Vibrant Market Is Heart of Multiethnic Capital

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ROME -- On a sweltering recent morning here, customers from around the world crowded the aisles of the food market in Piazza Vittorio Emanuele near Rome's central train station, shopping for everything from plump Italian tomatoes and peaches to Thai basil, basmati rice and halal meat.

"Ciao, capo!" a South Asian vendor shouted to a colleague in colloquial Italian, meaning "Hey, boss." Nearby, two Indian nuns, wearing white robes lined with blue, inspected some produce. An African woman chatted on her cellphone, carrying a small child in a colorful sling on her back.

Once an average neighborhood market catering to middle-class Italians, the emporium at Piazza Vittorio, formally known as the New Esquiline Market, has evolved into the heart of multiethnic Rome. In a country still grappling with immigration -- in recent weeks, Italy's first black government minister has faced racist taunts -- the market presents a different vision, one of an aging country's future as a land of immigrants, marked by an easier coexistence through commerce.

"The market has changed a lot with immigration," said Fausto Bonanni, 64, who has worked at his family's organic vegetable stall for 40 years. "First, it was internal immigration, immigrants from the south, from Calabria, Puglia and Sicily. Then Poles came under Wojtyla," he said, referring to Pope John Paul II.

In the 1990s, Bangladeshis, Indians and South Americans arrived, as well as immigrants from China. The neighborhood has become a hub of wholesalers of Chinese-made souvenirs sold in tourist shops across Rome.

In 2001, the market moved from the piazza to an indoor space and in recent years, many of the Italian vendors have sold or leased their stalls to new arrivals and retired on the proceeds. But not Mr. Bonanni.

"My father left it to me, and I'll leave it to my son," he said as he stood in front of an array of fresh summer produce that the family grows in a plot on the Appian Way, in potassium-rich soil that brings out the flavor of the vegetables. "I told my children, 'Keep this business alive because it is the only thing that will make you a living,' " he added.

The variety offered in the stalls of the market reflects the changing face of Italy. There are Chinese dried mushrooms, odd warty gourds, lemongrass, chili peppers, yams and spices. South American stalls sell mango juice and Inca cola in Technicolor hues. A Polish butcher carries a variety of sausages. In one stall, an advertisement for Nestlé powdered milk reads, "Ramadan Mubarak," or Happy Ramadan.

The immigrants "want to work and aren't afraid of doing jobs others don't want to do," Mr. Bonanni said.

Across the aisle, Boshir Odin, 29, from Bangladesh, said that he had been working at the market for a year, selling produce that he said was grown in Sicily or in Latina, near Rome. "I speak a little bit of Italian, English, Bengali," he said with a grin, before imitating Chinese.

The number of foreign-born residents residing legally in Italy has tripled in the last decade, to about 4.3 million out of a population of 59 million. The largest groups are from Romania, Albania, Morocco and China, but other ethnicities are on the rise. The number of Bangladeshis in Italy has risen to more than 82,000 in 2011, the last year for which data was available, from 20,000 in 2003.

Italy is still grappling with racism. Soccer players of African descent have been taunted during matches. Since taking office this spring, Italy's first black government minister, Cécile Kyenge, has had bananas thrown at her. Last month, a former government minister from the anti-immigrant Northern League Party, Roberto Calderoli, said that Ms. Kyenge reminded him of an orangutan and that she should go back to work "in her country."

Ms. Kyenge, who was born in what is now known as the Democratic Republic of Congo, chose not to attend a gathering of the Northern League after its president, Roberto Maroni, who is also president of the Lombardy Region, did not publicly apologize for his colleague's remark. Prime Minister Enrico Letta denounced the remark, and another Northern League politician extended an olive branch, but the antagonism lingers.

Italy has trailed France and Germany in terms of immigration and integration. "It's hard to quantify, but I think 20 years behind is a reasonable estimate," said Riccardo Staglianò, the author of "Thanks: Why We'd Be Lost Without Immigrants," which argues that immigrants have become essential in Italy in fields as diverse as construction and health care for Italy's growing elderly population.

"But in neither of those two countries would it be thinkable that an ex-minister says to a current minister what Calderoli said to Kyenge," he added of France and Germany.

Back at the market, quality trumped politics. "Piazza Vittorio has become Chinatown, but I don't care," said Isabella Fontana, 65, a retired nurse who was shopping for fish. "If the stuff is good, Chinese, Japanese, French," it doesn't matter, she said.

Mostafa Abdel-Wahab, 52, a halal butcher, explained that he had studied political science in his native Egypt but learned to be a butcher in Rome after he arrived in 1982. Eventually, he bought his own stall.

"When I came, there were dishes I missed and I couldn't find," Mr. Abdel-Wahab said, singling out the Arab pastry kunafa, a spindly nest of spun filaments and sugar. Now, it is easier, he added, slicing meat with a huge knife as he spoke.

The novelist Jhumpa Lahiri, who is living in Rome, recently wrote in the Italian newspaper La Repubblica that in contrast to the Italian-Americans that she grew up with in Rhode Island, who climbed the social and economic ladder, the Bangladeshis she met in Rome often had the opposite experience.

"They say that they find it difficult to create a new life here," Ms. Lahiri wrote. "Even if they have been here for many years, they still feel they are on the margins, barely tolerated, disconnected from the rest of society. Their children, born and raised in Italy, are not Italian citizens." Under Italian law, children born in the country have the citizenship of their parents.

Another vendor, Jane Eke, 48, from Nigeria, who was selling yams and bags of rice from a stall at the market, said that she was disheartened by Italy and had never felt accepted here. "I don't like this country," she said, fetching a bag of rice for a customer from the Philippines. "But because of my kids, I can't go back."

Ms. Eke said her husband had come to study at an Italian university. He got the market stall 20 years ago and the family stayed, raising their three children here. Their youngest child, Ugo, 17, a cellphone earpiece tucked into one ear, was helping out. He speaks Italian, but not Ms. Eke's native Igbo language.

Their oldest daughter was graduating from college in Rome. "But after they study they don't have jobs," Ms. Eke said, referring to a youth unemployment crisis in Italy. A generation later, she is not so sure her children have a future in Italy. "We're trying to shift them toward the U.K.," she said.

Gaia Pianigiani contributed reporting.

world

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.


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