Of Blood and Secrets
Zingaro. Gypsy. Sinti. My maternal bloodline grows from a long line of travelers; forced from their homes through slavery; refused settlement, citizenship, or even human status. In fact, I had no idea we descended from the Hindu Kush and anyone with any information has long since passed; the family story long lost to the winds of war and family secrets. I’ve decided to find what family still exists and document my process of finding the bloodline Bruno, last European location: Baveno, province of Verbano-Cusio-Ossola, part of Piedmont, Italy, on the west shore of Lago Maggiore. Let's say these words written here serve as a contract with my ancestors.
The path that brought me here has been in the making for more than 20 years, based in portrait photography and oral history and guided by a solid foundation in research and collaborative methodology. This path has been a circuitous one, lost and then found again through my paternal bloodline and the process of working through the very long path of obtaining my dual citizenship with Italy.
The bloodline Stellavato (my paternal name) left Italy in about 1903, as part of the waning great wave of immigrants from Italy. The Italian government recognizes descendants four generations back, provided said immigrant never naturalized as a U.S. citizen, thus renouncing their Italian citizenship. Or if they did, they did so after the birth of the next generational link (meaning: your great grandfather became a U.S. citizen after your grandfather was born). In my case, my great grandfather never naturalized. I found this out after an extensive paper trail that awarded me the hallowed HQORM-70/42.4-C Certificate of Nonexistence Record from the Immigration and Naturalization Service, stating no record of his naturalization exists. Giuseppinicola Stellavato died in 1961 as an Italian citizen. The path to dual citizenship is expensive and has taken me roughly fifteen years (and counting). I understand why so few tend to pursue this process as it is much easier to pay someone else to gather and organize all the paperwork needed for this research--particularly when dealing with early 20th-century immigration.
This branch of my family tree was comprised mainly of farmers from a beautiful village in the Salerno provence of Campania called Controne, which sits in the hills of The Parco Nazionale del Cilento, Vallo di Diano e Alburni, a UNESCO World Heritage site. Why they left is now lost to their descendants. If I am successful in my search, perhaps I can piece together the story that led them to eventually settle in the hilly region of Washington, Pennsylvania, south of Pittsburgh, where, in the year of his death, 1961, Giuseppinicola's great-granddaughter would be born who would, in due course, trek back to his homeland. Strange how things go, no?
But this story is about the other branch of my family tree, my maternal bloodline, the one shrouded in mystery to all but me. Well, it's still a mystery to me, but I am the sole descendent who was told of our Sinti roots, the one chosen to receive the family "secret." In 1992, amidst loud music, with happy, inter-generational dancing, and beer, wine, and plates piled high with food, my aunt grabbed my arm as I walked by and pulled me down to sit next to her. My aunt Elizabeth was quite a force to be reckoned with. Standing at a whopping 4'10 (although shorter at this point in her life due to osteoporosis), she packed a punch until her death at 99. What little I know of her life could be made into a film to rival the best stories of immigrant families and women's lack of efficacy. She was an intelligent and wild young woman, who ran away to New York and fell in love with an actor and the roaring 20s' flapper scene. The young couple wanted to marry but her mother (a widow) refused and, in fact, sent "someone" to retrieve her from her happy life, forcing her into a marriage with a much older man of means. The story stops there as far as family history goes and she lived a life of relative comfort, wanting for nothing material; no one ever talked about her New York chapter except my mother and my aunt at rare moments and this was only done through whispers and brief snippets of a wildness lost. As I grew, I returned to her story, asking over and over again to hear what happened. I don't think anyone knew how much I could relate to that impulse, perhaps due to my own time in New York. In any event, after a brief discussion about the party and how nice it all was, my aunt leaned in close and gave me a serious look, stating:
"Mickey D (my family nickname), I need to tell you the family secret." I looked at her, possibilities rushing through my mind..." A Secret?!" After a pause, creating a bubble of time I will never forget, she said in a solemn voice, "You need to know. Our family...we're Gypsies." She scanned my face for a reaction, dire seriousness in her eyes and pulled me closer saying, "Shhhhh! We don't talk about it! It's a secret and you can't let people know." After some time of silence between us, eyes glued to each other, she patted me on the hand and after a while, sent me on my way.
I could see that to her, being zingara, was something to be hidden, locked away in a family chest, only shared with one member of a future generation. I rode that knowledge for many years, feeling it in my blood and locating it in my bones. I hope to learn just what that meant to her--beyond the things I've read--by locating and contacting (maybe not-so-distant) relatives and piecing together the family story through photos and oral history, library archives and church records.
Whatever the story turns out to be, her fear was palpable. I consider it my responsibility to connect the dots, so to speak, for future generations. So much history was lost in the 20th-century due to war, immigration ("we're in American now, we speak English," my father was told), and simple lack of interest or time. I don't know how successful I'll be, but I'm compelled to follow this path. Through camera and audio, the written word and a little bit of luck I may uncover the reasons they left and why it was kept hidden for 70 years.