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My Home Town is A URL in Cyberspace: The Internet, Italian Ethnic Identies & The European Union


While indigenous people everywhere fight fight to defend their identity, their lands and their languages, an interesting parallel phenomenon is taking place in Europe. One of the paradoxical results of the cultural globalization caused by the world market and the Internet, with its instant forms of communication, has been an awakening of the ethnic identities that had been assimilated during the formation of the European Nation States in the 19th century.

The Internet is the new forum for these ethnic groups. In a world where people routinely leave their hometowns, The Global Village has become a series of global villages -- virtual meeting places where geographic locality has no importance. What is important is the wish to belong; to be connected with that intangible quality that is one's group identity. Geographical locality has given place to a "locality of desire." The URL -- that little string of letters and dots that opens up the site on the web -- becomes the hometown, the place where one is at home no matter where in the world one might be.

In Europe, a new awareness of ethnic roots is a reaction to the phenomenon of globalization and the stifling structure of the nation-state, which typically tends to ignore ethnic minorities (when it does not attempt to eliminate them) and has particular ramifications on the political arena of the European Union (EU). The creation of a European Union has seen the formation of secessionist groups in many parts of Europe, such as the Catalan, the Basque, Scotland, and Corsica. Several groups have also sprung up in Italy, where this phenomenon has complex and deep roots. So far the Italian arena has been largely ignored by the international media. Yet Italian scholars are deeply aware of the resurgence of the "Piccole Patrie," the small fatherlands, to use the term coined by politician Umberto Fini. And the "dialects," the ethnic languages marginalized by the nation-state, have defined group identities and brought together indigenous peoples and European ethnic groups in the same struggle for recognition. Historian Alberto Sorbrero (1978) writes: "The violence suffered by ethnic-linguistic minorities is with no precedents... because it is a despoliation that takes place with the very annihilation of the individuality, the deliberate deprivation of the means of survival."

The first Italian ethnic Web sites began as political statements. The Lega del Nord started in 1997 as a forum for the one secessionist movement which came to be associated with a political party. The Lega del Nord now represents a political party desiring secession from Southern Italy. Other regions -- Sicily, Sardinia, and Val d'Aosta -- already have autonomous status. But autonomous status within Italy is no longer enough; each group is eager to join the European Union as an independent state. The southern regions formed a site called Le Due Sicilie, using the name of the Bourbon kingdom that encompassed the entire part of the peninsula south of Rome prior to the Risorgimento. Their version of the Unification of Italy is remarkably different from what Italian children learn in school: Garibaldi is a ruthless invader, and the South was conquered, not "united" with the rest of Italy. The political messages on the Web reveal the profundity of Italy's ethnic differences.

Italy has been a sovereign and unified nation for only the past 150 years. While the validity and strength of the Italian culture is undeniable, its components are varied and profoundly diverse. The Italian "people" are made up of many peoples, each with a distinct history and a language, many of which are, at best, a variation of the official Italian. In many cases, however, minority languages bear only distant resemblance to Italian, and in their strictest forms can be as different from Italian as Spanish or French. The post-Risorgimento and the Fascist governments both attempted to unify these peoples by relegating their languages to the state of dialect in contrast with the official Italian, traditionally defined as "Tuscan spoken by a Roman." This effort has had only partial success. The great majority of Italians still speak some form of their own dialect as well as Italian.

The Southern groups and Sardinia in particular have held up their languages as a strong symbol of their identity. Their Web sites are written in dialect; in accessing their Web page, Sicilians are immediately welcomed by the familiar words of their language. This forms a bond -- a sense of brotherhood with the other Web site members -- regardless of where they may be. Italian is offered as a choice among the other foreign languages. The "homepage" is indeed their home, where they share common interests and speak the same language. For a member of the Due Sicilie or the Sardegna Libera Web site, therefore, the very act of opening the site means making a statement of identity, and perhaps also taking a political stand.

Yet there are instances where writing in one's own ancestral language signifies embarking on a complex historical search for identity. One particular linguistic group in Italy speaks Griko, a variant of Greek interspersed with Italic and other elements. In a few villages in Puglie and Calabria, villagers choose to speak Griko only among themselves, using the Italic dialect for communication with schools and work activities. This choice probably saved Griko from the linguistic ax of reforms launched by the post-Risorgimento and Fascist governments. Griko did approach extinction in the post WWII period, when financial needs pushed many people north, and when intermarriages became more common.

The revival of ethnic pride has been particularly strong in Griko villages. Partially because the great promises of the Miracolo Economico have not materialized, the disillusion has pushed people back to old identities. An interesting development in light of the new politics of the European Union is the active involvement of the Greek government in the affairs of Griko-speaking communities. The Greek government has sponsored several cultural organizations in the area whose purpose is to foster awareness of the Greek ancestral culture. One solution favored by some Greek scholars is to go back to the Greek alphabet and to "cleanse" non-Greek words from Griko, substituting them with proper Greek words. This solution would of course make Griko unintelligible for its current speakers.

Italy is a land of complex peoples, and its political unity is recent and superficial. The collapse of the Soviet block and the creation of the European Union have spurred the resurgence of old ethnic identities. Their struggle for identity echoes closely the struggle of indigenous peoples, especially those facing campaigns of assimilation and integration in the so-called nation-state: Japan, Canada, New Zealand, etc. European ethnic minorities wish to speak their own language, and in some cases to determine their own place in the EU as sovereign nations. In a similar way, a significant number of indigenous groups in the fourth world plead for UN representation. The Internet gives these groups a forum that is no longer limited to geographic boundaries. How the dynamics of the new global society and the evolving cyber realities will shape the future of indigenous peoples and ethnic minorities is something deserving of close scrutiny.

References & further reading

Sorbrero (1978). Greìa Salentina (Problemi e Documenti). Capone, L., ed. Italy: Cavallino di Lecce.

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