Wrath of grapes: thoughts on the Calabria riots

rissa in galleria

Above: Futurist painter Umberto Boccioni’s celebrated and controversial canvas “Rissa in Galleria” (“Riot in the Galleria”), 1910. Boccioni was born in Reggio Calabria, not far from Rosarno, in Calabria (the “toe” of Italy’s boot), where African immigrants rioted over the weekend to protest “subhuman living conditions” and organized crime.

News of the riots that took place over the weekend in Calabria came to our attention this morning via The New York Times and NPR. I’ll leave the reporting to the experts but I will also report that Tracie B and I were both deeply saddened by this news as we drank our morning coffee on a chilly Austin morning today.

Most of the African immigrants (the extracomunintari, as they are called in Italian) who were rounded up by Italian authorities and bussed off to “deportation centers” (I’ll let you interpret the euphemism) do not pick grapes. In fact, they pick mostly oranges and other citrus. Historically, Apulia and Calabria (both ideal places to grow fruit and vegetables) have provided the rest of Europe with fresh fruit (including commercial grape production for bulk wine). Since Italian immigration policy began to change in the 1990s with EU reform, southern Italy has come to rely more heavily on migrant workers (sound familiar?) to pick its fruit.


Above: An image from the riots that took place in Calabria over the weekend published today by The New York Times.

From this side of the Atlantic, as much as we’d like to view Italy solely as the “garden of Europe,” the “birthplace of the Renaissance,” the “fashion capital of the world,” and the home to an enogastronomic tradition that has happily conquered the world (and it is all of those wonderful things), Italy — from north to south — is experiencing one of the most troubled times in its history — socially, financially, politically, and ideologically.

I can tell you from personal experience, as an observer and a lover of Italy: Italians, by their nature, are among the most generous and human souls on this planet. Italy is one of the world’s biggest contributors to the UN budget (the sixth biggest, the last time I checked) and Italy does more than any other European country to promote economic development in Africa (I know this firsthand from my days working for the Italian Mission to the UN).

But as Africa’s gateway to Europe, Italy also faces some immensely difficult issues when it comes to race and attitudes toward race. When I first traveled to Italy as a student in 1987, these issues had yet to emerge. Today, they are at the forefront of the national dialog.

An editorial published today by the Vatican daily L’Osservatore romano (The Roman Observer, a highly respected gauge of the Italian cultural temperature) tells its readers that Italy has not yet overcome its issues with racism, as is clearly evidenced by the events of the weekend.

I’m going to poke around this evening in our cellar for a bottle of wine from Calabria for me and Tracie B to open with dinner. As we drink it, we’ll remember the hands that picked those grapes and the people who turned them into wine.

Thanks for reading…