From Whence We Came: One Account Of Retracing “The Voyage” In Search Of Answers Under The Sicilian Sun

250px-Statue_of_Liberty_7President Obama’s changes to the immigration status of millions of illegal immigrants has caused the expected firestorm of controversy. I have previously criticized the decision to withhold the details of the plan until after voters went to the polls and I continue to view the changes as an assault upon the doctrine of separation of powers. While I have always recognized the wide latitude given to presidents in the past in prioritizing enforcement, this is an open circumvention of Congress to achieve by executive fiat what was denied in legislation. However, I have also been thinking about the families themselves and my own family’s history in coming to this country. Many Americans are finding themselves taking journeys of their own — retracing the often harrowing steps of their ancestors in coming to this country in looking for a better life.

IMG_1191 With the release of the President’s new immigration measures, much of the national debate has focused on the constitutional implications of a president unilaterally ordering such sweeping changes. For the millions of immigrants, the new legal status means a new home and future. For those looking to the future, the immediate past is often a place to escape from; a prior identity shed at great cost and effort. However, that is likely to change as it has for so many American families when descendants find returning to the past is the only way to fully understand their own identity. That is a voyage that I took last month to retrace the steps of two people who came in the last massive immigration wave at the turn of the twentieth century. My journey took me to a small village on a mountain in Sicily. It took me to Cianciana.

My grandparents — Dominico Piazza and Josephine Moscato — came to this country from Sicily when the Statue of Liberty was still a relatively new addition to the New York harbor. They saw that statue from the decks of different wooden ships.

IMG_1172 Finding answers about Cianciana proved a bit more perilous than a spin on The roads in the Agrigento Province were built for carts so that two cars barely fit and the series of switchbacks leave you with what seems the choice between a front-end collision or a dive hundreds of feet off a cliff. The burning of fields being cleared adds a menacing smell and glow to trip. Then suddenly Cianciana appears like a time capsule with terracotta roofs and stone houses nestled into the side of the mountain.

IMG_1178 First settled in 1269 and then rebuilt after an earthquake in 1646. The village remains much as it has always been. At night, the streets become full of people chatting for hours. Old men gather in coffee clutches as smoke waifs down the main street from the roasting of chestnuts. Children have the run of the town – scurrying around in packs into restaurants and stores.

IMG_1154 Walking down the main street, I was called over by a group of old men who heard that my grandfather was named Dominico Piazza. They then proudly produced an elderly man, Dominico Piazza. While we could not confirm concretely that he was relative, he bore a striking resemblance to my grandfather. We were surrounded by men probing for other names from my family like Moscato and La Corte. In the end, it really did not matter. To them, a Ciancianese had returned home. Home. It meant something different here. Despite being half Irish and half Sicilian, they viewed this as my home and my return as completely obvious and inevitable.

IMG_1193 The response continued wherever we went. A pizza shop owner, Maddalena Chiazza, would not let me pay for our meal when she discovered that I was a “paisan” returning home. Maddalena lived near Toronto, Canada and returned with her family to her father’s village. I asked her why she decided to stay and she looked perplexed by the question – as if I had asked about something incredibly obvious and evident. She simply said “we built this. Of course, we came home.”

It soon becomes clear that Americans return to places like Cianciana for the same reason that their relatives once left them: to find something essential. In the early 1900s, my grandparents came to find a life and escape dire economic conditions. It must have been a journey that was both exciting and terrifying that journey must have been for the families of my grandparents which never ventured beyond the nearest village: first to Palermo and then to New York and ultimately to Ohio.

The voyage back for so many to places like Cianciana is motivated by a similar pull to a distant place for something essential. We sense that part of who we are can only be found where we began. Where our ancestors sought a future in America, we seek a past in the old world.

IMG_1200 Over 700 years, the world has changed around it but Cianciana remains the same in its pace and its people. On Sunday, we went to the main church and watched women bring their breads from long cuddura to twisted mafalda to loaves of pane siciliano to baskets of little Rosette rolls. The church smelled heavenly as the local priest blessed the bread laid before the statue of St. Anthony and the women returned home with blessed breads to feed their families.

There is a profound sense of belonging in this place – a feeling that is lost in the transience of modern life. This is their place. We built it, as Maddelena said. “We” is not used in the immediate but the generational sense. It is passed along to children as more than their legacy. It is their identity. This is why, when you come back, they remind you that this is your home; this is where you are from. We are all proud to be Americans, but part of that identity resonates in different lands.

IMG_1165 On my last night in Cianciana, I sat with my wife Leslie next to the little fountain in front of the 17th Century Holy Trinity Mother Church where my grandparents were baptized. They found something wonderful in America but they also left something wonderful behind. It was left but not lost.

None of this, of course, offers any answers for the immigration debate. However, for those new seeking to remain in this country, they will discover that they left more behind than misery or poverty. Their descendants may find, as I did, an inexorable pull to these places in search not of a future but a past.

Jonathan Turley is the Shapiro Professor of Public Interest Law at George Washington University.

79 thoughts on “From Whence We Came: One Account Of Retracing “The Voyage” In Search Of Answers Under The Sicilian Sun”

  1. The real issue for me is: What laws should I obey ? Can I pick to obey only the laws that I feel are equitable ? Isn’t that the controversy ? I shall anxiously await the verdict – please don’t wait too long for I have a lot that I don’t like.

    1. buckaroo – I have already decided that my excuse is going to be that the government is doing it so why not me.

  2. ‘I believe President Obama is not allowing people with a known criminal history to stay, no matter if they had children here or not.’. . . . . au contraire mon cheri.

    “The new priorities are striking. On the tough side, the president wants U.S. immigration authorities to go after terrorists, felons, and new illegal border crossers.”

    “On the not-so-tough side, the administration views convicted drunk drivers, sex abusers, drug dealers, and gun offenders as second-level enforcement priorities. An illegal immigrant could spend up to a year in prison for a violent crime and still not be a top removal priority for the Obama administration.”

  3. Paul Schulte- You are correct…it was Jimmy Carter, not Reagan, who got conned by Castro. Castro emptied his jails and sent a number of common criminals ….Mariolitos, I think they were called….in the large groups he allowed to leave Cuba.

  4. This move is a cynical and myopic move by a failed and lawless President. It is causing resentment by legal Hispanics, blacks, and whites. Look @ the polling. It might help in the 2016 election, but more likely the resentment may cause a backlash and get people to vote Republican who never vote @ all. And, in the long run, Hispanics will gradually turn more conservative, like most all immigrants do.

  5. “Just going to work is dangerous. Going to and from work, get pulled over by police, don’t have a driver’s license, you end up in deportation proceedings for something as innocuous as going to work and going to buy the groceries,”

    Of course it is. You are here illegally. You broke the law……you are STILL breaking the law. (Until Obama broke it even bigger by his illegal actions).

    Criminals are always in danger of getting caught because they have broken the laws. Or at least that used to be the way of the world. Anymore, there are no consequences and in fact….you get rewarded for breaking the laws. Personally, I think that I will ignore any laws or rules going forward that I just don’t feel like complying with.

    You broke into this country. If you break into my house, I am not going to treat you nicely. In fact, you will likely get shot.

    You should have thought of all this before you decided to break and enter.

  6. Lot’s of horseshit. I’ll just pick one. The Mariel Boat Lift, where Castro unloaded his worse prisoners and crazies, was Jimmy Carter getting snookered, not Reagan for chrissake.

  7. Of course that’s a positive story from SWM. I don’t think the scope of this action is going to end up being nearly as limited in scope as to what this article suggests. Usual for a short-sighted progressive model. Works out pretty good on paper. Then there’s reality. They usually don’t meet up. I would like nothing more than the best for those people, but the reality is that we do not live in a perfect world. And the reality is the possible repercussions from this unilateral action that have nothing to do with this scenario, and perhaps we do not even know are issues yet, may cause even more hardship for these people, and the rest of us as well.

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