In November 2003 I went to Argentina. I bussed for hundreds of kilometres in the country’s blue coaches across the uninhabited to meet men and women who had emigrated there from the Romagna region of Northern Italy either during or immediately after the Second World War.
In Bahia Blanca I met the Ridolfi siblings, Tarcisio, Marina and Alda. We had agreed to meet at the Italian Mutual Aid Society, established on the 2nd of April 1882. The room was bare with a large wooden table. The three siblings were full of life, like many elderly Argentinians. We kissed on both cheeks, as is the custom there, and began to talk. The Ridolfis all spoke Italian with a slight Spanish accent. Marina, a cheerful, chatty woman, was the first to speak, but as the story of their lives and family unwound, all three of them took turns in telling the tale.
– My name is Marina Ridolfi, and I came to Argentina when I was fifteen years old, because of the war.
– My name is Alda Ridolfi. Our father died thirty five days before I was born. I left Italy when I was seven years old with my mother and my sister, Marina. Tarcisio, our brother, had left eight months before. We didn’t leave with him because mother had a stiff leg and it wasn’t specified in her passport. Do you remember Tarcisio?
– Sure, I was eighteen and I left on my own because my passport was about to expire. I sailed from Genoa on the “Giulio Cesare”, a ship that was only on its second voyage, so it was brand new. We travelled in such luxury it was like being tourists, but when we arrived we were all just emigrants.
Alda was the shyest of the three. She left Italy when she was only a little girl, which is perhaps why she is so keen to reconstruct family bonds and events, and talk about relatives, lost and found.
– Our mother had a brother at La Plata and her sister, our aunt, lived in Bahia Blanca. When they wrote to us from Argentina, they made it sound as if the streets were paved with gold. Mother was a widow with three children and after the war she decided to emigrate because life was so hard for us. When my sister, Marina, was four she had to go and live with the nuns and when he was eleven, Tarcisio had already started work as a carpenter.
– Hey, do you remember Alda? I worked there right up until my last day in Italy.
– Our mother, on the other hand, worked in the Arrigoni factory in Cesena, for fifteen hours a day. She was … what you’d call a trade union member. She was always very tense and she never relaxed. She was a socialist, a woman with real character, a fighter. Whereas our father’s side of the family was very Catholic. Our uncle was a priest.
At this point Marina interrupted her sister to talk about herself. Her eyes were bright green and they had a lively, ironic glint.
– When we left I was a teenager and I thought it would all just be one big adventure. But the truth was very different. When I got here I cried for a whole year. I was unlucky because we went to live near the harbour and ships left all day long. You could hear them and their choo choo.
– I was happy to leave too, Marina, because it was something new, something happy. But then I saw you crying and I saw mother crying, so I started crying too, even if I didn’t really know why.
The three siblings were all born in Cesena, just a few kilometres from where I was born. Marina still cherishes her childhood loves.
– What I found most upsetting and what I have never really got over was leaving grandmother behind. As it was grandmother who had raised me. She came to say goodbye at the station. She was very old, a big woman with a black headscarf. I remember her saying, «I mi bùrdel ch’a’n’i vegh pjò.»1 Do you remember, Alda?
– Yes. She gave me a kiss and she was crying. Then she went, but she kept waving to us, like this. We never saw her again.
The room went quiet. Alda lowered her hand and looked at the floor. I couldn’t help thinking about my grandmother who never favoured any of her grandchildren, and about Romagna, the farm and factory worker revolts and the first cooperatives established by labourers. My grandmother was also a socialist and she worked on the shopfloor in a factory too. She used to tell me about the evenings she spent at the theatre with her friends and a particularly handsome shoemaker. Alda dried her tears and Tarcisio took up the story.
– We lived with our grandmother until my poor father died. I was the eldest, I was ten. Father had a heart disease. There was a stream near the house surrounded by trees and a cane thicket where the Germans kept an ammunition dump. One day they made my father load a truck with cases of ammunition to take to the front. He fell over and died a few days later crying with pain. There was no medicine and there were no doctors. That is something I have never forgotten. There are a lot of Germans here in Argentina, but I always keep them at arm’s length, because they all have that, I don’t know, that overbearing manner, that sense of pride that only they have. My son married a girl from a German family, so I suppose I should keep my mouth shut. Perhaps it’s God punishing me.
– But she’s a good girl, Tarcisio.
– Sure Marina, I really have nothing to say against her.
Once again it was Alda who took up the thread of the family story.
– For the first three years we stayed in the city of La Plata. There were lots of Italians there. Somehow we all ended up in La Plata, so the Argentinians tended to look down on us. We all spoke dialect, and there were Neapolitans and Calabrians too. No one actually spoke Italian and even less spoke Argentinian. We somehow managed to understand each other, though, in one way or another. Mother went to work as a cleaner and my sister, Marina, worked for a seamstress.
– Yes, she was an Italian seamstress and she only wanted Italian girls. There were fifteen of us, so it was like being part of a big family.
– My brother, on the other hand, went to work for a carpenter. He knew how to do that, didn’t you, Tarcisio?
– Yes, I went to work. But everything they did was cockeyed; even the way they ate. For example, we eat pasta at the beginning of a meal, but here it comes at the end. I used to like cycling too. I used to ride in the hills around Cesena. When I came here I brought a racing bike, but the roads in Argentina were too rough and it fell apart after just a few months. After a bit I went to work for a German oil refinery. More than five thousand people worked there and nearly all of them were emigrants. At that time, I used to have a pochito2 more friends. I used to go dancing at the Società Friulana, that’s where all the Italians went.
– But the people … the Argentinians…
– It’s true, I used to find the people a bit … I don’t know whether it was contempt or jealousy because the Italian economy was booming, and here things were beginning to get worse. And they are still getting worse! They had led us to believe that Argentina was one of the most powerful nations in the world, one of the richest, one of the most intelligent, one of the most … everything. But the truth was that here, people were still living in houses made of cardboard or tin. Our uncle in La Plata had arrived here thirty years before us, but he was still living, with the whole of his family, in a single room where they all cooked, ate and slept together. Just after I arrived, I remember saying to him, «Tell me one thing, Uncle, in thirty years is this all the America you’ve managed to build for yourself?» His answer was to give me a smack round the head. That was my welcome! Argentinian folklore was a bit like that. I used to wear pyjamas and my uncle said they were a luxury. He said that no one here wore pyjamas and that if I wore them it showed I was a bureaucrat.
– And that’s not all, Tarcisio, in Cesena we used to go to Midnight Mass on Christmas Eve in the snow. But here Christmas comes in the Summer and all the families get together and celebrate it with a huge dinner. An asado, which means a plate of grilled meat, and even if its 40°C and sweltering, they still all drink wine and get drunk.
Tarcisio had a gentle, slightly melancholic look. Each different period of his life was a world unto itself and as he talked he seemed to disappear completely into these bygone experiences.
– We moved to Bahia Blanca in fifty-five, after our uncle in La Plata died, because our aunt and cousins had bought some land. They were looking for someone they could trust. «Tarcisio, we’d like to offer you a job,» they said. And I told my mother, «Mother, your nephews have bought some land and, digo3, they’ve offered me a job. What do you think?» And she said, «Well let’s go, that way I can be close to my sister.»
We sat there in silence for a while, looking out at the bright, shining streets of Bahia Blanca, the city founded in 1828 as a fortress to protect the population against the Indians. The day before I had been walking along the semi-deserted streets of the Ingeniero White industrial zone, where the harbour is, when a piece of graffiti had caught my eye, «Un militante no es un Heroe. Simplemente quiere vivir. Simplemente no se conforma par aceptar que otros han decidido ya de su vida, su futuro, sus modicas ambiciones y su muerte.4»
Alda was a sedate, orderly woman. She didn’t talk much about herself, she preferred to speak about her brother and sister and the family.
– They had two hundred and fifty hectares of land and they needed someone to look after it, so we went and we stayed there for five years. The land was seven kilometres out of town and the work was too rough. The land there is no good. It’s white because there’s so much salt in it. That’s why the city is called Bahia Blanca.
– We lived with our relatives and they would say things like, «Marina you have to cook this, this and this, because you have only just arrived …» And I can tell you, to begin with it wasn‘t easy. I used to go to work in the fields on horseback because they had milk cows. They made cheese and that sort of thing. It wasn’t the kind of job I wanted to do. I was seventeen or eighteen, so I left and went to live in town, in Bahia Blanca, where I started to train as a nurse.
– I stayed, on the other hand, and became a vaquero5. I used to sit in the saddle for up to nineteen hours a day without ever getting off. Our cousins were butchers. They would buy cows at the market and I would herd them back to a shed on their land that was about fifteen or eighteen kilometres away. I used to ride right through the centre of town with seventy or a hundred animals. The next day I would take the cows to the abattoir at Punta Alta that was about thirty kilometres away. I was twenty-one so I treated the whole thing like a big adventure.
– He used to have girls all over the place.
– That’s true, Marina, but then I got engaged to the woman who is now my wife. In fifty-eight I threw the horse thing in and started working as a truck driver. When I retired inflation was soaring, but they didn’t give me a peso extra … luckily they reopened the factory and took me on again.
– Meanwhile, I had succeeded in becoming a nurse. I worked in a hospital, in a team headed by a certain Doctor Costali. He was a neuropsychiatrist who only operated on the head. There were three doctors and four nurses in his team. When I got married and my husband decided he didn’t want me to keep working there, I found it very difficult to leave. Since then I’ve always drummed medicine into my children’s heads … and now one is a children’s doctor, the other is a vet, who is always out in the fields with the cows, and so is the other one …
As they talked I looked through the glass partition that separated the room from the corridor. On the wall outside was an old black and white photograph of a crowd of moustachioed men, all dressed in their Sunday best and all carefully posed for the camera. There were numerous mutual aid societies in Romagna, just as there were in Argentina and these institutions gave their members more than just financial support. They were also committed to promoting culture and education. My grandmother had one regret only, that she had never been able to study. Marina, who was a big woman, continued talking about her life.
– So when my children went off to University, one at Tondil, the other at La Plata, and the other… I, as they say here, went a bit off my head. I missed having my big family at the table. So one day I said to my husband, «Look, I’m a hard-headed Italian woman and I’ll sort this out my way. I’ve had enough of pills and doctors, just open a shop for me and I’ll do the rest.» That’s how I began selling wool. And for the last fifteen years my sister Alda has been working with me, because we’re used to being together, you know! She was born in the middle of an air raid. I was six or seven years old at the time and mother was more dead than alive. My grandmother wrapped her up in a piece of cloth and gave her to me. «Here!» she said, «Do whatever you can!» She weighed one kilo and nine hundred grams.
– From a kilo and nine hundred grams when she was born, to almost a hundred kilos now!
– Come on, Tarcisio, stop it!… I always used to eat with Alda in my arms. I was always dirty too, as she was always wetting herself. She was a bit like a doll for me and then a bit like a daughter. Or let’s just say, I’ve always had a weak spot for her.
– It’s true, Marina was a bit like a mother to me, because mother’s life was so difficult. Mother was an orphan, so she was brought up by her elder brother. He had seven children and seven brothers, so she ended up being a nurse to all of them. Then she fell and maimed her knee. And after that she got married. Father’s side of the family were all farm labourers, which meant she had to work in the fields too. Then father died when she was still very young and left her with two children and a third, me, on the way.
The two sisters looked at each other, as if they were searching for an answer. When Marina spoke to Alda she was clearly still seeking to understand her mother’s rash decisions and explain them in terms of her character and world events.
– When mother arrived in Argentina she didn’t speak the language and her health wasn‘t good, but she still had to go and clean people’s houses. She used to cry, «Why ever did we come here?» We didn’t have enough money to get home, but mother was tough and she decided to buy a house. The average Argentinian simply rented. If they had bread, mate and meat they were happy.
– And yes, she was tough. As they say here, «There are more fingers on one hand than the kisses my mother gave me!» But you know, Marina, she never let us want for anything. It was difficult to have a few extra pesos to buy a dress. So what did she do? She used to go and sift sand. That was a man’s job and they used to pay you by the metre. Do you remember Tarcisio?
– Sure, I can see her now. She even used to go and unload trucks. Then she went back to Italy to get her pension. When she got there she found out she was missing two months of social security contributions, so she went to work as a general maid in a hotel in Rimini. Then she came back to Argentina with a pension.
– Mother always kept in contact with Italy through our uncle the priest, father’s brother. He always wrote to us. Making a phone call at that time was just too expensive. Hey, Tarcisio, do you remember the first time we heard uncle’s voice on the telephone? After thirty years, ah … it was an experience you couldn’t begin to describe.
– I cried … he cried. We spoke in dialect.
Alda interrupted Tarcisio and went back to speaking about her mother .
– Mother lived until she was ninety. She wouldn’t even let God say, «Now it’s time for you to die.» When she decided, they found her lying in bed, dead, with her handkerchief. She was fine until she was eighty, but then she had a heart attack and was paralysed for the last ten years of her life. It all happened according to mother’s rules though. She collapsed by the roulette wheel in a casino. She used to scrimp and save all year so she could go gambling at Mar del Plata or Monte Ermoso in the summer. She used to rent an apartment with me and my family and in the evenings she would go to the casino. That night she was winning and she got so excited she had a heart attack.
Alda stopped talking. I had a vision of my grandmother sitting on the edge of a hospital bed, light and graceful, with her hands in her lap and her feet dangling off the floor. «It’s even difficult to die» she said. Tarcisio was lost in his memories. So I asked him what it had been like when he had gone back to Italy for the first time and visited Cesena, the town where he had left his youth.
– I was dying to go back, but when the letter had arrived from Italy asking me to report to the Consulate for my military service I hadn’t gone. In terms of Italian law that meant I was a deserter and until I had reached the age of forty-five I could have been arrested. So with a certain amount of will power I waited twenty-eight years, then I went straight to the consulate and said «Get me a passport immediately.» Then I wrote to my uncle the priest, Don Secondo, and he paid for my ticket over.
– Tarcisio had already gone back to Italy twice and Alda three times, but I had never been. My husband didn’t want me to go, because he said the children were too young. His parents were Italian, but he has never left Argentina. One day, our uncle the priest wrote to me and said, «Marina, I’ll send you the ticket.» And I said to myself, «That’s it! I’m going!» and I left with Alda. When I came back, my husband said to me, «So, how did it feel? How did it feel when you went up those steps and disappeared off over there?» And I said, «Do you want me to tell you the truth or a lie?» «No, tell me the truth». «Well, what I felt was a huge sense of release.» Thirty, thirty-five years had gone by. I went back to my old school in viale Carducci. And I entered, what they call here, a time tunnel and they had to take me out because I suddenly felt ill. I could hear the voices of my teacher and the nuns. Then I went to our house in Porta Santi and I looked for a hole that Tarcisio and I had made in the courtyard door when we were little. And it was still there! When we reached the centre of town I started crying and I didn’t stop until I got home. Because it was like the song, «I’m from neither here nor there. Non son di qui, non son di là».
– It’s true Marina, everyone would like to be in both places at the same time.
– It’s not like that for me when I go back to Italy. I have one big party. All our cousins organise family reunions and they argue amongst themselves about who is going to have us. Today it’s my turn, tomorrow it’s yours. My female cousin has come over to Argentina twice, and my male cousin has been over five times. My uncle came too and my children have all been to visit Romagna.
– But you’re lucky Alda. Unfortunately my children have never been, and they don’t ever think of going either. They’re real Argentinians. When the World Cup is on and I hear the Italian national anthem, I start crying and they tease me.
– My children and my wife, on the other hand, have always been fond of Italy. My son is waiting for Italian citizenship so he can go and live there. The documents are in tramite, they’re coming along. He has been to see the place where his ancestors are buried and to visit our relatives that are still alive.
– Tarcisio do you remember, in Italy, after the war, all our relatives had disappeared. They had all been taken away by the Germans. Then one day, a neighbour of ours was out ploughing in the fields and he noticed that in one spot the earth was beginning to cave in. He dug down a bit and found all of them there. They had been shot.
– Sure Alda, now they have erected a memorial in their honour. My son has been there. But Argentina’s past is also … well let’s say we have always tried to keep our children out of politics. Because here in Argentina, today there’s this party, tomorrow there’s another. But the church is always right wing. The right always controls the information.
At this point Alda interrupted, because she needed to say certain things about her family that she had heard many times and which had clearly had a great effect on her.
– For example, our uncle, the one who lived in La Plata, he was left wing. And one day during Peron’s regime, the Police came to his house and took him away and no one knew where they had taken him. When he came back he had lost nearly twenty kilos. They had tortured him.
– And you know something else, Alda? Of course you know, because I’ve already told you. When I went back to Italy I found out that our uncle in La Plata is the recognised founder of the Communist Party in Gambettola. His father, our grandfather, was beaten to death by fascists. To get his revenge on one of the murderers, our uncle waited until his wedding day. He sat outside the church in a cart with three horses. Then when the man came out he lassoed him, dragged him for about three hundred metres behind the cart and left him more dead than alive. Then he fled to France and then came over to Argentina.
Tarcisio fell silent. I felt almost as if I could see that man standing up in the cart. Then Marina, the only one out of all the people I met when I was in Argentina, said something about the military dictatorship and the desaparecidos.
– In seventy-six, here in Argentina, the military took over and killed thousands of young people.
– Yes, more than thirty thousand people just disappeared.
– They were all kids between fifteen and twenty-five years old. They used to come at night and drag them away from their families. Then nothing more was heard of them. In Bahia Blanca lots of them were … they used to throw them into the sea alive. They killed them all.
Adolfo Scilingo, a former captain in the Argentine Navy, also from Bahia Blanca, was the first to confess. «I don’t believe that any of the people who died were important enough to be actually dangerous… Yes, it is true that the country was in chaos. But today I can say that it would have been possible to find a different solution. (…) Once the plane got a certain distance from land, the doctor who was on board would inject them with a second dose of a very powerful tranquiliser. They were completely knocked out. (…) I cannot forget the image of those naked bodies stacked one on top of each other in the corridor of the plane. It was like a film on Nazism. (…) they were thrown out of the back hatch, which opened downwards.»6
We sat quietly for a moment. I rested my hands on my knees. We were sitting on a set of old wooden chairs that had been looked after carefully. Nobody throws things away easily in Argentina, especially furniture. People prefer to patch things up.
1 My children that I will never see again! I miei bambini, che non li vedo più!
2few – pochino
3 Dico – I say
4 Un militante non è un eroe. Semplicemente vuole vivere. Semplicemente non si adatta ad accettare quello che altri hanno già deciso per la sua vita, per il suo futuro, per le sue modeste ambizioni, per la sua morte.
A militant is not a hero. It is someone who simply wants to live. Who simply does not conform in order to accept the life, future, modest ambitions and death, that others have decreed for them.
5mandriano – cowhand
6 Verbitsky Horacio, Il volo, Fandango Tascabili, 2008, Roma, p.28 e 52, 53