‘How I found ‘home’ when searching for my roots in a remote Sicilian village’

'How I found 'home' when searching for my roots in a remote Sicilian village'
Poggioreale residents show the group old family photos in the town's piazza. All photos courtesy of Sarah Campise Hallier/Poggioreale in America.
Growing up in California, reader Sarah Campise Hallier always felt self-conscious about her “Italian nose”. Here she tells The Local how a life-changing trip to her ancestors' hometown in rural Sicily helped her understand her heritage - and appreciate her Italian features.

Poggioreale, Sicily is hard to find on a map. In fact, sometimes it’s just completely left off.

I found this out the hard way when my mother, a genealogist before genealogists were a thing, first discovered that my father’s grandfather emigrated from the tiny town of Poggioreale, located on the western side of Sicily. Far from the touristy eastern coast, through miles of hundred (maybe even thousand) year old olive orchards.

Almost 150 years ago my great-great-grandfather, a peasant whose family lived in the citta for centuries, persuaded his wife and two young children to join him on the journey of a lifetime. They packed their few belongings and trudged off for the port of Palermo, a dusty trek that took the better part of two days, eventually setting sail for an unknown country advertised as having “streets of gold” and “jobs on every corner.”

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Poggioreale Antica 

Over the long decade of the 1880s, three siblings, countless aunts and uncles, and a myriad of cousins followed my great-great-grandfather to America, settling for flood-prone land in the Brazos Bottoms of Texas. Many of their stories have been passed down over the generations. Many of their stories have also been forgotten.

So when my siblings, mother, and I had the opportunity to travel to Poggioreale for the first time last autumn, it didn’t take long for us to realize that we would not be who we are today without the grit and grind our ancestors endured.

Poggioreale in America

Our eclectic tour group, made up mostly of Texans and Californians – who were all somehow related, and definitely proud to show off their noses – belonged to an organization called Poggioreale in America, or PIA.

PIA is dedicated to connecting generations of Sicilians in America and Australia whose ancestors emigrated from the town of Poggioreale. Our trip was PIA’s first group tour in years.

We first realized we were no longer in America during our van ride from the bustling yet antiquated capital of Sicily, the romantic seaside town of Palermo. Arguably the most conquered town in the history of the world, Palermo showed us what thousands of years of war, an unfair class system, the Italian government, and mafia can do to a place.

The journey that night from the airport took no longer than an hour. In that moment, in our bumpy, overcrowded and swampy van on the unfamiliar Sicilian highway, the never ending, twisting road beckoned us.

The new town of Poggioreale

Due to a devastating earthquake in the Belice Valley of Sicily in the winter of 1968, the original, once thriving medieval village of Poggioreale (now usually known as Poggioreale Antica) was eventually abandoned and left to rot.

The government said the damaged town was beyond repair, and the only solution was to rebuild. While that may have seemed like a good alternative to living in the powerless and crumbling old city, the people of Poggioreale told us a different story.

The new town of Poggioreale was built over the next 15 years, funded by the Italian government. Evident by the new town’s overwhelming grey coldness and its modern architecture, the concrete “unions” clearly had a say in where the money was spent.

By day, tired families hiked the two-mile trail back up to the old town to make breakfast and spend their days pretending life would eventually get back to normal. By night, as the western winds whistled through the low hills, they made the trip back down to the government barracks. As months turned into years, the realization that their old way of life had vanished became a hard reality.

For us, our nine nights spent in the new town of Poggioreale were some of the most memorable of our lives.

Our morning venture to the local bar offered us the chance to sit with the locals, leisurely sipping our cappuccinos with pistachio croissants. By day three, still unsure of the customs of this ragged yet spirited city of 700, we waited for eye contact to say it was okay to approach.

In their thick and “schooshy” Sicilian language (please don’t call it a dialect), the retired men of Poggioreale told us their stories. Some eagerly joined us in the piazza, oversized family portraits in hand, salvaged from the walls of their family homes after the earthquake.

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The familiarity in their noses and their last names made us smile and eased the discomfort from a language barrier we wished we hadn’t brought with us. We shared a commonality almost impossible to put into words, regardless of the two languages that clashed.

The island was enchanting. People invited us into their homes, cooked us authentic Sicilian cuisine, introduced us to their families, and walked us to the pub at night, arm in arm, google translate in hand, laughing at jokes we were sure we understood but probably didn’t. We got to know a side of this underrepresented town where time has stood still in a way that most tourists could only dream of.

The Campisis and Todaros and Tondolas and Caronnas were all still there, relatives of our great grandparents who had stayed behind for reasons we may never know. And each day we unpeeled their stories.

If the new town prompted us to talk and ask and connect, the old town silenced us.

The bus ride up the hill, past the cemetery where our sleeping ancestors lay, was quiet. Our trip centered around these few hours in Poggioreale Antica. With map of my great grandfather’s old city in hand, the anticipation taunted my senses and sent my thoughts into a tailspin. This was our moment.

All 15 of us, with our mangled family trees and tangled DNA connections, knew that as far back as one could document, this is where our ancestors had raised their families. This is where they had shared tears and triumphs, births and deaths and hardships. We walked towards our ancestors broken and crumbled homes, slowly inching our way into their past. I will never forget that feeling.

The PIA tour group in Poggioreale Antica.

My ancestors came and went, and their decisions made me who I am today. I gave homage to their struggle and their bravery, and walked back out of there knowing it would always be a part of me.

Despite our emotional connection to Poggioreale Antica, the reality of its physical structure haunted me more than my ancestors’ unknown reasons for leaving. Regardless of their plight and struggles, the town must have been stunning in its heyday. The outlines of the cobbled streets and the flecks of blue paint still peeling from the dilapidated walls of their kitchens are etched in time.

I don’t know what the future holds for the new town of Poggioreale. With the average age well over 60, and many young people understanding the importance of education on the mainland, I’m unsure where this community will be in ten more years.

But there, our lives were changed forever. Our noses, however, will never change. And for the first time in my life I don’t want mine to. The faces of the Poggioreale people are the faces of our grandparents, happy to see us come home. They showed me the importance of family in a way I had not yet discovered. And I cannot wait to take my children back there, endearing concrete walls and all.

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  1. Beautiful story, bella famiglia, from an Irish-American New Yorker who has fell in love with Italy.
    Adoro l’Italia, le gente, la cultura, la storia, il cibo, il vino, la lingua, e le donne.
    Buona giornata,
    Ciao!

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