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Oral History, Sicilian Style

Published: October 15, 2015

A rare souvenir of a lost way of life in Sicily is now preserved for publication thanks to oral histories collected at CSULB’s George L. Graziadio Center for Italian Studies.

A luncheon guest of the center was 92-year-old Catherine Salemi, mother-in-law to Graziadio Center supporter Mark Cangiano who set up a scholarship with the center following the loss of his wife and Salemi’s daughter Sandy. With her unique experience of living in a long-lost Sicily and her ability to speak in an Old World Sicilian dialect, Salemi was selected by center director Clorinda Donato to record her personal history for the CSULB community and to immortalize it in an upcoming journal article.

“We got into a lot of interesting topics,” said Donato, who joined the university in 1988. “Catherine’s personal experience is corroborated by much of the existing research into Italian-American immigrants, and in particular, on Sicilian-American immigrants. What issues did women immigrants have to face? She is a very literate, multilingual woman who speaks in English and a fast-disappearing Sicilian dialect.”

The Salemi research began with the Romance/German/Russian Languages and Literatures Department (RGRLL)and its course, “The Italian-American Experience,” which relies on history professor Ali Igmen to provide instruction in collecting oral histories.

“Her dialect presented a number of challenges,” said Donato. “I tried to speak to her in Italian and she would reply in Sicilian. She has lived in Long Beach for many years and while she speaks English, Sicilian is the language of her roots. It speaks to her ties to that world and her memories. At times, the oral history became a tri-lingual effort between son-in-law Mark Cangiano, Joe Salemi, her son, Catherine herself, and me.”

The highlights of her oral history included the memory of a grandmother who paid for her early education only to see the money run out and the education terminated. “It was revealing about the education of women in Sicily 80 years ago,” said Donato. “What is important from her perspective is the desire to learn and the desire to better herself as well as her absolute engagement with lifelong learning.”

The people of Salemi’s generation, Donato believes, are “totally sane” after surviving the school of hard knocks that included the Great Depression and two world wars. “The lore of her Sicilian home town, down to the headless crucifix and the miracles it has wrought, is real to her and maintains her relationship with Sicily. Her family has inherited this lore that has now become theirs. It connects them to her and to their own Sicilian heritage. It is a salient example of how ethnic identities are kept alive,” Donato said.

Salemi’s remembrances were crosschecked by Donato and young Sicilian scholar, Miriam Amico, who translated about 80 percent of Salemi’s Sicilian.

“Amico referenced her parents and Sicilian relatives for their help,” Donato said of Amico. “The layering of expertise was very important. This kind of work can’t be done by anyone walking down the street. What I’m proud of is the group of scholars that worked together to make this a reality and the interdisciplinary expertise that enabled us to conduct the oral interview.”

Salemi’s recollections are those of a lifelong housewife who was her family’s power behind the throne, the person who ran everything in the household. “She maintained the finances and learned to speak English,” said Donato. “She was the one out there fighting the battles. When her husband’s job was at risk, they went to court to defend their rights. She did the talking and the case was won.”

Katherine Salemi (l) with Clorinda Donato.
Catherine Salemi (l) with Clorinda Donato at the luncheon.

Donato is the co-guest editor with Katharine Mitchell of a recently published special issue of the British journal Italian Studies titled The Diva in Modern Italian Culture (August 2015). She also co-edited Jesuit Accounts of the Colonial Americas–Textualities, Intellectual Disputes, Intercultural Transfers in 2013 from the University of Toronto Press. Donato, along with her RGRLL colleagues Claire Martin and Markus Muller, earned CSULB a National Endowment for Humanities $100,000 grant “Italian and French for Spanish Speakers,” 2012-14. In 2005, she became a Chevalier of the French Order of the Palmes Académiques.

Donato hopes her article on Salemi will be read by scholars and Italian Americans alike.

“If you want to know something about your history and heritage, and you want something beyond what we get in the news about Italian-American stereotypes, you need scholarship to deconstruct the media image,” she said. “This is all about telling that truth about Italian Americans. My students surprise me in our class on Italian Americans in that many know elderly Italian Americans without knowing their stories. `This woman has been living next door to me my whole life but I never knew her story,’ my students say. ‘I didn’t know anything about her until I did this oral interview.’ An oral interview requires research. You have to know about the historical and cultural situation of the person you are interviewing,” she said.

Donato believes Salemi’s experience has plenty to say to the 21st century.

“Catherine Salemi is a model of resilience,” said Donato. “She knows how to face adversity head on and turn it into a plus. She is smart and shrewd. She doesn’t let anything get by her. She engages continually in her world and knows the value of sustained effort to get what you want and what you deserve.”