Growing up, I had no real sense of myself, no firm grasp on my identity. As a third-generation Sicilian American, I was raised with a white-washed American upbringing—there was seldom a trace of Sicilian culture in our lives outside of my mother’s cooking. As a child with an early love for books and writing, I hungered for the language of my ancestors, or some taste of the music, art and literature that could indicate who we were as a people. It wasn’t until after graduate school, when I actually began to aggressively seek out a deeper understanding of Sicily that I was able to reclaim my lost sense of self. Coming from a working class family, I had no money and terrible student loan debt, so I worked three jobs in order to take language classes (both Italian and Sicilian), along with immersing myself in as much literature, film and music that would give me an access to my heritage. I had to teach myself what it meant to be Sicilian.
It was through these efforts that I discovered the carusi—children as young as four and five years old who were sent by their families to do backbreaking labor in the sulfur mines throughout rural Sicily. I promptly became obsessed with learning everything I could about this largely forgotten history. The mining industry in Sicily predated Roman times and lasted until after World War II, despite child labor laws that had been put into effect throughout Italy in 1861. The laws were not enforced well, and between Sicily’s stubborn traditions and the collapse of the Italian economy after the war, the practice of child labor continued. Families were starving, desperate for work. Children were loaned out to miners as assistants in exchange for a “soccorso morto,” which literally translates to “dead aid.” Once families received this money, they were locked in. A child spent ten to fifteen years of his life working underground to pay off the debt. Most remained working there for life if they survived.
The mines preferred children (usually boys), because their bodies were small enough to maneuver through the underground tunnels, allowing them to carry unending loads of sulfur aboveground to be used as an energy source. The carusi endured short, brutal lives. Their bodies became deformed, their growth stunted through years spent crawling through the tunnels. Miners worked with little protective gear or clothing due to the incredible subterranean heat. Everyone who worked the mines knew that each day could be their last. Those who didn’t perish in an accident or explosion, usually developed severe respiratory conditions and cancer from prolonged exposure to dust, sediment and toxins used in producing liquid sulfur.
What haunted me the most about the carusi was the culture of sexual abuse that they were forced into. Often these children were raped by the miners that they were assigned to assist. The presence of sexual abuse is one that is discussed in various works of Sicilian literature about the mines, including Virgilio Titone’s short story “The Sulfur Mine,” and also in the Italian film, Acla’s Descent into Floristella. I wanted to discover for myself whether or not the experiences of carusi were as brutal as these depictions. Unable to win a Fulbright or secure any travel grant funding, I again worked three jobs and financed the trip alone. The last sulfur mines were shut down in the 1980s and I was desperate for a chance to speak with the last surviving sulfur miners left. Time was not on my side.
In early 2013, I traveled to Piazza Armerina and Valguarnera Caropepe in the region of Enna to conduct a series of oral histories with these miners in order gain a deeper understanding. Dr. Salvatore Di Vita, the former director of the Ente Parco Minerario Floristella-Grottacalda, once a major mining site that now serves as a living museum preserving region’s mining culture, agreed to work with me. With the help of Dr. Vita and Dr. Chiara Mazzucchelli, an academic and native of Valguarnera Caropepe, I was able to engage with the community for my research, along with surveying the actual grounds of the mines. Working also in tandem with the Lega Zolfatai museum in Piazza Armerina, I spoke with various miners, many of whom had spent their youth as carusi. I had the privilege of hearing the story of a former caruso who was 103 years old at the time of our interview. All of these men were born into generations of carusi, with fathers and grandfathers starting work at an average of five to six years old. Abuse and hardship were realities that most couldn’t escape. The stories I heard paralleled the initial research I’d done.
During this trip, I also met many young Sicilians, some of which didn’t know anything outside of the fact that the mining industry once existed. This saddened me, though perhaps it wasn’t hard to understand why. People often distance themselves from what makes them uncomfortable. Historically, to be Sicilian usually meant that you were poor and uneducated, and therefore had no social power. People were desperate to escape this and any association with the memory of such hardship. Perhaps this is why many Sicilian Americans, like myself, have no practical access to their own heritage. I had to fight very hard to learn what I know. I still have so much to learn.
I have since completed a novel partly informed by my research. This book has won competitive fellowships at prestigious artist residencies, awards at conferences and publications in respected literary journals. I am committed to perfecting the manuscript until it finally finds a home with a respectable publisher. Perhaps in some small way, it might help keep this history relevant and unforgotten. The carusi deserve a place in the contemporary consciousness of Sicilians and Sicilian Americans alike. Without access to our history—the good and bad of it—we are only cut off from ourselves.
Ms. Cerrone: Thank you for this enlightening article. I, too, am intrigued by the history of the carusi, which I first learned about when I toured an abandoned sulfur mine in Montedoro, and then visited the town’s Miners Museum. A side story in my book http://bit.ly/TheLadyOfTheWheel is about the plight of a carusu and the “death benefit” paid to his family.
I have a question that has long bothered me. You mention families with generations of carusi.
I have done genealogic research for hundreds of Sicilian families involving civil birth, marriage and death records for thousands of individuals. These Napoleonic-format records are very detailed, and usually give the status, occupation, or condition of the individuals named. I have seen hundreds of individuals identified as “zolfataro”, “zolfataio”, “zolfaro” or “zolfaio”, all of which mean “sulfur miner”, which implies to me that the person was a “pick-man” or “piconiere” in a sulfur mine. I have *NEVER*, in records ranging from 1820 to 1910 for dozens of towns, seen a person identified as either a “carusu” or a “piconiere”, the two main types of occupation in the mines.
Can you explain this? Were they all “zolfatai” regardless of their “specialty”? That would be strange, since a pick-man could earn wages, live away from the mine, own goods, etc., while the “carusi” were virtual slaves. In the near-caste system of 19th-century Sicily, it seems as though a distinction would have been made. Or were the carusi simply identified as “bracciale”, common laborers?
Your Times of Sicily article, it appears to me, does not give the title of your book. What is it?, Where can we purchase it?
Hi Angelo, thank you so much for your kind words! Congrats on your novel! That’s wonderful news.
I’m currently revising my novel The Hunger Saint and pursuing a publisher for the book, but I will let you know when it is released in print. Thanks again for your support on that end.
Regarding your question: I think it’s important to consider that with the end of the mining industry in Sicily throughout the 1980s, there is a good chance that a great deal of these documents were lost. There are archives preserved at the Ente Parco Minerario Floristella Grottacalda, where I did some of my research. I was also given access to some of the documents preserved by the families of miners. I did come across documents where people were depicted as “carusi.” I actually was given a copy of the work papers of one of the miners I interviewed. He worked in Floristella Grottacalda throughout his entire life and was listed as starting out there as a “caruso” in 1955.
Thank you so much for sharing this shocking reality so eloquently. I, too, am an American with Sicilian grandparents, now deceased, who spoke nothing of their lives in Sicily or their immigration experiences. I have slowly learned bits of family and Sicilian history from my own amateur research and travelling.
I really appreciate the time, effort, and skillfulness of your research and your generosity in sharing it with those of us who are hungry to learn more of their heritage and homeland’s history.
Thank you very much, Holly for these very kind and generous words!
Olivia Kate: Thanks for the response, and for sending me an example of working papers, which seem to show work as a caruso, then as a pick-man, and then as a guard.
You’re right in that these types of papers may have been lost. The documents I referred to were official civil records of birth, marriage, and death. Every person in Sicily who was born, married or died between 1820 and 1910 had that event recorded in two permanent records, one in the comune, and one in the provinial capital or its court. Most of these records do still exist. In my ancestral town of Serradifalco, for example, time and time again, individuals were categorized as “zolfataio”. I have seen thousands of these, and never seen the occupation, status or condition given as “caruso”.
This leads me to believe that during that period of time either: a) anyone who labored in a sulfur mine (pick-man, mine-boy or smelter operator) was called a “sulfur miner”; or b) that mine-boys never married and thus never had children, which would explain why they would not appear in birth records of children or in marriage records. However, that doesn’t explain why there are no death records designating the deceased as a caruso.
Further, each birth record and each marriage record contains the names and occupations of two witnesses to the registration, and death records have the names and occupations of two persons who reported the death, as well as two witnesses to the registration of the death. Again, there are large numbers of “zolfatai”, but never any “carusi”.
This is a curious situation that I hope to explain some day.
Well done, Olivia! Thank you for tackling this difficult, fascinating subject with so much fervour. I’m looking forward to the book!
My family is from a small village Villa Rosa and I have heard stories about my grandfather and his family working the sulfur mines.
Outstanding in every way. Your passion, dedication and meticulous research have made this a thoroughly enjoyable read and has sparked my interest in this part of our shared cultural history. Thank you!
Olivia Kate – I am part Sicilian-American as well, and was blessed to have the opportunity to live there 2 years while in the military. My ancestors are from the Tommaso Natale area of Palermo. The island fascinates me, as do the people, and am enjoying learning as much as I can of the history. My grandfather did not speak of it while I was growing up. I would love to be notified when your book is in print. Thank you for doing this very important work!
Very interesting article Olivia. Do you know Pirandello’s story, Ciaula scopre la luna? It’s all about a caruso.
Thanks so much to everyone for reading this article and also for the generous comments! Hi Andy, yes, I do know of Pirandello’s story, ” Ciaula Discovers the Moon.” It’s a beautiful and heartbreaking piece. Everyone should read it. Thanks again!
Congratulations on completing your novel. We had some correspondences when you started and I often wondered how you made out.
Also, for your readers interested in the history of the Carusi, read Booker Talifano Washington’s description in “The Man Furthest Down” written by this former American slave in 1910. It is truly moving. The book in available in digitized form on line at Google books.
Thanks Olivia Kate,for a great article. I had no prior knowledge of the plight of the poor
Carusi. What struk me about the article was the word carusi. I recall the term from my
youth as it was used in reference to me and my friends as young boys by my immigrant grandparents.The word brought back fond memories of 70yrs. ago. My wife and I visited Sicily in 2007 and were overwhelmed with the beauty of theIsland, the history, art and culture of the Sicilian people.
My late parents were: Giaquino(Jack) DiLaura and Maria Rosa Fruscione.
Dad was born 11/19/1908 in Caltavuturo, Provence of Palermo. My mother’s family
has its’ origins in Vilalba, Provence of Caltinasetta.
Thanks again for your great article telling the story of the destitute and impoverished
Sicilian people, explaing in part the reason for the mass exodus to the United States,
now more than a century ago.
Best of luck to you with your book and your future endeavors.
ANTHONY J. DILAURA
Where can I find Virgilio Titone book?
You have certainly done great work on the Carusi and bringing this to the attention of the world. One interesting fact that could be researched and added is when sulfur mining switched from “open pit” mining to underground mining. I suspect it was sometime around the 1800 but I have not real data to base this on. Sulfur had to have been mined in Sicily since medieval times when the invention of gunpowder created a continuing market for it. Since sulfur is an essential ingredient for the manufacture of gunpowder and Sicily was the only known significant european source the history of sulfur mining in Sicily must be very ancient
Hello, my great grandfather, Vincenzo Volpe, was a caruso. He was 5 years old when he entered the mine working as a water boy. He spoke of it to my father (his grandson) many times. It makes me sad to think of his plight. Thank you for shining a light on this very important story – one hundreds that should be told about Sicily.
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