THIS I BELIEVE
After my first trip to Sicily in 2001, I came home believing that all Italian-Americans are my cousins.
If you have ever returned to the land of your forbears, you may have experienced much the same feeling. Everywhere I looked I saw people who resembled my cousins. I felt every cell in my body rejoicing. The very genes within me were dancing!
As our bus trekked across the triangular island, I noted names of towns that were family names in my native Rochester, New York. Names like Licata, Siragusa, Ragusa, Nicosia, Randazzo, Messina, and even Palermo, the island’s capital. There was Mondello, a seaside resort not far from Palermo. Do you recall Bob Mondello, a movie critic for NPR? Could he be my cousin?
Speaking of Palermo, half of my grandparents were born in a village near there. As the bus chugged through its city streets on a tour of Palermo’s 11th Century cathedral, I let out a big hoop and holler, “There’s my name!” A small billboard, which was advertising an Alfa Romeo dealership, bore the name Gaetano Cordaro. My fellow passengers got excited as well, “ Your name, where?” “There! There’s my mother’s maiden name—Cordaro!” Certainly, that luxury auto dealer had to be a cousin on my mother‘s side. Don’t you think?
After my second trip to Sicily, which concentrated on the Greek half of the island, I came home convinced that I am also a cousin of every Greek-American. Even before the Roman Empire, the Greek Empire established colonies all over the coastal Eastern Sicily. Siragusa was chief among them. The Greeks also colonized southern Italy. Their “New City,” or Neopolis is what modern Italians call Napoli. A tour guide informed us that Greeks and southern Italians are virtually identicle genetically.
Back to Palermo once again: that city had been an Arab, not a Greek colony for a couple of centuries. The Arabs called it Balerm, or the Port. Therefore, it’s possible that I have some distant Arab-American cousins on my mother’s side.
My father’s side are Italian –American too, but they descend from a group who had migrated from Albania to Italy four or five centuries ago. This story, which I thought might be family folklore, was confirmed to me by historical fact. There was an exodus of Albanians to Italy at that time due to a Turkish invasion. So of course, I must be related to many Albanian-Americans. After all, my maiden name could certainly be an Italian version of the name of actor Jim Belushi. Another cousin?
But why stop with Italy, Greece or Albania? I may have cousins all over the Mediterranean basin including Northern Africa. This line of thinking may sound like fantasy. But is it? The island of Sicily is in the middle of the Sea that was the Middle of the then known Earth—the Mediterranean. The world’s navies from Phoenicia to Greece to Arabia, to Rome, and in modern times, to France and Spain have sought rest, refuge, and of course, romance in Sicily. And they found it1
We must admit it; we Sicilian-Americans are mutts! But are we not in good company? When Barack Obama called himself a mutt, I thought it an undignified comment for a President-elect to make. Yet, on reflecting on the differences between a ‘mutt’ and a thoroughbred, I changed my mind. Consider how the over breeding in a thoroughbred can bring out the weakest genetic material; inbreeding leads to fragile health and a lowering of intelligence. Now consider a mongrel dog—clever, resourceful, living by its wits, and, with any luck, healthy.
During WWII, Hitler called us Americans a mongrel, and therefore inferior people. His Aryan race was “pure”, and therefore, superior. Excuse me, who won WW II? It was the clever, resourceful people who adapted more quickly to changing conditions by working cooperatively with other ‘mongrel’ nations like England. Hitler’s scientists were blinded by his ideology: a totally blue-eyed, blond-haired race would be genetically superior. Modern genetics tells us that the opposite is the case—a diversity of genetic material brings out the best. Humanity has spent more time being nomadic than settled. Where does this pure race exist?
Sicily was not the only melting pot; all of Europe has been a melting pot. Its history is replete with wars, migrations and plagues. Could it be that the purebreds among us, if such exist, should be less boastful? Could it be that the ‘mutts’ among us should boast a bit more of our heritage than we do?
Genesis tells us that Adam and Eve are our first parents, the forbears of every human alive today. Is this merely spiritual, wishful thinking, or does it have a genetic basis in reality? At the very least, the notion that we are all related–no matter how distantly, is safer for our global security than the notion
that all who do not resemble us physically, are Alien, and somehow inferior to us. The older I grow, the more I accept the former notion. Yes, I believe every human being on the planet is my cousin.