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Across Borders and Seas

“I am an immigrant in a world that does not want to remember.”

I am caught between two generations and two homes. I am an immigrant in a world that does not want to remember.

I was born in Sardinia and grew up in Italy in the 70s and 80s, so I am sort of a contemporary of the Lega Nord, known in English as the Northern League. The Lega is a right-wing populist party whose policies are based on ignoring the historical root causes of Italy’s North-South divide, and the party has become increasingly racist as Southern Europe has had to confront immigration from the global South. My family on my father’s side had strong anti-fascist ties, so growing up I was well aware of Mussolini’s colonialist wars and of course his alliance with Hitler and the role of my country in WWII. I also lived near Trieste, a city in the Italian northeast bordering the former Yugoslavia and now Slovenia, for two years. Trieste was part of the Habsburg Dynasty of Austria-Hungary before WWI and is home to a significant Slovenian minority, which was subject to Italianization policies under Mussolini, such as banning the use of Slovenian in public and forcing the use of Italianized surnames.

National pride to me is a blanket that smothers the truth of colonial history, power, wars, and hides very complicated pasts.

At the same time, I am just old enough to be part of the generation that still saw Italian immigrants to other parts of Europe treated as second-class citizens. Old enough to still see the connections between WWII, the Marshall plan and the Soviet Bloc and my lived experience. I visited Poland in 1986, before the fall of the Berlin wall — Jaruzelski was in charge and all meat was rationed. I saw Yugoslavia disintegrate and the subsequent civil war happening right next door.

Silvia (right) with her Turkish roommate (1990). (Courtesy of Silvia Secchi)

I studied in Milan, where people made fun of my Sardinian accent, so I learned how to speak with a “proper” accent. My father’s first language was Sardinian, but because schools did not allow its use, I barely speak it — ironically, my Sardinian accent is REALLY terrible. Sardinia was invaded by the Phoenicians, the Romans, Vandals, Byzantines, the Aragonese, and the Savoy. The Savoy occupancy led to the formation of the Kingdom of Italy via Garibaldi’s conquering of the peninsula in the 1860s and then a republic in 1946, when monarchists were defeated, in large part because the king had become a figurehead for Mussolini.

I come from the margin of the empire, and, like my Slovenian friends, I understand the horrors of nationalism. Because of all these reasons, I have absolutely no national pride. In the context of Italy, a young country with fragile democratic institutions, I actually do not even know what that means. National pride to me is a blanket that smothers the truth of colonial history, power, wars, and hides very complicated pasts.

I would rather call myself Mediterranean, as the history and economy of my island and my family were very much shaped by our proximity to North Africa, the Middle East, and Southern Europe. I would also call myself European, as the European Union was trying to address the consequences of WWII, and later of the fall of the Berlin wall. On a personal level, the existence of the EU allowed me to study and live in the UK for two years. Many of us from the European South benefited from a more transparent and fair system. In Italian universities, often, “barons” control power and treat departments like fiefdoms. My UK experience was critical to my decision to come to the US to pursue an academic career.


Silvia (right) with her Turkish roommate (1990). (Courtesy of Silvia Secchi)

For most of my time here in the States, on a personal level, I have not felt like being an immigrant carried a stigma. Being Italian (and white) meant that most people wanted to engage, tell me about their vacations, reminisce about their Italian great-grandfather, ask about recipes and whether I liked the Olive Garden (full disclosure: for those outside the States, it is an Italian-American restaurant chain; I have never eaten there, and am still recovering from the only time I visited Fazoli’s, another alleged Italian chain, in 1996). When I was a graduate student, US and foreign students helped each other to manage our daily lives — offering rides to those of us without cars, checking on each other when we were not well, and sharing meals while living paycheck to paycheck. Our defining identity, I felt, was that we were all learners.

It was easier to be Italian in the US than a Sardinian in Milan. However, I do not feel this way anymore.

Later on, after I married, some people mistook my speaking Italian with my kids for Spanish, many more confused Sardinia with Sicily. Being Italian in the US, living in university towns, was at most a mild nuisance, at times producing hilarious results, like the time a girl on the bus asked me about my funny accent, and when I replied that I was Italian, she thought for a while and then asked me “What’s up with the Nile?”.

It was easier to be Italian in the US than a Sardinian in Milan. However, I do not feel this way anymore.

My white privilege means that nothing has changed on how people treat me personally, but the world around me — the places where I lived — have either forgotten our past, are willfully ignoring it or are fomenting again racial hatred. At my very own institution, this past fall, minority, and LGBTQ+ students have felt the discrimination in their lives and talked about it in the #DoesUIowaLoveMe campaign on Twitter. From the other side of the Ocean, I see my native country and am ashamed of how it is treating immigrants — when Italians themselves were immigrants not long ago and treated as they were second class. I am horrified at the way the US government — a nation founded by immigrants on genocide and slavery — is creating a false narrative of an immigrant emergency. The EU and the Italian governments are trying to keep them in Libya in unsafe circumstances, just as the US is attempting to do with Mexico and Guatemala. I see how the British government is handling Brexit, its policies about EU citizens, and particularly how the rights of the Irish are being completely disregarded — again.

At this point, I feel that it is important to remind myself and the people around me in the States that I am an immigrant, and for most, it is likely their ancestors were too. Most immigrants choose to move for a reason. I am fortunate — I come to the US to learn, not to escape from a terrible situation, and I now have a job I love researching at the intersection of human and natural systems, teaching, and trying to make positive changes in my community, which is also my study area. Others are trying to overcome much bigger obstacles than I had to face to achieve Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.

Most immigrants choose to move for a reason.

I will keep reminding anyone who will listen that people trying to cross from Libya to Italy today are no different than the Italians and Irish awaiting entrance at Ellis Island a century ago. The Salvadoreans, Guatemalans, and Hondurans trying to come to the US because of the terrible crisis in their homelands are no different than the Huguenot ancestors of my husband trying to escape religious persecution in Europe by emigrating to North America.

If we forget this in favor of fake nationalist narratives, we forget our humanity.



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Silvia Secchi

From Cagliari, Sardinia, Italy, Silvia has made many stops around the world, including the Italian-Slovenian border, the United Kingdom, and the Midwestern United States. Currently serving as an Associate Professor in the Department of Geographical and Sustainability Sciences, University of Iowa, Silvia's research focuses include the environmental impacts of agriculture, water sustainability, and floodplain policy. Silvia and her daughters used to volunteer at a wildlife rehab center. They fed vultures, bald eagles, and lots of owls. They also released rehabbed animals on their property.

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