Nino Russo: a sicilian in America

Hi! My name is Nino Russo, and I am a Sicilian-American, but, as the song says, a true Sicilian. I have been in the States for a long time, and I feel very attached to this land, for all she has given me, for how she has treated me, and because there is no other land like this. My kids were born here, and their kids, and now I am a proud “Grandpa” of nine of the most beautiful and handsome grandchildren.

I came from Sicily, and came in the middle of my life, I was at a good age. I grew up in my home town of Sicily, went to school there, I played and studied there, I laughed and cried there, and have lots of memories, mostly good memories, of my Mother land. Here in the States (and this is the irony), I came to know the most beautiful part of Sicily: The history and literature of Sicily, the passions and sufferings of its people.

Through this I came to a better understanding of the traditions, the customs, the psychological makeup of my people: Hard working, sincere, faithful, generous people. At my time, when as a child and then as a boy, and as a young man, I went to school, I never heard anything mentioned about Sicily. We studied Italian language, and all that was Italian, and, don’t get me wrong, it was beautiful, I loved it and still do, but we were told nothing about Sicily, and nobody ever complained, nobody ever even had a thought about it. It was as if we had been brain washed. Sicily was the land where we were, wasn’t this good enough for Sicily? What had Sicily ever given us? Wasn’t it enough that we consented to live there? What else Sicily wanted from us? We had other and more important things on our mind. After all it was Sicily’s duty to give us all we needed or at least, all we could get. In the high schools we studied the history of Italy, starting lightly with the foundation of Rome; the Italian literature, and all that pertained to the interests of Italy, but very little was dedicated to the Sicilian literature, and even that was in passing by.

These omissions in the school programs worked with our young minds, where we failed, due to lack of exposure, to see and recognize the jewels of Sicily, be these natural, historical, philosophical or literary. To understand this one must undergo a long study of the history of Sicily, in the external and internal forces that Sicilians have fought for centuries… no, for thousands of years, just to be able to endure and stay alive. I do not have the knowledge to explain to others what I am beginning to just barely see now.

With the advent of Mussolini to power, the emphasis, more so than before, was given to the Italian language and Italian subjects and the Sicilian language was regarded crude and in bad taste. Nobody said then, or maybe knew, that if Frederic II, King of Sicily, would have lived twenty more years, and maybe even less, (he died at 56), the Italian national language today would have been the Sicilian language.

By the end of World War II, you could tell that a very strong and semi-voluntary substitution of the Sicilian language, in to the Italian language, had started. I say semi-voluntary, because while the new generations were taking as a “cool thing” to speak the Italian language, the teachers and/or any school authority did not do anything to block this outrageous progress, this genocide of a language.  On the contrary, they required that we did not speak the Sicilian language at all. Unfortunately this was the fruit of politics and other dirty factors including, but not limited to, insensitivity and close mindedness of most high placed officials. This conversion of language is still going on, and it is not the natural evolution of language: it is a conscious and voluntary slaughter of the Sicilian language. Today, in Sicily, the school programs push some of the Sicilian literary agenda, but it is very little and maybe too late.

I happened to come across some Sicilian literature when I was a teenager: some poems of Giovanni Meli (one of our greatest Sicilian poets), like “L’Origini di lu munnu” (The Origins of the World), a comical poem where Jupiter, the father of men and gods, explains how he is going to create the world; and “Sarudda” a dithyramb, where the wines of Sicily are praised and a group of hard drinking friends, drink themselves to kingdom come and many other beautiful poems. But what mostly caught my attention was a poem from the 16th Century, about the untimely death of the Baroness of Carini (La Barunissa di Carini).

Many year later in the in the States, by chance, I was fortunate enough to secure for myself a copy of CENTONA, a collection of poems, and a copy of TUTTO  IL TEATRO (ALL THE THEATER)  of Nino Martoglio, both works of Sicilian art.

In 1986 I had back surgery. Being idle for about two years is not a good thing, but it almost was a blessing for me. Unable to do any physical work, I dedicated myself to reading. It was in this occasion that I, in searching my library, came across, again, the Baroness of Carini. Together with this booklet, I found other copies, of the same poem, from other authors. I became curious and I started to compare the different editions. It was clear that all the different authors had different sources of information. The poem had been sung from generation to generation and never written. It was Salvatore-Salomone Marino who was the first to get interested in the poem and started a search by interviewing many, many people, who knew some of the poem. In 1870 he published the first edition, and in 1872 published the second edition reviewed and corrected, which is the most known in Sicily and elsewhere. Another worthy edition id by Federico de Maria.

Together with all this material, which I read more than once, I acquired a deeper respect for the Sicilian language. I understood and appreciated much more and better the Sicilian language and the beauty of it.

Suddenly my life seemed whole but too short at the same time. I had found the missing link. Was it too late to enjoy all the treasures of Sicily, that had always been there? We’ll see.

Sicily is an incredible country. Its history is carved in the most deep corner of time. To follow Sicily throughout its history is the most satisfying experience anyone can have, even if one happens not to be a Sicilian. W. Goethe in visiting Italy and then Sicily said that “Italy without Sicily is nothing, here is the key to everything“. Such are the diversions of its history, that it is of global interest and importance.

I have given my faith and love to America, of which I am now an adoptive son, but I will never forget my blood mother: SICILY.

Nino Russo

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  1. My mother and Aunts were descended from the Russo, Corso, Mantia and Trentanella families of Termini-Imerese, Sicily. I heard genuine Sicilian being spoken at home when I was growing up, though, unfortunately, they did not teach it to me.

    My mother’s Uncles James Russo and Leo Russo (1892-1957) were both vaudeville performers. I met Leo once when I was about 10 years old after one of his performances in Providence, near where I lived. He said that among his ancestors were performers that used to perform for the King of Sicily. I wanted to hear more but he had to catch a train to Boston and that’s the last I ever saw of him. He passed away a few years later. So for over half a century I have wondered who those performers were and which King of Sicily they performed for !

    My aunt once told me the story of Ali Baba and the 40 Thieves as it had been told to her by her grandmother Carmella Corso Russo (1857-1940). At the part where Ali Baba utters the magic incantation to open the stone before the hidden cave, in Sicilian it sounds something like “Rathee Bibi” and when it was time to close the door or stone, it sounds something like “Quthee Bibi” in Sicilian. I remember that from when I was 10 years old ! Keep up the great work preserving the language, it is culturally of great importance.


    • Non c’e` di che Gianni. La poesia mi e` molto piaciuta. Presenta gli stessi pensieri e emozioni che io nutro ancora di quando lasciai mia madre. Grazie a te.

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