Legacies From Sicily, With Love
My father never took me to Sicily himself, and I yearned to go. I yearned to know the people he knew—and one person he’d never met.
I was born in New York but grew up in two worlds. For half of my family, home was elsewhere. My father immigrated to the United States from Sicily in the 1960s, and he spoke of the island often during my childhood—the Mediterranean like lapis lazuli, brown earth scorched by the summer sun, sweet almond milk for breakfast, and the hot wind that blew in from Africa. But he never took me there himself, and I yearned to go. I yearned to know the people he knew—and one person he’d never met.
La Matri Vita, Sicilian dialect for “Mother Vita,” was my great-great-grandmother. She moves through my family’s stories like a ghost, long gone but always, in some way, present. My father and his siblings recall their grandmother’s fine cooking; she learned it from La Matri Vita. They rejoiced in summers spent at the family’s small country home; the land was paid for by La Matri Vita. La Matri Vita ran a trattoria and married a salesman. La Matri Vita had ambition and she pushed herself far in life. She was a mysterious figure, obscured by time and family lore, but her presence was still felt decades after her death. So, when I went to Sicily for the first time in 2015, at the age of twenty-five, I was looking for her.
Looking for La Matri Vita meant something very specific. It meant hours of archival research in my father’s hometown of Santa Ninfa and beyond. She died of old age in the late 1930s, placing her birth somewhere in the mid-nineteenth century. Was it possible to trace a family history so far back? It was, I discovered, thanks to the world’s oldest bureaucracy—the Catholic church.
Priests have been recording the essential events of people’s lives for centuries with studious regularity. Births, baptisms, marriages, and deaths, all duly noted and marked in church record books. If you can make it past the chicken-scratch handwriting and, of course, the Latin (reading these records is the only time my classics education has ever been useful), you’ll find an unparalleled trove of riches. For example, Catholic marriage records provide not only the bride’s and groom’s places of birth, but the names of their parents, even if the individuals in question were the lowliest of peasants. I’m not sure why the priests were so diligent in their record keeping, but if nothing else, the practice reflects a touching respect for human dignity. Everyone was worth recording.
Of course, there is nothing miraculous about church records. Stumbling blocks abound, usually in the form of acronyms, abbreviations, and—gulp—missing record books. This is where it helps to have a guide. I had one in Sicily, a retired lawyer named Vincenzo La Sala, known about town as l’avvocato La Sala. In Lawyer La Sala, who as a young man had been acquainted with my grandfather, I found a kindred spirit, someone as obsessive about local history and family ties as I was. We spent hours poring over the Santa Ninfa church records together, as he regaled me with advice on interpreting the Latin and conjectures about individual ancestors.
“She must have been from the next town over,” he said, squinting at the records through thick spectacles. He wore a coppola hat—a Sicilian trademark—at all times, even indoors, and gestured at the registry with bony fingers. “Look at the last name.”
I was fortunate to have found him. For reasons that remain unclear, Lawyer La Sala was in possession of a key to the church archives, which otherwise would have remained locked as the priest was in residence only on weekends. Clearly, he had spent many hours in this room. He was as familiar with the record books as some people are with the Bible, and he had no compunction about taking on the administrative duties of the church. On one occasion, when we were researching together, a family came in to inquire about a baptism. Lawyer La Sala instructed them to register for a date. I was the only person who found this exchange even remotely unusual. Why would a retired lawyer stand in for a priest? Why would the locals even trust him to do so? This was small-town Sicily; informality, I discovered, was a way of life.
Together, Lawyer La Sala and I pieced together the essential facts of La Matri Vita’s life. She was born in 1849, as the eighth of ten children, and would have been just eleven years old when Giuseppe Garibaldi and his thousand redshirts landed on Sicilian shores during the unification of Italy. La Matri Vita married late in life, for the time, at the age of twenty-seven. But she married well; her new father-in-law was a wealthy overseer of farm laborers for regional nobility. Her husband ran, yes, his own trattoria. Then, when he died just four years into their marriage, she got everything.
“He left her rich,” my relatives told me, describing a cache of Bourbon gold Vita found under her husband’s deathbed. I can’t verify the gold story, but I can certainly verify that he left her with plenty of money. Local records literally refer to her as a vedova benestante, “a well-off widow.” But she didn’t rest on her laurels. She ran her late husband’s restaurant for years before marrying again, this time to my great-great-grandfather, Girolamo Barbiera. He was a dirt-poor pasta salesman from a nearby village and was seven years younger than her. She married him anyway. It was probably a love match, a luxury she could afford and was not afraid to take. This was a woman who bucked the conventions of her time and lived life unapologetically, a thrill to discover in the branches of my family tree. But I was just at the beginning of her story. I wondered: Why did La Matri Vita lead her life with such independence, in a time and place where women were relegated to a very limited existence as wives and mothers?
As it turned out, the answers were not in Santa Ninfa. To find them, I left my father’s hometown and visited a place he’d never been—the city of Sambuca, just a short drive to the south.
Research in Sambuca was its own adventure, a different proposition entirely to the work that had come before. To begin with, the two towns have little in common. When Santa Ninfa was destroyed by an earthquake in the late 1960s, Sambuca’s historic center remained intact. Founded by the Muslim caliphate that ruled Sicily in the early middle ages, the city boasts a bewildering maze of sun-bleached brick alleys and ceramic street signs in Italian and Arabic. The ghost of a deposed emir is rumored to roam the streets at night.
I was there, however, in search of my own ghosts. It turned out that La Matri Vita’s mother came from Sambuca, so to trace her roots, I needed the Sambuca church records. I wanted my ancestor’s birth and baptismal records, and I wanted her parents’ marriage record. But unlike in Santa Ninfa, here I ran into a resident priest.
This was a woman who bucked the conventions of her time and lived life unapologetically, a thrill to discover in the branches of my family tree.
I found him in the Chiesa del Carmine, a centuries-old church flanked by palm trees in the middle of town. As in Santa Ninfa, Sambuca stored its records in a back room, accessible through a small, sparsely furnished antechamber. The priest, a balding middle-aged man in a black shirt and clerical collar, met me there. I introduced myself, explaining that I had come all the way from the United States to look at their archives. Our subsequent exchange, however, was not a helpful one.
“The records are in Latin,” the priest informed me in Italian, making no moves to retrieve them. I explained that I could in fact read Latin.
“They’re also really old,” the priest said.
“I know,” I replied. “That’s why I want to look at them.”
But the priest shook his head. “And they’re in Latin.”
We continued in this vein for several minutes. Finally, I convinced the priest that I wasn’t a confused tourist, that I was in fact in town to study old church records. Even then, he wouldn’t permit me to view the documents alone. An unfortunate altar boy had to retrieve the books and turn the pages on my behalf. Sadly, this did not make the priest more attentive.
“I’m looking for a specific marriage record,” I told him later, “but the book seems to be missing.”
“You can find the marriage record in the book,” the priest said.
“I know,” I replied. “There is no book.”
“Just look in the book.”
“The book is missing.”
The priest smiled, as though he were bestowing great wisdom upon me. “The book,” he said, “will have the information you seek.”
The Catholic bureaucracy giveth, and the Catholic bureaucracy taketh away.
In the end, because of the missing record book, I could trace La Matri Vita’s ancestry back only two generations on her mother’s side. The trip to Sambuca was not a total bust, however. I discovered the origins of a story I’d heard as a child.
Everyone in my family has heard some variation of this legend. The story is about an ancestor named Giorgio Sparacino, kidnapped by Ottoman pirates and sold into slavery in North Africa. My grandmother’s version went something like this: Giorgio was working on the coast of Sicily. The pirates picked him up because he was so handsome. But when he got to North Africa, Giorgio befriended the local pasha, who kindly allowed him to return home.
This narrative, first recounted to me by my grandmother at her dining room table, made my father roar with laughter. It has some basis in historical fact—human trafficking by Barbary corsairs was a problem in the Mediterranean for centuries—but he viewed it as a relic of the old world, the fantasy of ignorant villagers in thrall to whatever potentate controlled their island. My grandmother, however, was not amused. She insisted it was true, and I wanted to believe it. The story was a connection to another world, my grandmother’s world, an unfamiliar world that I had an unexpected stake in. I understood myself anew in that moment—that I existed at the crossroads of many cultures and people, my identity a unique composite of all that had come before. Who had I been before learning about these ancestors? To know myself was to know them. It’s a conviction that has driven me ever since.
And the story is precious for other reasons. What I didn’t know as a child—what I discovered years later, on my trip to Sicily—was that mine wasn’t the only branch of the family that had preserved it. My distant relatives there, people I had never met before, knew the tale too. Their version is darker than my grandmother’s, but probably more likely: The pirates were cruising the waters around the tiny islands south of the Sicilian coast—Lampedusa, Linosa, Pantelleria—and used those islands as bases to make raids on coastal towns. It was in one of these raids that they picked up Giorgio Sparacino. In this telling, Giorgio never made it home.
My grandmother’s story, then, wasn’t just a glimpse of the old world. Like all oral histories, it was a bridge between the old and the new, a tradition that marked us as family even though we were strangers. Heritage is as much the stories we tell as the blood we share, and Giorgio, like La Matri Vita, was at the center of them.
Sambuca, then, was another crucial point of discovery in my journey into my family’s past. For it was in Sambuca—haunted Sambuca, sun-scorched Sambuca—that I discovered another connection between Giorgio and La Matri Vita, one only hinted at in the Santa Ninfa records: He was her grandfather.
The protagonist of my family’s sinister tale of misadventure in North Africa had come into focus at last. In fact, his daughter Giuseppa, La Matri Vita’s mother, was known locally in Santa Ninfa as Peppa La Turca (“Peppa the Turk”)—here was another woman in my family who stood out. La Matri Vita, it seemed, was in good company.
Finally, I was face-to-face with this woman. Did she have anything more to tell me?
The name Peppa La Turca is not to be found in any record. Rather, I heard it from my grandmother’s cousin, an elderly gentleman named Girolamo, or “Mumminu” for short. Mumminu was the family historian, the keeper of our traditions, and although he died in Sicily before I was able to meet him in person, he left behind one final gift—a photograph of La Matri Vita.
The photo was presented to me by Mumminu’s children at a family luncheon. To them, it was old news, something that had been around forever, but to me, it was precious. Finally, I was face-to-face with this woman. Did she have anything more to tell me?
The photograph, snugly tucked into a wooden frame, appears to have been taken around the time of her second marriage in the mid-1880s. She has dark hair braided high on the back of her head and deep-set eyes. Clearly, there’s money in the family; her head is tilted just so to show off a pair of bedazzled earrings, complementing an elaborate dress with a frilled collar. Her expression is not quite a smile, but not quite a smirk—a look of satisfaction. I see my cousin in her. Generations later, La Matri Vita is still with us.
La Matri Vita died in the 1930s, before the convulsions of World War II transformed Sicily forever. By the 1950s, the Santa Ninfa she had known changed: Where the prince’s castle once stood, a new school was built, and political debates moved from private parlors to the piazza. But the stories my family tells about our roots transcend such changes, bridging decades and even my father’s passage across the Atlantic. La Matri Vita was central to these stories. She was—as her daughter-in-law, my great-grandmother, once put it—our family’s anello di congiunzione, our ring of connection, the tissue that binds us across many kinds of separation.
I am now the keeper of my family’s lore. Inheriting this role took me across the ocean to a hot, dry island where I learned more about myself than I ever had in New York. In so doing, in some small way, I took on the work of repairing our connection with the old world, a connection torn when my father immigrated. I began to cultivate it, cherish it, help it grow. I have become another ring that holds our far-flung family together, one of so many concentric circles that bind us. For what else is the ring of connection but love?