When a school such as Stony Brook decides that they’re going to start naming and endowing professorships, you would initially think that the first title would go to the Chemistry or Physics department. This isn’t how it actually went: the first named professorship went to the Center for Italian Studies and the Alfonse D’Amato Endowed Chair in Italian and Italian American Studies.
It was a good two weeks for the Italian Studies department. First, the school broadened its international opportunities for students and established a further link with the Florence University of the Arts. But more amazingly, the exhibit “Sicilian Crossings” came to campus on a leg of its national tour.
Sicilian Crossings is an exhibit unlike anything else, focusing on the plight of the millions of Sicilian immigrants who made the voyage from Sicily to America from 1892 to 1924, resettling themselves in America and working to pursue the American dream at all costs. The exhibit ran at the Wang Center from April 4 to April 13, and is, in fact, cosponsored by Stony Brook itself. The opening reception was held on April 4 and drew a crowd of over 200 members of the community. Awash in wine, antipasti, and opera, the introduction went over as a wonderful way to introduce the larger community to the new exhibit and explain Stony Brook’s relationship to the exhibit and the history of the relationship between Stony Brook and the Sicilian government.
The exhibit detailed the history of the Sicilian immigration movement, going from the causality of the factors that made people leave, like the decline in the tuna and sulfur industries, the death of the citrus crop, the earthquake and tsunami of 1908, and the unification of Italy. Factors that helped the immigration to occur, like the rise of the steam ship and the inflation of America through travel agencies, were also discussed. For a Sicilian, America was a land of milk and honey, where the streets were paved with gold, and there were good paying jobs wherever you looked. The reality was bleaker: tiny, cramped apartments, xenophobia from the natives, and few lasting jobs. At the time, Sicilians had the same status as today’s illegal immigrants. But, as time progressed, people moved elsewhere.
The exhibit then chronologically followed the arrival of Sicilians in American and the establishment of multiple Little Italy’s throughout the country. From Mulberry Street in Manhattan, to Brooklyn, St. Louis, New Orleans and San Diego, Sicilians moved across the country and formed tight knit communities wherever they ended up. Mutual Aide societies sprung up for better off immigrants to help their fellow Sicilians.
All in all, the exhibit was 120 panels of masterfully researched material that is being recompiled to produce a book. But what is more interesting is the connection between Sicily, the exhibit, and Stony Brook.
To fully appreciate the connection between Stony Brook and Sicily, The Press spoke with Professor Mario Mignone, the Director of the Center for Italian Studies and one of the chief advisors for the “Sicilian Crossings” exhibit. Professor Mignone is part of the reason this exhibit exists, having made several trips to Sicily and established ties with the University of Messina to create the Museum of Sicilian Immigration.
The museum, off of which the exhibit is based off of, was the collaborative brainchild of Professor Mignone and the Professor Marcello Saija of the University of Messina. Prior to the 2000 visit to Sicily by President Kenney, Professors Sajia and Mignone met by chance and struck up a professional friendship, keeping in touch over the years, and eventually bringing Professor Saija to Stony Brook to speak about Sicily. “The turnout was larger than I expected, so was the reception.” It was then that Professor Mignone realized just how many people of Sicilian descent there were on Long Island. Whether they were a half Sicilian, a quarter, or just had one relative somewhere in the past, they came to hear this lecture.
“Sicily is an inner need, to find out who you are and where you came from. It is a seed and it’s our job to germinate it, to make it bloom,” commented Mignone on the process. So, he and Saija set out to make something bigger of this. In 2001, Professor Mignone, President Kenney, State Senator LaValle, who is Sicilian, and Assembly Member Don DiNapoli went to the Sicily and the University of Messina. There, they signed a Protocol of Understanding with the Sicilian government, as individual regions have more direct power than the central government in Rome, and agreed to help create this museum. No financial support was given, just the simple connections that Stony Brook and the New York State Senate had to offer.
From there, the museum came to life. Professor Saija came to Stony Brook in 2004 as a visiting professor with a team of graduate students to research Sicilian immigration and acquire first hand documents from the descendents of these immigrants. Over 600 people in the local community donated photos, documents, and most importantly, the stories of their ancestors, to the museum.
“It’s amazing,” commented Professor Mignone. “People who don’t know each other or have never fully considered themselves to be Sicilian are turning to the person next to them and sharing the stories of their ancestors.” I personally understand this on a deep level. I am Sicilian and I have my own stories about my great grandparents, who I was fortunate enough to have known, and I found myself talking about a time period I was never a part of, but knew in my mind.
“When people live on an island, they have stronger identities.” This statement is true for Sicilians, but is true for all island dwellers. Sicilians, many of which are now in their fourth or fifth generation, are still inherently Sicilian. There’s always the need to go back. This need has been reflected in the exhibit—the opening on the April 4 drew over 400 people, nearly twice as many as Mignone expected. “I never knew the population was this big on Long Island. And when you look at the register of the people who sign in, it’s interesting to see their last names.”
This I also understand. My last name, Nagler, is Germanic in its origin. My grandmother’s maiden name was Liotta, which is what it was when my great grandfather Jimmy’s family left Sciacca. Throughout the years, peoples last names have gained American identities, but they still culturally identify with Sicily and its Italian nature.
However, Sicily isn’t solely Italian; it’s also Spanish, German, Greek (Pythagoras was Sicilian), Arabic, Norman, Byzantine, and African. The influences of other cultures on Sicily are obvious everywhere you look, be it in the architecture of the buildings or the music. Mosques constructed in Spanish style architecture have been converted to churches. The cadences of speech are inherently Arabic, and the music follows the same tonal patterns and makeup. Town names, like my native Sciacca, are based off of different languages- Xacca in Arabic means “water.”
Professor Mignone was ecstatic at the response from both the community and the students and is already planning more events for the fall term. These events will hopefully involve Sicilian folk music and Sicilian cuisine, along with more lectures by Professor Saija. The community interest is there, Mignone simply has to provide the opportunities for them.
It’s been a good year for the Italian department. Between the named chair, the new Florence site, and “Sicilian Crossings,” they’ve increased their visibility and made it easier for students to recognize them. Professor Mignone asks that students drop by the department office on the fourth floor of the Melville Library and see what’s going on. Attend a lecture, take out a good old Italian movie (a recommendation: Il Postino), or simply see what’s coming up. The seeds of Italian culture are there, so come rediscover them.