The Legal Side of Culture: Notes on Immigration, Laws, and Literature in Contemporary Italy

By Parati, Graziella | Annali d'Italianistica, Annual 1998 | Go to article overview
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The Legal Side of Culture: Notes on Immigration, Laws, and Literature in Contemporary Italy


Parati, Graziella, Annali d'Italianistica


Perhaps more than any other, the "reality" of immigration is indeed a question of words. (Gerard Noiriel)

In 1996, a group of beauty pageant judges awarded a black woman the title of Miss Italia. The ascension of Denny Mendez to the title provoked outraged reactions:

They make us swallow anything in this country. Even a black Miss Italy. This beautiful girl will represent us all over the world for a whole year and there will be people who, not knowing geography very well, believe that all our girls are the color of chocolate. (Panorama 52)

The editor's reply to this letter manipulates the same language by inviting Donna Elvira, the author of the letter, to be ready for a "yellow" Miss Italy and points to the model of the national soccer teams in Europe. Presenting soccer teams as paradigms of a multiracial society seems to portray internationally accepted, and nationally internalized, stereotypes about Italians and their all-consuming passion for the national sport. If soccer teams are multiracial winning entities, why could not societies function in the same way? This cultural synecdoche is part of an equation that eloquently describes how representations of cultures are constructed and simplistically discussed even in political journals like Panorama. In fact, the editor's reply to the racist remarks by Donna Elvira is an inadequate and misleading contribution to the public debate about a multiracial and multicultural Italy.

Immigrants have attempted with varied success to present themselves in autobiographical acts that are narratives about immigrants and immigration. These narratives originated following the first immigration laws in Italy, define the way in which these laws function as pre-text and sub-text to many immigrants' life stories. I will analyze how hybrid texts written by the immigrants supply new paradigms in the construction of immigrant identities that influence Italians' and Italian writers' constructions of otherness. This essay will survey a number of texts and explore connections between immigrants' narratives, legal texts, and contemporary Italian culture, without focusing on any specific migration experience. Donna Elvira reduces the discussion on diversity to very tangible terms: the fact that Miss Italia's black body has to be swallowed by a white culture, which in turn becomes contaminated and can be seen from the outside as non white by "geographically challenged" people. She is worried that international observers do not have a clear territorial map in mind, a map that superimposes territorial divisions with racial identity, and that the body of a non-white woman has become the signifier of the present and the future of Italy. The discussion is, indeed, about bodies: the body of laws that regulate the presence of "others" in Italy, the visible presence of the other's body in a country familiar with migration but not immigration, and the changing body of Italian culture.

The first autobiographies by immigrants published in Italy are authored by people coming from Francophone areas--Morocco, Tunisia, and Senegal--and revolve around an important event in Italy: the creation and approval of the Martelli Law which attempted to regulate and regularize the presence of immigrants in Italy. The importance of the Martelli Law lies in the fact that it is the first complete corpus of laws dealing with the presence within Italy of people originating from countries outside the European community. Since 1955, the movement of European citizens within and between the Western European countries has been sanctioned by laws that first privileged the right to "free circulation" of workers and their families, and later, in 1990, extended that right also to students, unemployed, or retired people, as long as they do not become a burden to the host state. Since 1993, European citizens can be employed in public administration positions, excluding those involving security issues (police, law, armed forces) in any of the European countries.

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The Legal Side of Culture: Notes on Immigration, Laws, and Literature in Contemporary Italy
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