Friday, August 1, 2008

Camorra's Kids

Grazza sounds like grazie and nise is one letter away from nice. But Grazzanise, a town in the province of Caserta, doesn't inspire nice images or make you feel thankful to be there. You feel like an outsider, all eyes watching you, sizing you up from the window sills above, peeking through the beads hanging in the doorways of the macelleria and panificio. Chatty bar patrons fall silent as you pass, eavesdropping on your conversation and trying to interpret your strange language. But they can't.

In Grazzanise, few speak English. Few speak Italian. Here, they speak dialect. A sloppy, rough-around-the-edges version of Napoletano that sounds as if every word is an accusation or cuss. Here it seems suspicion isn't in the air, it is the air. Here is where I spent a week teaching English to middle school children, many of whom were born into a century-old war of corruption, secrecy and violence. These are the Camorrisiti offspring, the children of La Camorra.
Sicily has the Mafia, Calabria has the 'Ndrangheta and Campania has La Camorra. I hear the term every night on the Italian evening news, when expressionless news reporters update the public on trash fires, protests and the rising stench of Napoli's waste removal crisis, of which Camorra is at the helm.I smelled the stench every morning on the drive to school. Some days burning plastic other days rotting trash thrown from the window of the car and left on the side of the road. And a sharp chemical smell. That was the worst. On one of those rides to school, our project director told us specifics on some of the kids in the program. This boy's uncle is in jail, So and So's father was murdered last year. It all seemed so nonchalant. Like she was giving us the weekly weather forecast. Rain in the east, cloudy up north, murder in the south. At school signs of neglect were everywhere. Broken glass littered the asphalt yard and green mold bubbled from the sink drains in the boys' bathroom. It seemed unthinkable that children would spend their adolescent years here, but the kids and staff didn't seem to notice. Numb to it, I guess. Hardened like blobs of chewing gum stuck on the desks.
There are drastic differences in the kids here from the kids I worked with two weeks before in the affluent Sorrentine Penninsula, only a couple of hours away. Grazzanise kids are fighters, if they want to do something they do it, no regard to rules. They shattered the window pictured below with a ball, defaced a girl's doll with swastikas, and spit, in food and in faces. They were expert thieves stashing the materials they stole from us in their pockets, shoes and mouths and then turning on a charming smile when confronted about it. Lying came too easily for them.
I'd be lying if I said I didn't hate these children at first. They invite you to hate them and seem more comfortable having enemies than friends. But when you sit down one-on-one with them, away from the pressure of the group it's clear that the attitude is all a front. A "tough guy" exterior with an attention-starved baby inside.

During the forty hours I spent with these kids there were a few beautiful moments when I'd capture them with a cheerful song, an interesting lesson, or a friendly competition. For those brief minutes you saw a sparkle in their eye, a scowl turn to a smile, a puffed up chest deflate. For those few minutes you saw the thing most precious in a child's life but so rare in these kids' world. Innocence.

For further reading on the Camorra check out Robert Saviano's Italian best-seller, Gomorrah.


Kiera said...

Courtney, what writing!! So clever and stimulating! Looking forward to reading more of your adventures...
; )

Anonymous said...

Court - - this was the best entry I've read on either blog. You have captured the flavor of the area with your critical eye. Beautifully written, insightful, and touching. Kudos, kiddo!!

Anonymous said...

Fantastic post- you've truly depicted what life can be like in that part of southern Italy. It's horribly sad and unbelievable when you look at those conditions and realize that it IS Italy and not a third world country...