There is a lovely family here in Santa Barbara: Luigi (Gigi) Crisà, his wife Maria (neè Purpura), and their 3 children, Gabriella (12), Vincenzo (9), and Claudia (4). Gigi is our excellent plumber and the brother of Giuseppe Crisà who makes wood-burning pizza ovens here. When Maria emailed me after one of my posts on Italian language and dialects, I knew she had a fascinating story to tell us about her childhood.
Maria was born in Massachusetts to an American mother and an Italian father. WhenMaria was 11 years old, her parents moved to Sicily, where her father had many relatives. Because she had visited cousins and other relatives there before, she knew simple words and sentences in Sicilian dialect, loved her Italian relatives, and looked forward to her new life in Sicily… at least at first.
Maria was leaving a large high school in Gloucester, Massachusetts, where she was an “A” student. She was suddenly thrust into prima media (first year of middle school) in Terrasini, a small town 33 kilometers from Palermo. The teacher had told the children that she was American. The kids stared at her and asked, “You speak English?” But “the conversation” ended there.
When the teacher asked her, “Do you know how to speak Italian?” Maria answered in dialect. The children laughed. When Maria addressed the teacher with the familiar “tu” instead of the formal “lei,” the children gasped. They called her “una babba [goon] americana.”
It was a tough start. Maria did well in art, English, and math, but struggled with Italian grammar and expressing herself verbally. To compensate, she often memorized entire passages , to the amazement of the other students. Neither her father nor mother could help her at home. She loved to read and eventually read Italian magazines and books with the aid of a dictionary. By the time she went to liceo (high school) in Palermo, her Italian had improved significantly and so did the relationships with her classmates. The children were more mature and asked interesting and intelligent questions. She graduated from high school with a “major” in art.
When she speaks Italian or Sicilian in Palermo today, people do sense that she comes from somewhere else—perhaps another town or city, perhaps from mainland Italy. But rarely is their first guess the United States. At home today in Santa Barbara she is proud to be tri-lingual and to preserve the heritage of the Sicilian dialect. She speaks Italian to her children and hopes that one day they will carry on the tradition.