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What “Eldorado”?! Ce vole fateiè
Améreche è ddò e Améreche è ddè

[For anyone who wants to work /
America is here (in the homeland) and America is there]
(North Puglia)
by Alberto Sobrero
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Bruno Maggio. China

This proverb, like others we have already come across, and like others the readers already know, focuses on the theme of “work” and has “the idler” as its secondary theme. This character is often the target of proverbs, often caricatured and held up to public scorn for that which in the order of things in the world of proverbs is the greatest crime: shirking work from one Ave Maria to the next, like they used to say; that is, from dawn to dusk. Women can be criticized for a lot of ethically incorrect behavior: flirtatiousness, lack of obsequiousness towards males, poor housekeeping, love of gossip, even ugliness; whereas the defects of men (chasing women, getting drunk, wife-beating) are considered more or less affectionately, or at least indulgently. All except one: that of being work-shy.

Work is effort: no-one gives anything for nothing. It’s a big mistake to believe in the illusion of an easy job and getting rich quick without making any effort. The proverb links the effort of working on our poor, ungenerous land, with the great myth of America: Eldorado of our forefathers, land of dreams where entire generations not only of Apulians but from all the regions, emigrated in the hope of escaping from the misery of their own land, from the desperation of poverty and starvation, while dreaming of an easy, very well-paid job.

In Puglia, like in all the agricultural communities from which people fled in search of fortune, emigration had a strong content of social revolution: through the letters and the stories the emigrants told, the remittances, the solicitations of businessmen looking for laborers and the new mentality of those who came back (with the new myths of education, social climbing and success) the germs of progress and radical transformation were inoculated into a society which had been stationary and faithful to itself for centuries. The risk of weakening, to the edge of collapse, the scaffolding on which the traditional community leaned, was imminent and was contrasted by the structures which had the duty of conserving the status quo. Such as? Political power, certainly. The Church, certainly. But also the world of proverbs, to which was entrusted the task of conserving and handing down to the next generations the fundamentals of traditional culture and ethics, with the rigidity of the Tables of the Law and the imperative of no change.

This month’s proverb aims to dismantle the myth of America-Eldorado in the name of the sacredness of work/sacrifice, the cardinal value of the agricultural civilization. It casts a shadow of doubt over those who emigrate, labelling them with the most ignominious of epithets: idlers. The underlying philosophy can be synthesized by paraphrasing a famous (or rather, notorious) saying: “tutto nel paese, nulla al di fuori del paese” (everything in your country, nothing outside your country).

But the phenomenon we’re talking about was a real flight of a people: the largest migratory movements from Puglia to America took place between 1900 and 1920 and reached remarkable levels: more than 40.000 emigrants a year. Altogether, between the second half of the 19th century and the first half of the 20th, it is estimated that more than a million and a half people left from this region. Of these, at least a million came back to Italy. These days, we know that the South has changed, also – but not mainly – thanks to these departures and arrivals, to the changes that the contact with different cultures and more dynamic and powerful social and economic models, the discovery of different worlds, respect for oneself and for others and of the right to better one’s conditions of life imposed. And we know the establishments of conservation tried to react against these overwhelming new developments, but only the strongest and best organized (the Church and political power) were able to resist, guaranteeing their own survival thanks to sophisticated mechanisms of adaptation. The world of proverbs, a fragile, virtual reality that is propped up by fragile oral tradition, has not made it. Its admonishments haven’t been enough.

What remains is not integrated into the present, or into the future: it’s a lovely, important humane, pleasant, rich testimony to yesterday’s world. Whatever “yesterday” means.

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