Italy's Unseen and Unheard Use Spray Paint to Change the Conversation

Italy's Unseen and Unheard Use Spray Paint to Change the Conversation

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ROME—Cross any piazza in Rome or Florence and you will run into a 500-year-old church or a 2,000-year-old dome. Walk inside, and you will see stories painted on the walls in vivid hues, ancient tales of expulsion and redemption.

Exit the church doors in 2010, and you will see more paint—graffiti—dashed everywhere in urgent blacks and blues and committed under the cover of night, messages from New Italy’s unseen. To make a mark on a wall is one way to participate in the public conversation—an art in Italy as valued as any other, yet one from which many immigrants are excluded.

“ONE SOLUTION…REVOLUTION” reads a tag near the Duomo, Florence’s famed 15th-century cathedral, the towering symbol of the Renaissance.

Another tag, in Rome, by the fourth-century Santa Maria Maggiore church, reads:

25/04/2010 NON DIMENTICO LE DEPORTAZIONI (“Never Forget the Deportations”).

The writing on the wall speaks to an ongoing argument about what and who is Italian in 2010. How does old Italy—long considered the epicenter of European culture and home to thousands of piazzas, the town squares where people converge to talk, watch, taste, gossip, and argue—cope with new Italy, piazza to global migrants on the move? Is there a cultural deafness in the public square that the graffiti is speaking to?

“Clandestino,” is an Italian slur used frequently in mainstream media for “illegal immigrant,” suggesting a criminal who lurks in the shadows. Of 4 million immigrants estimated to be living in Italy, from 500,000 to 750,000 are undocumented, according to the Italian Initiative for Studies on Multi-ethnicity.

But at a recent meeting of ethnic media in Rome, the discussion was not about hidden migrants creeping in shadows but residents of Albanian, Romanian, Congolese, Peruvian and Afghan descent who were born in Italy, or who live in the country legally, but are not accepted as “truly Italian.”

“City of Others,” is the name Klodiana Cuka gives her Albanian radio program in Apulia, in southern Italy, where Albanians make up Italy’s second-largest immigrant group after Romanians. The majority of immigrants in Italy hail from Eastern Europe: at least 1 million from Romania and 500,000 from Albania.

“Citizen of the World,” “Lookout,” and “Girls of Tomorrow”—a program by and about young Muslim women born in Italy—are other new media ventures aimed at bridging the gap between native-born Italians and second-generation children of immigrants, who are often called “foreigners.”

The numbers of ethnic media across Italy are exploding, says Valentina Lombardo, project coordinator in the media and diversity unit of COSPE, a nonprofit in Florence that works on the promotion of migrants and the citizenship rights of ethnic minorities. Of the 150 ethnic media outlets COSPE has counted—in Chinese, Arabic, English, French, Spanish, and Albanian—63 have launched within the past two years.

Their challenge, Lombardo says, is to “establish themselves as a fully entitled actor within [a]media sector” that completely ignores them. Credentials are a key obstacle: to be considered “legitimate,” a journalist must have passed a written and oral examination after several years of study, served an18-month apprenticeship with little or no pay, and gained admittance to the Ordine, the professional registration. Yet despite its exclusion from this pathway, Lombardo sees ethnic media slowly moving into the piazza, into the dialogue.

“In almost every region of Italy—from the far south in Sicily to Trentino Alto Adige [in the north]—this passion to start their own media is driven by the same will to conquer their space and bring their own issues in the national discourse—to provide a diverse narrative on Italian contemporary society,” she said.

The goal of the meeting in Rome was to talk about how ethnic media could grow their visibility at a time when many considered Italy’s climate around immigration to be worsening. It was organized by COSPE, the U.S. State Department, and New America Media.

Cuka offered a direct rallying cry to the ethnic media representatives in the room: “Revolutions occur right in the middle of decadence. At the peak of decadence, change occurs,” she said. Citing the 100th anniversary of Mother Theresa’s birth, she called on them to work together, arguing that they must appeal to Italy’s conscience as a Catholic country in order “to join our destiny with that of Italians.”

“Why do Italian academics who have never been to Pakistan, and who have only read about it in their books, speak as experts on TV about the floods?” demanded Ahmad Ejaz, editor of the Urdu newspaper Azad in Rome, who works as a truck courier by day.

“Everybody works in their own little orchard,” said Carlos Moccaldi, who wrote about migrant issues for Metropoli, an insert in the mainstream Italian newspaper La Republica, until the section was eliminated.

Outside after the meeting, the sun shone on Rome’s terracotta walls, where the tag “BESO” could be seen on the side of a trattoria. In the blaze of fresh graffiti near Santa Maria Maggiore, the tag “25/04 Never forget deportations” referred to the date of Italy’s liberation from Nazi Germany, the National Independence Day celebrated April 25.

But in 2010, the words evoke recent shadowy dealings at sea, where the Italian coast guard has turned back Libyan migrants in boats.

In Florence the next day, a taxi driver weaving through the narrow alleys said the graffiti that appears almost nightly is not spray-painted by disaffected young people protesting the lack of jobs and other opportunities. “Their parents are judges and lawyers!” he said, baffled. “They simply want to defame [the] past.”

Meanwhile, the question of what and who is Italian in 2010 was in high relief on the other side of Florence, where blueprints are underway for a new Islamic mosque.

The scandal of this mosque, it seems, is argument over what it should look like. The initial drawings were deemed “too Renaissance” by some members of the right-center opposition party, when architect David Napolitano, a native Italian and a Catholic selected by the Islamic community, adorned it with Giotto-like features and minarets to blend it in with neighboring rooflines. Why make the mosque so Italian-looking? was also the response of some Muslims, who wanted the mosque to look contemporary.

The mayor has stayed out of the debate and is encouraging dialogue, though old passions have been ignited about Islamic identity in a city long dominated by a Catholic aesthetic.

A new conversation has started all over Florence: which century should the building belong to?