The sense-world of the festa

“The festa of the Madonna of Mount Carmel recreated the primary and traditional environments of the Italians–the preverbal environment, on the one hand, and the remembered environment of Italy, on the other–in the presence of a quasi-omnipotent mother who healed or did not heal, depending on the behavior of the individual. For the older immigrants and their Italian-born children, the sense world of the festa was the sense world of their southern Italian childhoods; for the later generations in East Harlem, the sense world of the festa recalled the smells, sounds, and tastes of life in the domus. In both cases, the festa and the domus, the sense world was shaped and presided over by a powerful woman. The religious experience of July 16 had the power to evoke memories that were extraordinarily basic: the people seemed to be returning not only to their paese but, more profoundly, to their mothers. The festa was a time of regression, in other words, and the smells, tastes, and sounds of it helped to precipitate and sustain this regression. The devotion summoned people into the sacral domus and surrounded them with familiar tastes, smells, sounds, colors, and textures; in this way, in the presence of their ‘mamma,’ the people returned to the world in which they had first learned, from their mothers, what reality was, what was good and what bad, what their basic values were and the values of their community. The festa and the long-passed intimate moments of moral formation smelled, tasted, and sounded the same.” [emphasis added]

Robert Orsi, The Madonna of 115th Street, pp. 171-172.

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Santa Lucia Luntana

Santa Lucia luntana is dedicated to the many Neapolitan emigrants who departed from the porto di Napoli towards far away lands (almost always towards the Americas). The lyrics are inspired by the sentiments that these immigrants experienced while growing distant from the land, fixing their eyes towards the picturesque panorama of the neighborhood of Santa Lucia, the last part of their homeland that they would be able to see, always growing smaller, on the horizon.

The song quickly became a success, not only in popular thought, and it was also very important at a social level because it brought to light the reality of emigration, a phenomenon up until then poorly understood by the official culture.

Napulitano
« Partono ‘e bastimente
pe’ terre assaje luntane…
Cántano a buordo:
só’ Napulitane!
Cantano pe’ tramente
‘o golfo giá scumpare,
e ‘a luna, ‘a miez’ô mare,
nu poco ‘e Napule
lle fa vedé…
Santa Lucia!
Luntano ‘a te,
quanta malincunia!
Se gira ‘o munno sano,
se va a cercá furtuna…
ma, quanno sponta ‘a luna,
luntano ‘a Napule
nun se pò stá!
E sònano…Ma ‘e mmane
trèmmano ‘ncoppe ccorde…
Quanta ricorde, ahimmé,
quanta ricorde…
E ‘o core nun ‘o sane
nemmeno cu ‘e ccanzone:
Sentenno voce e suone,
se mette a chiagnere
ca vò’ turná…
Santa Lucia,
…………
Santa Lucia, tu tiene
sulo nu poco ‘e mare…
ma, cchiù luntana staje,
cchiù bella pare…
E’ ‘o canto de Ssirene
ca tesse ancora ‘e rrezze!
Core nun vò’ ricchezze:
si è nato a Napule,
ce vò’ murí!
Santa Lucia,
………… »
Italiano
« Partono le navi
per le terre assai lontane…
Cantano a bordo:
sono Napoletani!
Cantano mentre
il golfo già scompare
e la luna in mezzo al mare
un poco di Napoli
gli fa vedere
Santa Lucia!
Lontano da te
quanta malinconia!
Si gira il mondo intero
si va a cercar fortuna…
ma, quando spunta la luna
lontano da Napoli
non si può stare!
E suonano!Ma le mani
tremano sulle corde…
quanti ricordi, ahimé,
quanti ricordi…
E il cuore non lo guarisci
nemmeno con le canzoni:
sentendo voce e suoni,
si mette a piangere
che vuol tornare…
Santa Lucia,
…………
Santa Lucia, tu hai
solo un poco di mare…
ma più lontana sei,
più bella sembri…
Ed il canto delle Sirene
che tesse ancora le reti
Il cuore non vuol ricchezze:
se è nato a Napoli
ci vuol morire!
Santa Lucia,
………… »

Italy or East Harlem?

“For the most part, however, the continuity of faith and devotion which the parish journal made explicit was seen as a faithfulness to southern Italian traditions. The procession, we are told, recalled the great traditional religious processions of southern Italy, just as the Italian American societies consecrated to particular saints resembled those in Italy. The people were urged to relive their Italian past, to reaffirm their Italian selves during the festa. They were told to recall the little shrines to Mary scattered all over Italy–in valleys, beside rivers, deep in forests–and in this way to travel again the spiritual geography of their youth as they worship at the shrine on 115th Street. Though they could not actually be in southern Italy, they could behave as though they were there; indeed, there are times when the author of the parish bulletin actually confused the two places, so that it is occasionally difficult to tell whether he is writing about Italy or East Harlem.” [emphasis added]

Robert Orsi, The Madonna of 115th Street, 168-169.

Journey to la festa

“The devotion to the Madonna of 115th Street met the emotional and moral needs of a population that had emigrated. In the earliest period, from its founding to the time of Dalia’s pastorate, which paralleled the first period of Italian immigration to the closing of the gates, when men were coming alone to New York, participation in the cult assuaged the complicated guilt of the immigrants. The devotion allowed men to be faithful to a woman on these shores as a sign of their faithfulness to the women they had left in Italy. Attendance at their mother’s house located the men in the familial strategy of immigration: they had come because of their families and they could remember and acknowledge this in the devotion. In the earliest writings extant at the shrine, the church is identified strongly as ‘mamma’s house,’ and la Madonna is called by the familiar and childlike nostra mamma’. By initiating and attending the devotion to the Madonna of 115th Street, the men were declaring their faithfulness not only to their women but also to the moral and cultural system signified and dominated by women. The dimly glowing vigil lights which the earliest male immigrants kept burning in their rooms before images of the Madonna and the saints recalled the men to their moral culture: each night, with the sound of the elevated train coming in through the open windows, the noise of the street and the glowing of the gas factory’s stacks, the red lamps summoned the men to be faithful to the values of their people. The devotion and the festa confirmed this and allowed the men to act out their faithfulness.

…There is a way in which the entire festa recapitulated the experience of immigration. The annual celebration also involved a journey… Al of my informants stressed the fact that faithful came from ‘all over’ to the annual celebration, and they particularly wanted to call to my attention long trips that involved crossing water–from Brooklyn, Staten Island, New Jersey; in each case, it was emphasized that a bridge had to be crossed or a boat taken but that this did not deter the faithful.

“By the principle of ‘inverted magnitudes,’ the signification of great realities or events by the smallest symbols or objects, the difficulties encountered in getting to the shrine opened out in meaning for the immigrants and played out again the movement of their migration, ending, as we were told their migration had ended, at their mother’s feet. The younger generations were invited to share in a very physical way the central event of their parents’ histories both by participating in the annual procession as children and by undertaking their long journeys back to Harlem for the devotion in later years.”

Robert Orsi, The Madonna of 115th Street, pp. 163-165.

 

law, logic, and the dark mother

“In Italy, Isis was a mother divinity associated with healing; the 6th century BCE temple to Isis at Pompeii is located next to a temple of Aesculapius, or Serapis. A significant characteristic of Isis, one later associated with the christian madonna, was that she was a compassionate mother. In the rhcistian epoch her son Horus was represented as a child figure. Isis is often depicted with a laurel wreath and two prominant ears, symbolizing that she listened with both ears to the prayers of all those who came to her, an image that can be found to this day in italian folklore.

“Water, always associated with Isis, held a sacred quality: holy water, holy rivers, and holy sea. The serpent, identified with Isis, was always sacred. …Isis and wheat, in the roman epoch, became Ceres and wheat. In the christian epoch Isis became santa Lucia, whose images always carry a sheaf of wheat. The olive tree, associated with Isis, has today become symbol of nonviolent transformation. Italy’s contemporary nonviolent left political coalition is named L’Ulivo, or the olive tree. …In her 600 BCE image in the Museum of Cairo, Isis is figured as a black nursing mother, who bears a startling resemblance to christian images of the nursing madonna.

“Veneration of Isis, her spouse Osiris, and son Horus persisted in all the pharaonic dynasties, a 3,000 year old history when belief in Isis spread from Meroe and Alexandria to ‘the whole Mediterranean basin.’ In Italy and other latin countries where the holy family is a focus of devotion, the trinity of Isis and her husband and child became the popular christian trinity of Maria, Joseph, and Jesus, popular trinity that differs from the motherless trinity–father, son, and holy ghost–of canonical christianity.

“At african Memphis, hymns praising Isis as a civilizing, universal divinity who had ended cannibalism, instituted good laws, and given birth to agriculture, arts and letters, moral principle, good customs, and justice. Mistress of medicine, healer of human maladies, sovereign of earth and seas, protectress from navigational perils and war, Isis was ‘Dea della salvezza per eccellenza… veglia anche sulla morte,’ divinity of salvation par excellence, who also watches over the dead. …

“Acknowledging the dark african mother who preceded patriarchal world religions does not, to this sicilian/american woman, seem all that iconoclastic. It may be a matter of how we think. Erik Hronung, egyptologist of the University at Basel, refers to the complementarity of egyptian logic, which resembles complementarity in physics. ‘For the Egyptians two times two is always four, never anything else. But the sky is a number of things–cow, baldachin, water, woman–it is the goddess Nut and the goddes Hathor, and in syncretism a deity a is at the same time another, not-a.’ For Hornung, ‘the nature of a god becomes accessible through a “multiplicity of approaches,” [and] only when these are taken together can the whole be comprehended.’ Sicilians, as Justin Vitiello reminds us, know this intuitively. So do artists, craftsmen, poets, and peasants of the world. In the 1970’s, when I began to research my italian godmothers/grandmothers, I came across a tile with a blue-black star with thrity-two points in a blue green sea. The tile was named Iside, italian for Isis.”

Lucia Chiavola Birnbaum, dark mother: african origins and godmothers, pp. 20-21, 27.