By Mike La Sorte, Professor Emeritus
The meaning of the above title is that this article is essentially a casual chat about the Camorra of Naples.
Going back to the 1800s, and earlier, the Camorra had established a well-structured power base in the southern city of Napoli, Italia. In fact it was the only political power that many citizens recognized. Political power is not necessarily what you see, but do sense every day. When the city administration sought to act as an authority such efforts were doomed to failure within the arch of a few days, indicating that the city administrators were merely puppets, manipulated by strings pulled elsewhere.
How can this be? Well, how many camorristi are to be found in the population? An estimation could be 5000, perhaps as many as thirty. How does one recognize an important camorrista? It is the demeanor of the person, his look of arrogance, the clothing of the finest material—the cravatta of silk, the ostentatious gold watch, held to his belly by a gold chain, one that catches the rays of the sun. You know by those who loan money to the needy at exorbitant interest rates. And there are the many, what you could call the blue-collar camorristi, those who worked the streets…the rent collectors of street- booth merchants and at the bottom of the hierarchy the thugs, sly pickpockets, racketeers of all sorts.
We are told that the Camorra is of Spanish origin going back to Naples in 1503 with the Spanish conquest. Brigands of the period roamed the hinterlands, waylaying unfortunate travelers, invading villages for booty, killing and raping at random. Such brigandage had a limited history. The countryside pickings were too meager. The city of Naples was another story. It was a jewel that fascinated. Not so much, as “See Naples and die”, but as opportunity both for outlaws and ordinary folk. New lives and reputations could be made in this fast growing seaport.
The city’s fortunes were notably increased by becoming the central embarkation port for Italians of the southern provinces who were seeking opportunities in the New World; the port was updated, expanded and ocean liners were constructed to handle the rapidly increasing human traffic. The attractions of oversea travel were well advertised, the mass migration picking up speed in the early 1900s. Southern Italian towns were emptying out as more and more were boarding ships for the Promised Land.
And so it was that in the Spring of 1906 my father, at age 19, along with 10 other paesani left their native village of Alberobello, full of hope, believing the advertising hype of America, “The Land of the Dollar,” along with other hopefuls, massed together, waiting to board ship, when a Neapolitan pickpocket skillfully relieved Dad of his wad of bills.
Many decades later, after the Second World War, in the late 1940s, Dad decided to return to his native Alberobello for an extended stay. He loved America, had done well, yet the pull of the homeland still held him in a firm grip. He disembarks in Naples, and shortly thereafter is approached by a slick man who apparently sees a fairly prosperous immigrant who might be an easy swindle.
The encounter is brief. Dad, now a man of the world, takes the measure of this smooth talking Neapolitan, and replies thusly: “Io zappo come te.” An obvious metaphor, what was its significance? It refers to working the soil with a hoe: “I hoe like you do.” What Dad was getting across is the sharing of similar backgrounds. It comes down to this: Dad is saying that he was not born yesterday, that he was not foolhardy or fresh off the boat, as he was on arriving in New York City, from the Ellis Island Immigrant Station. And this time he was wearing a money belt.
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