In the early 1990s, several years before heading to Palermo to start my Fulbright year, I went to see the Academy Award-nominated documentary Children of Fate at an arthouse theater in San Francisco. It was the sequel to a film made thirty years earlier, in 1962, about a multi-generational family living, loving and dying in one of the capital’s most notorious slums, Cortile Cascino. The sequel centers around one of the earlier film’s protagonists, Angela Capra, now over 50 and life-weary, and still living in precarious circumstances near her grown children who, true to the film’s title, eventually reap a cruel fate. It was one the bleakest films I’d ever seen and haunted me for a very long time. By the time I arrived in Palermo in September 1998, Cortile Cascino, still heavily scarred by ruthless Allied bombings, had long been demolished, controversially so, I read later on. It didn’t take long to discover that other neighborhood like it still existed.
I shared a flat with Giusy, who was around my age and came from the Trapani province. It was a first-floor apartment and had two massive iron-wrought balconies perched over the Corso Vittorio Emmanuele. If you looked to the left, you could just see the domed Porta Nuova that sat adjacent to the Palazzo dei Normanni. Heading in the opposite direction, the Corso ran straight down to the port where ships and ferries docked to unload cargo and tourists. Our building straddled two neighborhoods. Right across the street, the medina-like Vucciria was famous for street market, every guide book told you that. Guttuso’s eponymous painting reimagined it as a mass of movement and color with little breathing space – where vendors prepared specialities right there on the street, like pane con la milza. Where you could get a key made in few minutes at the ferramenta, the hardware store, or purchase cheap household goods. The Kalsa quarter fanned out behind our building, a mash-up of crumbling palaces – more casualties of the war – squat tenements and mom-and-pop grocers operating out of low-ceiling garages. On its border closest to the port, Giuseppe di Lampedusa’s sprawling family residence took up a whole city block, now splendidly restored and catering to tourists looking to experience a night in pretend-aristocratic grandeur. The contrasts I saw always struck me hard on my walks through these neighborhoods. One time, on my way to a conference at Palazzo Steri, the Spanish Inquisition’s base for meting out marrow-chilling punishments, an elaborately painted ceiling caught my eye through an upper-story window –its faded palate of blue and gold and pink still glorious– peaking out from among the ruins. At eye-level, a section of the ground floor had been turned into an auto-body shop, maybe with a permit, maybe not. Did the family who once lived there flee ahead of the bombings? When peace returned, did they deliberately abandon it afterwards knowing it wasn’t worth the cost of restoration? And the mechanic who’d set up trade there? Did anyone really care? In my eyes, it was how the neighborhood simply evolved, with generations of residents, adapting to the inexorable march of time as best they could. Just around the corner from the decaying palace, I soon saw things, ugly things, that could have been another chapter in Angela Capra’s life.
The Tavola Tonda sat off a small square in the Vucciria a stone’s toss from the port. The non-profit center served as a gathering place for at-risk youth, gave them a place to go after school. I’d already met a few of the instructors there including Ornella, with whom I later became good friends. She had introduced me to the director who, after telling him about what I was doing in Palermo, gave me permission to film. There would always be adults present and I’d be extra careful while filming the children.
One morning, with my camera equipment and friend from California in tow, I was ready for who knew what. As invariably happens when you pull out a camera, the kids pounced. They wanted to hold it, play with it, which I gently declined. Could they sing for us? Maybe dance? I indulged one boy who had done some media training at the center. Other kids began to show up. Word had quickly gotten around the neighborhood that there was a camera and a crew on the scene. They were a rag-tag ensemble of tweens, boys and girls, a few of whom were startlingly provocative in manner and dress. A group of giggly friends belted out “O’ Sarracino” over and over again in their best Neapolitan dialect. It wasn’t clear why they selected that particular song for their performance. In hindsight, the song, about a man with dark and dangerous looks (originally an Arab Muslim; being too racially suggestive for the times, he became a bronze-skinned partenopeo) who seduces any woman who crosses his practiced eye, was perfectly suited to their flirtatious performance. My microphone was sorely put through the wringer that day. The audio levels were all over the place and heavily distorted.
Vincenzo showed up at the center that day. He was a whip of a boy with a smattering of freckles across his face and enormous eyes. He told me he was 11 years old but he looked a lot younger, 6, 7 years old, tops. Shockingly tiny to be on the brink of adolescence, I thought. I asked Ornella about him. Like other kids from the Vucciria, he came from a severely damaged family. I learned he had five younger siblings at home and his mother had been married a few times already. And grandma had served jail time for drug possession. But what really got to Ornella was the grandfather. She’d seen him strutting, cock-proud, around the neighborhood dressed to the nines. And Vincenzo didn’t even have a winter coat. His only escape from the dreary home life that the adults had created was the Tavola Tonda. This child, sickeningly malnourished, was going to have it rough down the line. I wrote in my journal that I wished I could have adopted him.
After that first encounter, I often found Vincenzo hanging around the streets near my home, sometimes alone, sometimes with a friend, waiting and watching with big hungry eyes. When he spotted me, he’d always ask me for change and I’d hand him a few coins. One day, he was sporting a big black eye. He had tripped or something fell on him, he told me. Another week, I saw raised red marks on his body, as if he’d been scalded by hot water. It was clear that there was abuse going on at home. It sickened me. I knew there was no chance he would tell me how he’d gotten them. I thought about brazenly showing up at his door and confronting the adults. It would be unwise, potentially dangerous. Volunteers at the center tried to help out in small ways. They all knew that the only real solution was taking Vincenzo and his siblings out of that toxic environment. It was if his path in life had already been foretold: dropping out of school (he was already halfway there; he rarely attended, Ornella told me). He could easily fall into petty crime, wandering the narrow maze of alleyways in the sweltering scirocco heat, snatching what he could to get by. I only had to think of Angela Capra’s grown children to imagine what lay ahead for him.
One morning, I passed a flight of steps while walking through the Kalsa. Two men were coming down them. I asked if I could take a look, I’m not sure why. As I reached the top of the landing, I saw two filthy little girls playing outside an open door. Beyond, the flat’s interior was like an abyss. I looked down and smiled at them, mostly out of shock. A movement caught my eye off to the side. An old man was strewn out on a piece of cardboard. He drew his body up and ordered me to leave immediately. Truth be said, I was trespassing. And I felt ashamed, before his embarrassment and my own bad judgement. On those backstreets, there was a world forgotten and abandoned, populated by people simply shifting together to make it through another day. Unless by the grace of a miracle, the next generation cycle would be the same, or worse. Who could blame the man for wanting to be left alone with his thoughts?
There weren’t a lot of work prospects on the island. Like other Southern regions, unemployment ran high among young Sicilians, especially for those with little education. The lucky ones maybe worked in the family business, in the trades or in tourism, maybe even on the ferries that shuttled over to the mainland or to Sicily’s smaller islands. You saw them behind the counters of tobacco shops and proffering newspapers and gossip magazines at kiosks on street corners across the city. You spotted them through the windows of hotels and restaurants hoisting luggage or scribbling an order down in a white shirt and tie. You saw them hawking fruits and vegetables and fish in the outdoor markets, just like their fathers and grandfathers. And you saw the street vendors, Tunisian, Moroccan or Senegalese men, always men, who sold knock-off handbags and cheap jewelry under porticoes near the Teatro Massimo. When the police appeared, they’d bundle up their merchandise in a cloth and run for it. Once the coast was clear, they’d emerge from around corners, spread their merch on the pavement and were back in business.
Some showed real inventiveness when it came to putting a few lire in their pocket, still the currency in 1999 before the Euro would go into circulation, eventually doubling prices for good. One guy I saw around the neighborhood took an imaginative approach to making a living. Ignazio ran an ambulatory lottery game in the Kalsa. He would circulate through the neighborhood selling lottery tickets for a few thousand lire a pop. Whoever drew the winning number would claim the day’s prize. I asked if I could film him while he made his rounds and he readily agreed. Easier said than done. You couldn’t just walk into any neighborhood like the Kalsa, point the camera and start filming. You could get away with it the street market though eyes would uncomfortably watch your every movement. First, I rarely went alone to film in certain areas. I often enlisted a friend of mine, Sante, to help out on shoots. His presence always helped deflect any unwanted attention. When entering an unfamiliar neighborhood, we had a method for putting people at ease. We’d approach a group, strike up a conversation and casually mention what we were filming and that it was strictly a non-commercial project. It helped that Sante, who grew up speaking Italian at home, dusted off his Sicilian. We’d sometimes offer a round of coffee. By the time we were ready to film, news had already gotten around, much like the Tavola Tonda that brought out all the neighborhood kids. Those who didn’t want to be filmed made themselves scarce or turned their backs to us as we passed. I was always cautious of any potentially uncomfortable situation before pressing the record button.
We met Ignazio on the appointed day of filming at the entrance to the Kalsa. That day, the prize was a basketful of fresh fish. How Ignazio would work the game was extraordinary. He placed the basket of fish, covered in plastic for hygienic reasons I guessed, inside a baby stroller. Then, off he went pushing the stroller through the streets, calling out the winning number, 27, to passersby and he seemed to know many of them. The stroller propelled forward under Ignazio’s grip. Already sweating profusely at that early hour, he deftly ducked in and out of shops, greeting everyone with a buongiorno and waving the winning number in front of him like a talisman. When we entered a grocery store, the clerk ducked behind the counter as soon as she saw me holding the camera. “Questo va in America (This will be shown in America),” Ignazio explained pointing in my direction, which kept her out of sight until we exited. Back on the street, a passing car honked and Ignazio blurted out the winning number. It was like a Palermitan call and response. Ignazio was a real showman.
The baby stroller bobbled up and down as it hit the raised stones. We had reached a quiet stretch of street. Ignazio began to talk. There wasn’t much work around, he confided. His cousins ran a lottery game – by Lambretta – in some of the larger neighborhoods. The stroller squeaked along and then silence again. I could see Ignazio was getting tired. He had already done the rounds and still no winner. We approached a workshop. A man with a straggly ponytail bounced out holding up a small piece of paper. The winning number! Apologizing for not stopping by sooner, Ignazio put his arm around the winner, who coyly hunched his shoulders as he looked down at his prize still cradled inside the stroller. Ignazio gingerly loaded the fish into a plastic bag, then as he held up the two matching pieces of paper with the winning number scrawled across them, shouted, “Ventisiette! Franco, detto il palermitano! (Twenty-seven! Franco, known as the Palermitan!).”
As he maneuvered the now-empty stroller toward the garbage bins, Ignazio revealed he could earn up to 40-50.000 lire on the one game. The wilting lettuce tossed, he swiveled across the piazza and, like a modern-day town crier, again proclaimed the day’s winner. And just like that, Ignazio abruptly whirled the stroller around and said goodbye. I sensed he was reluctant to go any further while I continued film. It’s possible that he was headed in a direction that hadn’t been cleared for filming. Over time, I learned to never insist. If stares lingered too long, it was always best to turn around and walk away. It was often made tacitly clear when it was time to lower the camera lens.
A few months after Ignazio’s lottery game, I ran into Vincenzo for one of the last times. He and a friend were watching a fireworks display that were part of the on-going festivities in honor of Santa Rosalia, the city’s wildly revered patron saint. Every so often, the loud pop-pop-pop of the fireworks would startle him and he’d do a little jump. He kept his doe eyes peeled to the sky. The din got louder and flashes of light brighter as the show inched toward the finale. Watching him, I understood the significance of fireworks, maybe not even the most spectacular among them, to kids like Vincenzo who had few outlets for entertainment in his circumscribed world. He had probably never travelled much across the city limits to see what the world held beyond, and this was an island. Imagine how much out there could be waiting for him? It made me think of Ignazio and how he made a living that netted a pocketful of lire, tax-free of course, to last for the week, maybe longer. And the Vucciria tweens hamming it up in front of the camera and falling over each other in laughter at the end of their song. What did life hold for all of them?
Injustice was still a word that described the mean, hardscrabble ways of Palermo’s poorest residents when I lived there. Even then, a steady influx of new immigrants was pouring into the old city center to scrape together a living alongside the native-born, adding to the pile of injustices that were there in the first place. Sub-standard housing, chronic unemployment, a paucity of social services to address their needs, their children’s needs, even a solid plan to help integrate them in a better way into the larger society. Not everyone welcomed new arrivals with open arms, including their neighbors who had so little themselves. You felt it would be a very long road, perhaps a few generations ahead, before there would be some semblance of real integration and acceptance. Perhaps never.
And what about justice? Now as Palermo was moving beyond the constant killing that had stained its streets red with blood, what exactly had that word come to mean in 1999? Was it open to interpretation depending on who stood in front of you? There was one person on the island whose life work was – still is – so deeply connected to that word, justice, that there’s no mentioning one without the other. Through Palermo’s small grapevine that had begun to bear fruit, I already had an appointment lined up with her.
A Chicago native, Gia Marie Amella co-founded Modio Media Productions Inc. in 2006, a video and television production company whose work has aired on leading networks globally. She earned her M.A. in Radio-Television (1993) from San Francisco State University, where she also served as a lecturer in the Broadcast & Electronic Communication Arts Department, and a B.A. in Italian Literature (1988) from the University of California, Santa Cruz. In 1998, she received a Fulbright Fellowship and headed to Sicily, where she spent a year conducting research on popular traditions and Sicilian identity. She’s the recipient of multiple awards for achievements in her field. She currently works and lives in Montevarchi, Tuscany.
Cover and author photos from Gia Amella’s archive.