside the European community. Technically, that includes Canadians, citizens of the USA, Australians, and Martians —and it is true that citizens of those countries and planets stand in the extracomunitari queue in airports. Yet, in general terms, everyone in Naples knows what extracomunitari really means. It refers to Asians, Africans and people from the Balkans who wash up on southern Italian shores in search of a new life. Very often, they really do wash up on the shores, having been abandoned by heartless refugee smugglers who think nothing of dropping a pregnant woman into the sea, 100 yards from shore, and speeding off to pick up another boatload of people who will do anything to get into Europe. 

Those who have left their homes, families, friends, and native language in Albania or Morocco, or wherever, generally find Naples to be a city with a good heart. (I have never (!) heard a racial slur against these people. You know—“Why don’t these blacks go back where they came from.” I have heard: “Are you nuts? We haven’t got any jobs for ourselves!") 

Many of the immigrants wind up in the grey world of peddling wares of one sort or the other on the streets, either on Via Toledo or Corso Umberto, two of the main drags in town. They lug their goods to and fro in those huge zippered duffel bags of the kind that scuba divers use. They generally set up right on the sidewalk, first a tarp —or maybe just large piece of cardboard—on the ground, and then they unload the leather handbags and belts, assorted trinkets, even small African musical instruments and carved animals, some of which may even have been carved in Africa, though maybe they were done at “home” in Torre del Greco, a town near Naples right on the slopes of Vesuvius. Many African extracomunitari live there, sharing flats —nothing unusual in what is, anyway, the most densely populated area in Europe. 

Usually, they are left alone, even by the police. Yet, there is such a thing as “vendor overload” on any given street, and if they set up right in front of your store on the sidewalk and are selling tax-free contraband handbags and draining clients away from your shop that sells the real taxed deal—well, then, you are going to call the cops and let the chips fall where they may. 

That’s what happened yesterday on via Roma. The police move in on street vendors with all due lack of deliberate speed. The point is not to arrest 25 poor bastards and confiscate their stuff; the point is to roust them, send them packing and give the merchants of the area a breather. The extracomunitari peddlers have a nose for trouble and the minute the roust starts up at the end of via Roma, the grapevine is electrically fast; within seconds they are gone—right down to the end of the street they have packed up and left in no time flat. 

Yesterday, a young Senegalese, Djouf, was slow in gathering up his stuff. He got the word —“Cops!”— but he stuck around a second or two longer than the others to make sure he hadn’t left any of his wares behind on the sidewalk. That’s when the police moved in on him, as the law provides, to “check his papers”. And that’s when the street people moved in on the cops. A crowd of residents of the popular Spanish Quarters quickly surrounded the “Forces of Order” (as the Italian euphemism has it) and demanded Djouf’s release. Push came to shove, but the long and short of it is that the police backed down. Djouf not only got released but was carried away on the shoulders of the crowd, like in Hollywood where Robin Hood gets sprung from the clutches of the king’s men by the villagers. It is certainly not that simple. The police chief’s view in the papers today was, “Fine. You tell us what you want us to do. You called us, remember?” 

3. Emigration
entry Jan. 2003

Emigration occupies a lot of space in the collective psyche of southern Italy. Everyone seems to have a brother, cousin or uncle who has gone away to find work and never come back. Indeed, even though the great waves of emigration from southern Italy of the early 20th century are well behind us, great cites around the world still have sections of town called “Little Italy”. By now, they are inhabited by the grandchildren and great-grandchildren of those who left southern Italy in such numbers that their villages of origin in the mountains of Calabria, Puglia and Campania are, to this day, ghost towns. In Naples, today, if you are pulled over for a traffic violation, you might be lucky enough to have the traffic cop look at your non-Italian name, ask you where you’re from, smile and say, “Hey, my relatives lives in California! Say, you know, you really shouldn’t be speeding like that on the sidewalk outside a major hospital. Well, run along. Just be careful.”

It is difficult to leave home, and, for whatever reason, it is very difficult for Neapolitans. The 1925 tear-jerker evergreen of the emigrant Neapolitan song is “Lacreme napulitane”. It is in the form of a letter from America, written home by a son to “dear mother” in Naples. It is a lament of how difficult it is to be far from home, away from the sound of the zampogna, (the Neapolitan bagpipes, traditional at Christmas), and away from the “sky of Naples”. The refrain starts with the cry, “How many tears America has cost us” and ends with “How bitter is this bread”.

The so-called Neapolitan diaspora—the great waves of emigration from Naples and southern Italy to the Americas, especially the United States, Canada, Brazil, and Argentina—was part of the pattern of large-scale emigration from Italy, in general, in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Between 1876 and 1913, 11.1 million Italians left. Depending on the area under scrutiny—the city of Naples, the province of Naples, the region of Campania, or all of southern Italy (including Sicily and Sardinia)—most estimates claim that at least 4 million of those who left were from Naples or near Naples.

[See also Demographics of Naples]

The general rule that "emigration from cities was negligible" has an important exception, and that is the city of Naples. The city went from being the capital of its own kingdom in 1860 to being just another large city in Italy. The disrupted bureaucracy and financial situation encouraged unemployment. Also, in the early 1880s, grave epidemics of cholera struck the city, causing many people to leave. The epidemics were then the driving force behind the decision to rebuild entire sections of the city, an undertaking known as the risanamento (lit. "making healthy again") and one that lasted until World War I. That process of tearing down and rebuilding also disrupted urban life and became another reason for many to leave the city.

Today, generations after emigration took southern Italians over the seas, there has arisen a different kind of “emigration,” one within Italy, itself. It strikes non-Italians as strange, but Neapolitans or Sicilians who move to Milano for a job—as so many of them have done since the Italian “economic miracle” of the 1950s and 60s, often saythey have “emigrated,” using the same terminology they would if they had moved to New York or Frankfurt. After all, Milan can be just as cold, foggy and foreign as those other places —and you can barely understand the language and, God knows, you sure can’t eat the food up there! 

One difference between the overseas emigration of many years ago and the newer emigration within Italy is that many of the “new emigrants” try to make it home as often as every weekend. Depending on what northern industrial money-machine they work at and where they live in the south, this can mean a four or five–hundred–mile train ride, once a week. The routine is rough: get off work on Friday afternoon, rush down to the station, catch the overnight train (nicknamed the “Fog Express"), get off nine or ten hours later, catch up on sleep on Saturday, spend Saturday evening and some of Sunday with the family, pile back on the northbound train Sunday evening, get into their northern destination early Monday and rush to work without really having slept on the train. 

Sleeping berths and express trains generally cost more than the average worker can spend every week; even the bare-bones second-class seat runs 60 euros for a return ticket. Two-hundred and fifty euros a months is too steep for some, and the word among the “commuter emigrants” at the station is that if you jump in the last car and stand in the corridor all night, the conductor is a pretty good guy and may just not notice that you have no ticket—after all, he knows you’re just trying to get home to see your kids. 

A few manage to grind out the miles like this, week in and week out. Very few manage to last, year in and year out. The turnover is enormous; that is, every month, 35 out of 100 southern workers in northern Italy will quit, to be replaced by other commuters, who presumably will last a while and then, in turn, call it quits themselves. 

[See also Napoletani a Milano, a film with and by Eduardo de Fillipo.]


  • McDonald, J.S. "Some Socio-Economic Emigration Differentials in Rural Italy, 1902-1913". Economic Development and Cultural Change 7 (1): 55-72, October, 1958.
  • Moretti, E.  "Social Networks and Migrations: 1876-1913" International Migration Review, vol. 33, No. 3 (Autumn, 1999), pp. 640-657, published by The Center for Migration Studies of New York, Inc.

4. Multiculturalism
entry Sept. 2003

The terms “multicultural” and “multiethnic” present a certain paradox when thinking about Naples. At times, looking at the long history of the city, it seems that it must have always been a grand mixture of different peoples. When the Spanish first got here in the 1500s, for example, Spanish soldiers, officers, diplomats, and merchants suddenly occupied most of the area near the Royal Palace. That is the area still known as the "Spanish Quarters”. Of course, there are no Spanish there, any more. Whatever was separately and distinctly Spanish about the area is now totally Neapolitan. Taking that which is foreign and making it your own is very characteristic of Naples. The Spanish experience has surely been repeated many times over the centuries. Naples seems to be a giant blender that homogenizes whatever might start out to be separate and distinct elements in society. Thus, it is, yes, multicultural, but then very quickly Neapolitan.

The Naples daily, il Mattino, uses the term “multicolor” to describe the relatively new phenomenon of immigrant children in Naples attending local public schools. Naples has never been a racist culture, so the journalist uses such terms quite innocently. She is merely describing what for her is new and fascinating when she writes about a little girl as “three–and–a–half years old, a tiny thing with grand eyes, wearing a rose-colored checkered school blouse that contrasts with her coal–black skin."

Also, the Neapolitan public school system is now dealing with the fact that Naples, for whatever reason, is home to thousands of immigrants. They may be newly arrived refugees from eastern Europe, au pair from almost anywhere in the world, African street vendors, or Rom—gypsies. 

Children of immigrants are, of course, required to attend school. Last year, 2,825 immigrant children registered for elementary schools in the Campania province, of which Naples is the capital. The trend seems to be about a 20% increase per year. More than half, 1650, were registered for elementary schools in the city of Naples, itself. Caserta had 750 and Salerno 200. One particular school in Naples actually qualifies for a special state subsidy since more than 10% of the student body is immigrant. “So far,” says the principal, “we haven’t seen a cent.”

The consensus among teachers is that there are no problems having to do with a pupil being of a different race. (That is gratifying, but I would have predicted that.) There are the same language problems, especially with older students (say, above the age of 12) that you find almost anywhere in the world in schools where children are suddenly required to learn a new language. Socially, there is some problem in getting parents in particularly intransigent immigrant groups such as gypsies to send their children to local schools in the first place. Volunteers regularly go out into the community to try to convince these parents to do what is best for their children.
5. The Ships are Leaving
entry Nov. 2012

Partono i Bastimenti
(The Ships are Leaving) is the first line of Santa Lucia luntana (Santa Lucia Distant), one of the best-known Neapolitan songs of emigration (1920, by E.A. Mario) and, not coincidentally, also the name of an exhibit on Italian emigration to North and South America currently running on the premises of the Suor Orsola Benincasa university. I commented in an earlier entry, here, on plans to install a permanent Emigration Museum in Naples. That has not happened, nor am I aware that it is going to happen anytime soon. If it does, the materials from this exhibit would be a fitting contribution. The exhibit runs through Dec 13 and it would be a great shame to see it all dismantled and stored away somewhere to gather dust.

The introductory literature posted at the entrance has a few lines worth remembering for anyone interested in the phenomenon of Italian emigration, a truly epic exodus in human history:

Between 1861 and the early 1960s, more than 25 million persons left Italy. This phenomenon of emigration, people leaving their homes behind in search of answers to their economic problems, was one of the most intense episodes of social unrest in the history of our nation. Emigration characterized 100 years of our national history and was not only a southern phenomenon, as we are often led to believe. At least at first, it was centered in the north; between 1876 and 1900, more than half of those who left were from three northern regions: Veneto, Friuli Venezia Giulia, and Piedmont. The great explosion of southern emigration followed in the period leading up to WWI, particularly from Calabria, Campania, Puglia and Sicily. They were almost all bound for North or South America. Today there are 64 million descendants in the world of those who left Italy for the United States, Argentina and Brazil.

As you approach the entrance along one of the large corridors in the university and turn up a flight of stairs, you see the first introductory posters, almost all of them of large ocean-liners advertising for passengers to the New World. The exhibit is laid out in a single long room. You walk up one side and down the other. Photographic and other pictorial displays are along the walls. There are large table and mounted poster displays in the middle of the room as you walk along. You also hear the voice of Enrico Caruso throughout the entire exhibit, singing some of the many songs of emigration as well as some better-known Neapolitan songs. Caruso, of course, was the prime example of the emigrant who made good in America. There is, of course, a display board devoted to many of those who did well in America, even well before Caruso, from the strange case of Mozart's librettist, Lorenzo Da Ponte to the first Italian-American to rise to a position of prominence in the New York City police department, Joseph Petrosino—and then those well-known celebrities of succeeding generations such as Joe DiMaggio and Frank Sinatra. There are a lot of blown-up black and white photos of 3rd-class emigrant passengers crowding the decks of ships, happy to be out of the hell-holes of steerage for a few hours a day; scenes of arrivals at Ellis Island in New York, scenes of Little Italy in New York, and heartrending newspaper accounts of some who didn't make it: "August 14, 1906. The vessel Siro sailing from Genoa and bound for New York, wrecked and went down off the Spanish island of Hormigas. Three-hundred passengers, almost all third-class, perished." 

[For a brief account of another disaster, see this mention of the 1907 Monongah Mine disaster.]

There are displays of emigrant paraphernalia: battered cardboard luggage, passports, instructions on how to survive in America; a display of sheet-music of songs written about leaving home; books about emigrants and immigrants. There is a separate section on those who went to South America (see this link), even a display case of the musical instruments they played, and so on and so forth. There are a few table-top displays of models of ships; one shows Bourbon POWs taken by Garibaldi during the conquest of the Kingdom of Naples boarding a ship to sail for New Orleans in 1861 to fight for the Confederacy! (That story is here.) Another (photo, above) is of the warship, Carolina, of the Bourbon Navy (that is, of the Kingdom of Naples) in port in New York in May of 1848, where the captain, in favor of the unification of Italy, ordered the new Italian tri-color flag to be raised on the vessel to the delight of Italian immigrants standing at the docks; it was the first display in the United States of the flag of the future united Italy.

The exhibit was planned and financed by the Rome-Mediterranean Foundation and installed by Francesco Nicotra, director of special programs for the National Italian American Foundation. They really do have to find a permanent home for an exhibit this good.

6. They're not Gypsies  -and stop using that term!    (added April 2021)

I'm the chief offender. I see in the items above on immigration/emigration that I referred to "Gypsies" a few times. That was sloppy short-hand on my part because I thought, "Well, everyone knows what I mean the nomads who come into town from their campsite and want to sell you stuff or steal your stuff or tell your fortune or play the accordion for you while they kidnap your children."
I should clear the air on slipshod nomenclature. I read a recent article in the Washington Post on the "camminanti" subtitled "The ‘walkers’ of Sicily survive on the tradition of selling balloons." A few lines [paraphrased]:

"In the evening, older people tell legends and stories of the "camminanti" and thus pass on to the new generation
the tradition centered on the word itself, camminatori (walkers, wanderers) and their traditional selling of balloons.
The author tells us that the descendants of these nomads landed in Sicily at the end of the 1300s, with the Arberesh refugees. "The walkers have kept intact the original family organization, based on the man, the patriarch, with marriages within the community." That is all precise and interesting, and I am sincere when I thank the author for telling me that fascinating tradition. She speaks of her childhood in the Val di Noto (Val does not mean "vally" but is somewhat like '-shire' in English a district) and how her father always bought her a balloon from the 'camminanti' (not far from Siracusa, near the southern tip of Sicily. She offers this remarkable metaphor...
"balloons; the object that makes us dream even as adults... so colorful and evocative of dreams, lightness and happiness ...a symbol of ephemeral freedom... yet air enclosed in a plastic bag unable to fly because it is tied to a thread or a stick, held in the hand and dominated by other people." 

Red areas on this map are places of historical and even current Arberesch presence.
She notes poignantly that nomads knew they were not wanted and, indeed, were actively disliked. But she includes the line "The 'camminanti'  [walkers] ... are neither Roma nor Gypsy." If I have made that mistake, I apologize for my slipshod nomenclature. jm.
However, if you go back far enough, the 'camminanti' are, indeed, Roma!  OK, here goes...She is correct in her point that the nomads came into Sicily (and much of the boot of Italy) with the arrival of the Arberesh in the late 1300s. There were no helium balloons to sell in the late 1300s, but they were selling something. The Arberesh were from Albania and fled west across the Adriatic to escape upheaval along the Dalmation coast, the Balkans. (Imagine that. Trouble in the Balkan!) That arrival is also noted in Arab chronicles as early as the 1100s; a new people on the scene in the Adriatic. The author of "camminanti" just didn't go back far enough. Anthropological, archaeological, linguistic and genetic evidence now hold that the Arberesh communities and their Albanian forbears are descendants of those who went west from the great diaspora of the Indus Valley civilization [IVC].

We recognize four great civilizations on our planet:  China, the Indus Valley,
Mesopotamia (our "fertile crescent", i.e. Babylon, the Garden of Eden), and Egypt. They all had their beginnings as cohesive states in about 3,000 B.C. Of the four, we know a lot about three of them. The IVC, however broke up in about 2,000 B.C. Why? Probably a mixture of earthquakes, aridization of the soil, or a shift in the course of the great Indus river. A lot of people went east to India, but a few went west and are the people we call Gypsies. That term is wrong since it implies they came from Egypt, which they did not. Yet "Gypsies" is the common derogatory exonym (what other people call you). What is their own "endonym" (what they call themselves)? Roma, Romany, from their name (Rom) for husband, man, patriarch. You may also hear "Sinti" and that gives away their origin, the Sindh provice of British India as well as the modern Sindh province of Pakistan. But the idea that they were itinerant Egyptians is a medieval European fiction.

In modern English, the Council of Europe and other organizations say that Roma is the correct collective noun for the people
and that Romani is adjectival, used to describe the language and culture. Thus, the Roma speak Romani.
But they're not gypsies. And no, this Roma has nothing to do with the capital of Italy, as in what you are singing
"Arrivederci" to in the famous song. That one comes from Romulus. Or so they say.

7. Aug.25, 2021

                                    A Benefactor's Work is Never Done - Gino Strada & EMERGENCY

Gino Strada
(1948 – 13 August 2021) died two weeks ago. That left a big gap among doctors, nurses, and health care providers, whose goal is to help those who are in pain. The consolation is that his life was exemplary. A doctor told me the other day she wanted join EMERGENCY, the medical humanitarian organization founded in 1994 by Strada, his wife, and colleagues and that by now has treated millions of patients around the world.

After medical school Strada specialized in emergency surgery. His concern was the treatment of war victims. In 1988, he began surgery with the International Committee of the Red Cross in conflict zones, including Pakistan, Ethiopia, Peru, Afghanistan, Thailand, Djibouti, Somalia, Bosnia. He launched projects in Iraq, Cambodia, Eritrea and Afghanistan, now much in the news. EMERGENCY was effective. By 2013 EMERGENCY was running four hospitals and 34 clinics in Afghanistan.

Strada's life was a handbook on doing the right thing: "Do you think that health care is a human right? Do you think all human beings deserve to be treated with dignity? Yes and yes. He devoted his life to those principles. He would be the first to say he left a lot undone. But what he did get done matters to the millions he helped.

    "If any human being is, at this very moment, suffering, or ill, or hungry, that is something that should concern  all of us because to ignore the suffering of a person is always an act of violence, one of the most cowardly."
 "War is a persistent form of terrorism against civilian populations in which people are maimed by bullets, shrapnel, 
antipersonnel mines and so-called toy mines. Treating the wounded is neither generous nor merciful, it is only just. It has to be done.”
           Gino Strada

8.    Jan. 15, 2023    An On-line museum of Italian immigration is here. It exists in Italian, English, and Spanish. I have checked it
                            thoroughly. It will need some more work.

below, added Feb.11, 2023
9. The Italian National Institute of Statistics (Istituto nazionale di statistica; Istat) is the main producer of official statistics in Italy. Its activities include the census of population, economic censuses and a number of social, economic and environmental surveys and analyses. Istat is by far the largest producer of statistical information in Italy. News media have commented on Istat's recent report that shows a notable immigration away from southern Italy to central and northern Italy and abroad. In the period between 2012 through 2021, The totals for the rest of the "Mezzogiorno" (the general term for the south, analogous in usage to "Dixie" in the U.S.) show that 525 thousand young southern Italians have left for elsewhere. The Campania region and Naples (the capital) leads with 157 thousand lost residents. They are almost all university graduates. News media have used such terms as "unstoppable exodus", "hemorrhage", and the English term "brain drain". It is important to note that these are NOT the "tired, poor, and huddled masses" of a 100-150 years ago. These are middle-class, educated kids who can't find jobs at home. Don't expect any musical nostalgia such as 'O sole mio this time around.


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