The Arbëresh of New Orleans, a centuries story



 Every year in early November, a group of New Orleans residents gathers at the city's famous catacombs in a traditional ritual. The group belongs to the Contessa Entellina association, composed of Arberesh heirs from Sicily, coming to the United States in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Voice of America attended the ceremony and spoke with the descendants of the New Orleans Arberesh:

An unusual sight unfolds every November at New Orleans' Metaire catacombs: a decades-long celebration of tombs.

With prayers, conversations, stories, and jokes, as well as toast and food, a group of city dwellers cherish the memory of generations who left the Sicilian village of Contessa Entellina and settled in New Orleans in the late 1800s and early 1900s. They brought with them the language, culture, religion and identity of their Arberesh village.

Not surprisingly, the celebrations are prayerfully opened by the Orthodox priest, the Coptic priest, and then the Catholic priest, as a synthesis of the journey through history and the unique identity they have preserved for centuries in Italy and continue to be remembered in New Orleans.

They came at a time of 'seismic' changes in South America.

Contessa Entellina historian Justin Lance Schiro points out that after the abolition of the slavery system that brought freedom to slaves, the plantation owners were left without the labor force. They paid the journey to the Sicily farmers with a long tradition in agriculture. Such inflows created a strong tradition of Sicilian merchants and craftsmen in New Orleans, many of them of Arbëresh origin.


“My paternal grandparents are both from (village) Contessa. They settled here in the 1800s,” says Tony Foto. He explains that the paternal grandparents differed from his mother's parents who were Italian but not Arberesh:

“My father's grandparents spoke English and Arbëresh. They did not speak Italian. The other grandparents who had also come from Italy did not understand a word in the Arbëresh language."

The need brought the Arberes to New Orleans. Destiny placed them in a city that had welcomed and assimilated endless ethnic communities. History professor Lawrence Powell points out that in New Orleans, the dictated of the geography of the city itself created a culture of tolerance and a unique cultural fusion:

"Until the swamps were dry at the beginning of the 20th century, all the inhabitants were living about 3km from the banks of the Mississippi River, so there was no space to create ghettoes or ethnic neighborhoods. They all lived together. People exchanged recipes from the yard fence, spending time outdoors as there was no air conditioner. In New Orleans, people not only learned to survive but to create a culture to enjoy life. In a city where they lived on the brink of disaster when Mississippi could get out of bed at any moment and devour them, they learned to enjoy the present."

The retired judge Salvador Mulé considers himself a first-generation American: his grandparents gave birth to children in Contessa Entellina before eventually settling in New Orleans. He recalls how in his childhood he heard the Arbëresh language:

“When we were visiting the grandparents, parents spoke to them in Arbëresh so that we would not understand them as children. But we never learned their language."

The older generation strives to attract younger generations to this tradition. Activist Joyce Schiro helps with genealogy research to discover the roots and origins of the association's members.

President Gasper Schiro, a retired lawyer, believes these activities provide more than just an opportunity to gather and remember relatives who have passed away.

For some, the Arbëresh identity has remained merely an echo of the past generations. For others, like Lisa Gourgues, it is an opportunity to understand ourselves and discover distant branches of the family:

Lisa Gourgues, New Orleans

“When I was a little girl I thought I was Italian; I learned I was Sicilian, then they told me that my grandfather was Arberesh / Albanian."

Lisa's grandfather was not from the village of Contessa Entellina but from Santa Christina Gela. But as Contessa Entellina celebrates Arbëresh heritage in New Orleans, she finds a reason to get involved in the ceremony.

Lisa shows that she was always curious about the grandfather who died before she was born.

"My mother always told me he looked different from the Sicilians, as he was white with dark hair and eyes."

In an effort to learn more about him, she also visited the Sicilian villages of the Palermo and Musacchia families coming from her grandfather. A curiosity that has now bound him to numerous cousins ​​who still follow the Arbëresh tradition in Italy.

For those who have not yet realized their dream of visiting the village of Ancestors in Sicily, the November holiday takes on special significance ...
"It's a tradition that has passed from grandfather to father, and now to me," Tony says.

A tradition that helps these New Orleans residents remember the journeys of Arbresh centuries ago to Italy and their relatives to a new life in the United States.
The Arbëresh of New Orleans, a centuries story The Arbëresh of New Orleans, a centuries story Saturday, November 16, 2019 Rating: 5
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