Mapping culture and communication
in Race talk

Chapter 1 presents a history of culture and communication in Napoli. It explores the significance of multilingual talk in everyday interactions in Neapolitan street markets as a result of overlapping histories of foreign domination, cultural hybridisation, Italian nation-building, fascism, wounded local pride and migration. The chapter argues that multilingual talk shaped transcultural negotiations in a context where localised historic inequalities and power dynamics were encountering an ever-increasing complexity of human movement, global heterogeneity and attendant racist responses. In order to examine this more closely, connections are drawn between the histories of culture and communication in the city and the contemporary multilingual dynamics of the ever-evolving street markets where the fieldwork was conducted. This is a selective account that considers social and political histories of the city as they relate to the question of talk and language use.

NAPOLI HAS BEEN a significant location for arrivals and departures throughout history. Everyone from holidaying European nobility to foreign invaders and emigrating southern Italian peasantry has settled or passed through the city and left their mark there. In Mediterranean Crossings, Iain Chambers argued that the city’s ‘creolised past’ complicates the narratives of Italian nation-building that emerged over the coursed of the nineteenth century because Napoli’s political, economic and geographical culture continued to be infused by a Greek, Byzantine, Spanish, Saracen and Norman heritage in such a way that denies any neat separation of East and West, or centre and periphery (Chambers 2008: 83–88). Language has always been an important optic through which these overlapping histories of domination and cultural intertwining have been expressed and worked through, and through which new social changes have been addressed and dealt with. Struggles around language – around what language to use, and when, in order to garner respect or ensure material survival; around being able to talk, being silent or being silenced, and thus powerful or powerless; around language use that was associated with subaltern status and either pride or shame – were central to the processes of cultural meaning-making that I was observing, and part of, in Napoli. People’s pride and self-protectiveness were often predicated on being able to talk, with a consciousness that, historically, talk had been a fraught question. At the same time, Napoli had always been a globalised, multicultural and multilingual reality so cultural protectiveness and closure had always coexisted with open processes of translation and communicative incompletion.

Napoli’s position on the edge of the Mediterranean – in the shadow of a necropolitics that called for people deemed disposable to be placed at risk of death – generated a creative and sticky friction between this particular local context of culture, language and difference and the wider geopolitical scenario of politicised mass migration and global austerity (Mbembe 2019; Tsing 2005). As I argued in the introduction, multilingual talk shaped transcultural negotiations in a context where localised historic inequalities and power dynamics were encountering an ever-increasing complexity of human movement, global heterogeneity and attendant racist responses. In order to examine this more closely, the chapter connects histories of culture and communication in the city to the contemporary, multilingual dynamics of the ever-evolving street markets where I did my fieldwork. This is, of necessity, a selective account that considers social and political histories of the city as they relate to the question of talk and language use.

Unification and colonialism: forging an Italian language and people

Antonio Gramsci argued that the Italian Unification (1780–1870) should be understood as a ‘historical fetish’: a transformation of different historical processes of creolisation into one eternal fantasy of the nation (2010: 44–45). It was a semicolonial conquest, justified through ideological paradigms about civilising the noble and violent southern savage, and carried out by the troops of the royalist Piedmontese State in the north (Gramsci 2010: 4; Gribaudi 1997: 88).1 The economic and spiritual effects of Unification were devastating for the Italian south. Changes to customs and tax laws, and the failure to introduce effective farming reforms, severely damaged southern agriculture and resulted in a violently suppressed peasant revolt and mass emigration (Allum 1973: 21–22; Verdicchio 1997: 24). Napoli lost the privileges it had previously enjoyed as one of the two capital cities of the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies, alongside Palermo. It no longer drew in massive taxes from the surrounding countryside and ceased to be the State’s preferred city for investment in new industries and technologies (Chambers 2008: 76, 112).

The resulting economic deprivation came to be described by Italian politicians as the ‘Southern Question’ from the early 1870s. From the beginning, pre-existing tropes of southern racial and cultural inferiority were invoked to explain the causes of the problem (Schneider 1998: 10–11; Verdicchio 1997: 21–29). As Gramsci explained:

The poverty of the Mezzogiorno was historically incomprehensible for the popular masses of the North; they could not comprehend that national unity was not achieved on the basis of equality, but as the result of the hegemony of the North on the Mezzogiorno … the North was an ‘octopus’ that enriched itself at the cost of the South, its industrial and economic progress was in a direct relationship to the impoverishment of southern industry and agriculture. (Gramsci, cited in Chambers 2008: 111)

Instead, southern marginalisation was explained away as a result of a dysfunctional biological and cultural make-up, with southern Italian masculinity being stereotyped as possessive and violent, and southern femininity as submissive (Capussotti 2013: 270). These tropes were then given scientific authority through the work of positivist ethnologists such as Alfredo Niceforo, Cesare Lombroso and Enrico Ferri, who measured southern Italian skulls and decreed that southerners were of African descent and so less civilised than their Aryan co-nationals in the north (Schneider 1998: 11; Verdicchio 1997: 30).

These racialised images of the Italian south circulated globally. From the seventeenth century to the nineteenth, Napoli was an important stopping point for wealthy Northern Europeans and Americans who undertook the Grand Tour. Their travel memoirs abounded with gruesome and mawkish stories about a city overrun with prostitutes and people whose skin had permanently yellowed from repeated malaria infections. For example, this comment from a seventeenth-century travel memoir – ‘Europe ends at Naples and ends badly[;]‌ Calabria, Sicily and all the rest belong to Africa’ – evoked orientalist and racialised ideas about southern Europe that were complemented by the nationalist narratives about the ‘Southern Question’ as a result of racialised inferiority (Gribaudi 1997: 97). Napoli came to be configured in the global imaginary as somewhere that was chaotic, ungovernable and stuck in the past.

At the same time, the Southern Question needs to be considered as a historical construct of the south as it assumes a standard of northern, Italian or European modernisation and progress against which the south must be measured as inferior, and it homogenises what is actually a much more complex picture of the Italian peninsula (Dickie 1999: 11–14; Gribaudi 1997: 83). This doesn’t mean that this story of impoverishment and subordination is not significant in people’s lives. Chambers (2008: 122) has argued that in Napoli it had been reworked into a ‘provincial rage’ that explained the racist treatment of migrants by a people who, themselves, had experienced racism both from their co-nationals and as emigrants abroad. He went on to reason that southern Italian poverty was actually the result of wider global-historical processes of competition and domination. For example, in the seventeenth century it was English mercantile hegemony in the Mediterranean that took trade away from the port of Napoli, so the city’s economy was already in crisis before the Unification period (2008: 112–113). This reading of Napoli’s history connects it more explicitly to the wider history of Enlightenment modernity and frames the city within a more global set of problems about difference, belonging and entitlement. Its problems of overcrowding, underdevelopment, unemployment and precariousness are not simply ‘local economic and cultural particularities’ but ‘a deep-seated inheritance that today would be considered part and parcel of the processes of “globalisation”’ (2008: 111).

The first Italian imperial forays into Africa began at the same time as the annexation of southern Italy and the Unification period. Eritrea was first invaded in 1885, the same year as the campaign against Sicilian peasant resistance groups, or ‘fasci’. The massacres and summary executions that accompanied this invasion, as well as the creation of the infamous prison camp in Nocra, were also typical features of the war against the fasci in the Italian south (Del Boca 2005: 55–81; Verdicchio 1997: 27). It is important to emphasise that Italian Unification and Italian imperialism were all part of the same nationalist project to enrich the north (Del Boca 2005: 303–15; Gramsci 2010: 24; Verdicchio 1997: 2). The forced labour camps along the Webi Shabeelle River in Somalia in the 1920s and 1930s; or the dumping of thousands of tons of chemical bombs over Ethiopia in 1935–1937; or even the attempted genocide in Dalmatia, Montenegro and Slovenia towards the end of the Second World War found their correspondence in the 1938 race laws that marked the start of Italy’s active involvement in the Holocaust and the extreme violence that characterised the Resistance and civil war of 1943–1945 (Del Boca 2005). Italy gave up its colonial territories to the Allied forces when the fascist regime fell and, into the twenty-first century, public discourse about Italian colonialism continued to be largely characterised by outright denial or underplayed as simply a feature of the fascist period.2

Although liberal and fascist Italy cannot be disentangled as separate nation-building projects, Gaia Giuliani and Cristina Lombardi-Diop have argued that the fascist period was marked by a different approach to conceptualising race in the Italian peninsula. During this period there was an attempt to reforge all Italians as a mighty Mediterranean and Roman race. Italians were taught to define their own whiteness in relation to the black colonised Other, and not in relation to their own internal differences (Giuliani and Lombardi-Diop 2013). In particular, the colonies were seen as the crucible of an Italian or Mediterranean masculinity that, through war-making, became something both exotically and erotically virile and patriarchally familial (Giuliani 2013: 63; Sabelli 2013: 88). This marks a moment where the racial status of southern Italians within the nation was transformed. Fascist racist action was organised on three fronts: externally in the newly conquered African colonies, and internally amongst both Italy’s Jewish population and through eugenics (Poidimani 2009: 9–16). In Napoli and the surrounding province, as dictated at national level by the fascist race laws, all Jewish residents were subjected to a census in 1938. All those without citizenship, or who had acquired Italian citizenship after 1919, were expelled from the country and many ended up in the Nazi death camps. In 1942, those who were Italian citizens were sent to a forced work camp in a small village north of Napoli (Gribaudi 2005: 445–472).

Language ideologies and practices have historically divided Italians along classed and racialised lines that mirrored the forms of internal stratification and hierarchy that predated, but were cemented by, the Unification period and then fascism. The cultural imperialism that accompanied the economic and political changes I have been describing often centred on the question of language, as the emerging official language of the new Italian State, which was supposed to unify the peninsula and create an Italian ‘people’, relegated all other spoken and written linguistic norms, and particularly southern ones, to the inferior status of dialect (Verdicchio 1997: 7). So-called ‘dialects’ such as Neapolitan continued to be viewed by outsiders as inferior, uneducated and uncivilised languages that associated the speaker with excessive emotion and irrationality (Dickie 1999: 20).

The process of ‘Italianification’, through the imposition of a standard Italian, did not happen quickly or smoothly. ‘Italian’, as historians of language have shown, came about as a written norm that was basically homogeneous and developed by scholars over the course of a number of centuries. It spread slowly across the Italian region to end up in the mouths of a limited group of literate Italians from the Renaissance onwards. This language was not the same one actually spoken by the Florentine majority, but a literary one used by a cosmopolitan elite. By the seventeenth century, parlar toscano (speaking Tuscan) became a key sign of prestige amongst Napoli’s aristocratic class (Tesi 2005: 105–109). However, the spoken norm across all social classes in Napoli remained Neapolitan from the eighteenth into the early nineteenth century. This is because rich and poor have historically lived in the same neighbourhood with the rich people living on the top floors and the poor on the bottom floors. This close cohabitation should not be misunderstood as interclass solidarity but as a particular form of vertical hierarchy reflected in the design of the city (De Blasi 2002: 25).

Across the peninsula the majority of working-class people continued to speak their local language from the eighteenth to the early twentieth century until the question of forming a unitary national language – through obligatory schooling and literacy programmes, as well as by regulating institutional and media languages – was taken up more enthusiastically by the fascist regime in the 1920s and 1930s (Tesi 2005: 199–201). As Gramsci noted in his writing about grammar, a State-led, explicit and regulated language acquisition policy is one of the key features of a totalitarian regime (Tesi 2005: 211). In his work, Edouard Glissant reflected upon the processes of racialised hierarchisation that happened in the Caribbean around the use of Creole as countries achieved greater autonomy and moved towards self-government. Following Unification, and more emphatically under fascism, Napoli also became the site of what Glissant termed a wounded and ‘diglot’ linguistic history, whereby one State-sponsored language (Italian) had historically tried to dominate and undermine the spoken language in the streets (Glissant 1997: 106–107).

Foreign occupation, trade and industry: the heterogeneous languages of the everyday

Popular stereotypes of Napoli as unruly and backward were only amplified by the Allied occupation of the city from October 1944 until 1946. Italy surrendered to the Allied forces at the Armistice of Cassibile in September 1943, after which the Italian peninsula was occupied by the Germans. The experience of extreme poverty, hunger and disease in occupied and postwar Napoli has been memorialised in many books and films, with a focus on begging children, prostitution, and the epidemic of sexually transmitted disease that took hold there affecting predominantly Neapolitan women and Allied soldiers (Patti 2011: 204–19). One of the most famous of these is a book called La pelle by Curzio Malaparte (1952). Formerly an outspoken fascist, Malaparte spent time in the city working with the Allied forces from 1943. In his book he talked about the lengths that desperate Neapolitans were prepared to go to in order to get food. In one chapter, called ‘The Plague’, he focused on what he saw as the horrors of the birth of biracial war children to Neapolitan women and black GIs. In other chapters he talked about Neapolitans auctioning off their female family members to soldiers.

Napoli actually liberated itself from German occupation as the result of a popular uprising from 28 September to 1 October 1943 known as the ‘Quattro Giornate’ (‘Four Days’), when town folk joined up with members of the Resistance to end the bombing and looting, and, above all, halt the forced removal of the city’s menfolk to labour camps. Following fierce fighting and heavy losses the uprising eventually ejected the Nazi-fascist troops from the city. However, as Gribaudi has noted, Napoli was excluded from postwar accounts of an honourable Italian resistance to fascism because it was then subjected to the Allied Occupation, and so the narrative grew that they had been liberated from the Germans by the Allies (Gribaudi 1997: 86). Against a common argument that the Four Days had no political content, she has argued it was evidence of a conscious and organised antifascist and democratic political voice amongst the Neapolitan people (Gribaudi 2003, 2005: 174–308).

These grotesque wartime stories of Neapolitan depravity and misery, and the suppressed history of Neapolitan antifascism and resistance, have also obscured its history as a major Fordist city and site of proletarian struggle in the postwar period. Evidence of industry in the city actually goes back to the pre-Unification period, after which a lack of organisation and connectedness made it difficult for enterprises to keep up with the national and global markets (De Falco 2018: 3). The damage caused by bombing raids on the city during the Second World War destroyed much of this infrastructure but, after the war, the Marshall Plan, tax breaks, and a public fund called ‘La Cassa per il Mezzogiorno’ worked to revive southern industry and guard it against frequent economic crises that had an impact on the city in the decades following the economic boom and war reconstruction. By 1951 a little over 5 per cent of people in Napoli worked in industry, against 25 per cent in the north (De Falco 2018: 5). From the 1960s a number of State industries – Finmecchanica, Italtubi, Lepetit – arrived in the city along with private companies such as Fiat. After the downturn in 1964 Italsider opened a massive steelworks in nearby Bagnoli – leading to local economic growth but significant environmental destruction – along with national and global companies such as Pirelli and Coca Cola. The Alfasud automotive plant opened in 1968 in Pomigliano D’Arco with 6,000 workers. However, after 1978 a further economic downturn led to the downsizing and decommissioning of many of these activities (De Falco 2018: 8–9). Initially industrialists were attracted to the region because of its reputation for being apolitical, and so the strikes that started up around the Alfasud plant in the 1970s came as a surprise (Abbruzzese 1985: 475). An important workers’ movement also grew up around these factories. From Masaniello’s revolt in 1647 – when a fisherman organised a popular uprising against a tax imposed on fruit, which was the main food of the city’s poor – to the Quattro Giornate and the workers’ movements, the connections between Neapolitan workers and their political consciousness and aspirations have repeatedly been disavowed and underplayed.

This history of popular struggle – in the street and in the factory – changed language use in the city. On the one hand this related to local sociodemographic shifts, in particular the effect of peasants moving into urban industrial occupations until the 1970s, and of people fleeing devastated towns and villages in rural Irpinia following a devastating earthquake in 1981. On the other hand this also related to transnational, interethnic and north–south encounters that occurred as a result of foreign troops (some of whom were black Americans) and, later, northern industrialists coming to the city. As a result, you could still tell what neighbourhood people were from in Napoli from the way they spoke, but these processes of talk were repeatedly subjected to interference and transformation by new arrivals (Marcato and De Blasi 2005). Socio-linguistic work has shown that what passes for ‘Neapolitan’ in Napoli is actually a multiplicity of speaking practices that are fluid, mobile and creolising. These practices predate the period of military occupation and postwar economic boom, and persisted alongside attempts to forge a national language and people from the Unification onwards. The spoken norm in Napoli’s streets was never the same thing as the official written language of the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies (Marcato and De Blasi 2005: 19). This speaks to the idea of Napoli as a historic port city where experiences of work, occupation and organised resistance have created a particular language that is more evidence of encounters across classed, national, ethnic and religious boundaries than reflective of local State power.

At the same time, Italy’s economic boom – which brought televisions into ordinary people’s living rooms – acted as a transmitter of values about language use and class hierarchies in the Italian peninsula. What the fascist regime was unable to achieve through top-down language acquisition initiatives was eventually achieved as a result of Napoli’s entry into global markets and capitalist forms of consumption. The use of so-called ‘dialect’ came to be strongly linked to social marginalisation and low-class status because people who grew up in areas with high levels of incomplete education and unemployment were more likely to speak only Neapolitan (De Blasi 2002: 133–135). This reflects a taking on board of stereotypes about Neapolitan backwardness that were expressed through negative language attitudes. Middle-class Neapolitans have been shown to connect the speaking of Neapolitan with base and criminal behaviour that is believed to originate in these impoverished neighbourhoods (131, 139). As Pine has noted in his ethnographic work, being able to deploy rapid Neapolitan in the street came to be associated with a guappo identity. The guappo is a historic figure in Napoli, ambiguously connected to the personage of the camorrista and representing the idea of a man of honour who knows how to defend himself – if necessary with violence – if offence is caused to him on his home turf (Pine 2012: 133–135).

As a result, the numbers of people speaking both Italian and so-called dialect, or exclusively Italian, have steadily increased since the 1950s (Tesi 2005: 219). Data collected in 2000 suggested that, whilst people born from the 1980s onwards may have been able to speak both Italian and some form of local or regional language, they are less likely to have transmitted this to their children as their parents taught them to speak Italian in the home as well as at school (Tesi 2005: 214–216). The formalisation of the work environment – as people moved away from agricultural and artisanal work to factories and, later, service industries, which were national companies and where the managers often came from elsewhere – contributed to the creation of a technical and specialised spoken Italian spoken in work environments (222–226).

Migration and its new linguistic norms

As recounted in the last section, Napoli’s history as a port and key maritime location for trade and human movement reveals much about how it has absorbed and incorporated foreign elements within a wider context of racialised, nationalist closures against human movement. This can be examined in more detail by looking closely, firstly, at the effect on language of Italians migrating out of the Italian south to Northern Europe, Australia, the American Continent and northern Italy; and, secondly, at the effect on language of migrants coming from the so-called Global South to reside in the city since the 1980s.

Southern Italians were doubly implicated as both victims and perpetrators in the colonial projects of Italian modernity. Having been annexed from their own land in Italy, they were offered opportunities to settle on territories that were being annexed in north and east Africa (Gramsci 2010: 73; Verdicchio 1997: 48–49). Emigration – to Italian colonies and other settlements in South America and Africa but, more commonly, to the United States, Australia and Northern Europe – was one of the few options available to the southern Italian masses following Unification. Emigration has been described as both a southern revolution and part of the Italian nationalist and imperialist venture (Verdicchio 1997: 7). In two-thirds of cases, the idea to emigrate was manufactured through trade agreements that exchanged Italy’s labour surplus for beneficial trade and shipping agreements (Gabaccia 2000: 156–157; Snowden 1995: 69). Many emigrants settled in their country of arrival and many also returned after a number of years. Culture shock around questions of language use has generated highly stigmatised, hybrid emigrant Italian languages and has been an important way in which people have described these cyclical processes of departure and return in oral histories and popular culture (Signorelli 1986; Niederer 1977). Additionally, the enviable glamour associated with speaking English in southern Italy stems from the kinds of admiration received by returnee migrants from America who were seen to be more sophisticated and successful (Dawes 2016).

Twenty-five million people left Italy between 1876 and 1976, many from the port of Napoli, which was the main point of departure (Chambers 2008: 24; Verdicchio 1997: 7). In 1913, at the peak of this exodus, 200,000 people are recorded to have boarded ships leaving from the city. Peasants, who had been forced off the land by the economic policies of the new Italian State, made up 90 per cent of the departures (Gabaccia 2003: 8; Verdicchio 1997: 7). At least 50 per cent of these emigrants started returning from the 1930s onwards, answering calls from the fascist State to return and build the nation. The question of what language these returnees spoke was important to a regime that was trying to build an ethnically pure Italian cultural identity: the returnees didn’t speak Italian and also didn’t feel that they were Italian (Poidimani 2009: 17).

After the Second World War, a massive internal migration of southern Italians to the industrialising north started. Emigration to factories in the north, particularly in Turin from the 1950s, led to rapid linguistic integration and mixed language use on the part of southerners who arrived from Bari, Foggia and Reggio Calabria, particularly amongst the children of those internal migrants. In return, northern cities lost many of their specific local traits in their language use. Language use in Rome was also re-southernised by this mass movement, even at the level of State communications (Tesi 2005: 217–219).

Italians have continued to emigrate internally and externally in their thousands into the twenty-first century, even though globalised migration has also transformed Italy into a country that has received migrants since the 1980s. If Italy later became a country of immigration, it still remained very much one of emigration, particularly from the impoverished south, as predominantly highly educated young Italians left their home regions to seek employment in northern Italy and abroad (Pugliese 2002: 141, 151–156). Data from 2014 suggests that the number of Italians living abroad grew by 155,000, whilst the number of migrants residing in Italy grew by 92,000. The total number of Italians residing abroad was a little over 4.6 million and the total number of foreigners (EU and non-EU) residing in Italy was about 5 million (Letizia 2014).

The first waves of migration to Italy hark back to the mid-1930s, although it is only from the 1960s that immigration came to be tied to Italy’s colonial legacy, with the arrival of Eritrean and Somali refugees. As I have said previously, this initial period of migration was also marked by a steady stream of millions of returning Italian emigrants, though little is known about this. The sketchy data for both these migratory flows are a testament to the State’s willing participation in a collective reluctance to remember the nationalist and colonial past that links these people in a shared history (Amato et al. 2009: 98–99; Chambers 2008: 27). This period between the end of the Second World War and the start of more intensified migration to Italy in the 1970s is also the site of another repressed history: that of the children born to Italian women and African American allied forces during the war, as well as to colonial settlers and African women in the Horn of Africa (Pezzarossa 2013). The picture became steadily more complicated from the 1970s, with the arrival of Cape Verdian and Dominican women, and predominantly Ghanaian and Nigerian men. But it was in the 1980s and 1990s, with the arrival of Senegalese, Egyptian, Algerian, Philippino, Chinese, Sri Lankan, Pakistani, Bangladeshi, ‘Eastern European’ and Albanian people, that immigration came to be perceived publicly as a problem and immigration policies started to be devised (Colombo and Sciortino 2004: 27–29; Russo Krauss 2005: 85–87).

Italy’s immigration policies have largely followed European policies in coming into alignment with the Schengen Agreement. The 1993 Turco-Napolitano Law (Law 40/98), which brought Italy fully into line with Schengen, contained a number of progressive provisions – such as the right to health and education for all migrants – alongside more repressive measures. The Bossi–Fini Law (Law 89/02) in 2002 was produced in response to populist pressure and reversed many of the more liberal sections of the Turco-Napolitano, introducing further repressive measures such as increased deportations, the doubling of detention time and the tying of residence permits to employment (Schuster 2005: 760–761). In 2017 the Minniti-Orlando Decree (Law 46/2017) introduced new immigration and asylum measures that included expanding the network of detention centres in Italy. In 2018, Italy’s Interior Minister, Matteo Salvini, pushed through an amendment to this law, known as the ‘Decreto Sicurezza’, that would attempt to curb immigration by increasing maximum detention times from 90 to 180 days, creating legal justifications for detaining asylum seekers and presenting new grounds for the revocation or denial of international protection. In May 2019 Salvini’s second amendment to the law, the ‘Decreto Sicurezza Bis’, contained provisions for fining NGO vessels over €,5000 for every rescued person and preventing the transit of these vessels through Italian territorial waters (Global Detention Project 2019: 6–9). The coalition Government, which included Salvini, collapsed in September 2019, but the Decreto Sicurezza was not immediately dismantled.

This historic increase in migration flows to Italy reflects the fact that Italy came to share, although belatedly by comparison, many common features with the other receiving countries across Europe – such as economic prosperity, State welfare provision and a relative salary structure (Colombo and Sciortino 2004: 5). Data from 2018 documented that the non-EU migrant population in Italy was a little over 5.1 million, or around 8.5 per cent of the total population, with the largest groups being Romanian, Albanian and Moroccan nationals (Tuttitalia 2018). These figures were similar to those across Europe. In 2018, there were a little over 50,000 non-EU migrants regularly residing in Napoli and the surrounding provinces, with the largest communities being Sri Lankan, Ukrainian and Chinese (Tuttitalia 2018). The number of irregular and undocumented migrants can only be guessed at. Until the 1990s Napoli figured as a point of entry and short stay before people moved on to jobs in northern Italy and elsewhere in Europe; but the figures show that this situation started stabilising from the 2000s, with 14 per cent of all migrants residing in the south as part of a growing population due in large part to births and the reuniting of families (Amato 2006: 66).

As already stated, Napoli’s history as a port city means it has always been a meeting place of many different people, all speaking different languages (De Blasi 2002: 37; Marcato and De Blasi 2005: 118–120). On the other hand, a whole new vocabulary emerged around migration to Italy from the 1980s onwards that entered into popular usage on the streets of Napoli and across the country, revealing the connections between antimigrant politics and the history of modern racial thought (Faloppa 2011). Migrants started to be described in terms of an emergent technical language that denoted their legal status (such as clandestino – undocumented migrant) and that was racialised and connected migration with a whole host of social problems, in particular criminality (Colombo and Sciortino 2004: 102–113). Such apparently neutral terminology made it possible to circumvent shameful accusations of racism whilst still establishing the otherness of migrants (Dines 2012: 213–214). The reality of these everyday linguistic violences was denied on the justification of the stereotype of italiani brava gente (good Italians), whereby Italians were claimed to be naturally friendly and welcoming. In the case of southern Italians this was supposed to be particularly true because they had suffered their own history of mass emigration and prejudice (Dines 2012: 193, 202).

Some sociolinguistic work has looked at language use amongst migrants in urban scenarios in Italy. It found that, whilst migrants had a blurred conceptualisation of the distinction between so-called dialect and Italian, they had fully digested the notion that regional languages such as Neapolitan were held to be inferior but also key to forming friendships and making claims for belonging in informal situations (Bagna et al. 2002: 210–211; Guerini 2002). In particular markets were described as important sites of encounter across transcultural boundaries where the mixing of so-called dialect and Italian was a key feature of interaction between migrants and Italians (D’Agostino et al. 2002: 67). Some of my research participants who were migrants spoke of using Neapolitan with both distaste and humour, admitting that they enjoyed using it and that sometimes they felt they had no choice but to do so. Migrants working on street markets were also found to be using particular forms of greeting that were not considered polite enough for other working situations. These included laughing and calling out fake names to passers-by, as well as using so-called dialect, in order to cement their position and encourage sales (Tucciarone 2002). In turn, Schmid’s study (2002) on Italian ‘foreigner talk’ recorded that not only did Italians attempt to make themselves understood to migrants by raising their voices and exaggerating their intonation, as in other countries; they also switched into languages such as English and French.

The street markets and the market personalities

Piazza Garibaldi, the area in Napoli where the book is mostly situated, occupies a particular symbolic importance in the Neapolitan popular imaginary. It has historically been a nodal transport point, with connections by underground, train and bus spreading out across the city, through the rest of the region, the country and internationally. It has also witnessed the city’s most intense economic activity, in the form of markets, and wholesalers.

These characteristics were transformed dramatically because of changes in global manufacturing industries and intensified migration and settlement in Italy from the 1980s. Neapolitan wholesalers, who had been based in Piazza Garibaldi and sold goods that bore the ‘Made in Italy’ merchandise mark,3 moved out to larger spaces in the surrounding region and were replaced by Chinese wholesalers selling items manufactured in China. Most of the Neapolitan and migrant street vendors who historically had sold, respectively, ‘Made in Italy’ products and artisanal products from their country of origin, started to sell goods that had been manufactured in China they bought wholesale in the city. This reflected a global shift, starting in the mid-1980s, where China came to dominate the market for, amongst other things, footwear, clothing, electronics and toys. Some street vendors also, or exclusively, sold contraband versions of designer bags and CDs that were produced in factories in the city (D’Alessandro 2008: 58; Schmoll 2003).

Street vending – licensed and unlicensed – had historically been a solution for unemployed Neapolitans, and had also provided important economic opportunities for migrants who had been able to insert themselves into this sector to work with, and alongside, locals.4 It had always been viewed in Napoli, with pride, as part of the local arte di arrangiarsi (art of getting by) in a context of high levels of unemployment. The participation of migrants in commercial activities was also frequently described approvingly by Neapolitans as their knowing how to arrangiare (Dines 2002: 78). As such, the street markets, cafés and pavements around Piazza Garibaldi became important and visible sites of transcultural encounter and collaboration, despite the differential rights, legal statuses and life possibilities of migrants and those with Italian nationality.

At the same time, l’arte di arrangiarsi was clearly organised according to racialised hierarchies that influenced decision-making about who took the greatest risks in these collaborative business activities. Designer goods were imported by the Chinese into the port, or made in factories in the city. Labels were sewn on by Italians in the urban outskirts and then the newly branded items were sold by Senegalese and Bangladeshi men in the historic centre (Dines 2002: 78; Schmoll 2003, 6). Migrants who were caught selling contraband items would get a criminal record that denied them the chance of finding legal work and getting a visa. The split labour market created by these laws forced migrant men into a grey zone where their labour could be extracted illegally by the mafias and other actors in the submerged economy (Venturini 2013). Migrants ended up working in particular niches – such as Senegalese men who often sold contraband bags – that had been assigned to them by people making decisions based on race and language (Grappi and Sacchetto 2013: 18). Those migrant men, who were essentially obliged to sell fake items if they wanted to work, ended up taking the most risks, and paying the highest price, in the contraband trade, as they were out on the streets and in clear view of police raids. Furthermore, migrants and Neapolitans had traditionally been offered licensed market spots in different parts of the city, with migrant vendors often being segregated in the most obscure spots away from the majority of the public footfall. This can be seen as part of what Roediger and Esch (2014) have termed ‘race management’, where City Hall offered out market spaces and opportunities for work on a nationally and racially differential basis. So, while street markets opened up the possibility of survival and dignity, they were also sites of further marginalisation and domination, both through the influence of the Camorra and through that of local government.

Local government has historically considered Piazza Garibaldi to be a problem neighbourhood, and attempts to regenerate the area go back to the latter part of the ninetenth century. From the 1980s, Neapolitan street markets were reconfigured in public discourse as emblematic of urban decay and an impediment to security and the tourist industry. Migrant vendors, whether documented or undocumented, and working with or without vendor licenses, were targeted as key problem-makers (Dines 2012: 185–194). The markets around Piazza Garibaldi were subjected to repeated crackdowns, closures and struggles to reopen them that involved street vendors working together with the city’s anti-racist movement to approach and appeal to the administration. As such, street markets became highly visible sites in which to observe the improvisational and ambiguous interplay between inclusion and exclusion in Napoli.

The interactions between migrants and Neapolitans in street markets also shed light on the ways in which the Camorra made use of migrants in its commercial activities. The increasing State deregulation of commercial activities from the 1980s made space for organised crime to take even greater control of the local economy, particularly in light of endemic unemployment and desperation for work (D’Alessandro 2008: 83). The Camorra showed itself to be flexible and reactive in its pursuit of profit, intervening in everything from the circulation of goods to the spaces of sale, as well as continuing the tradition of demanding protection money (184, 229). It was present at every layer of commerce, extracting protection money from producers and vendors as well as intervening in the process of manufacture itself (260–261). It acted upon it parasitically, through practices of extortion, usury or robbery, as well as within commerce, by investing directly in the production and distribution of merchandise. Production and distribution related to both ‘Made in Italy’ products and designer contraband. The lines between what was legal and what was illegal were so blurred that no legal judgment had ever been made that connected the activities of the Camorra to the commercial practices involving either ‘Made in Italy’ or contraband items (D’Alessandro 2009).

Amongst the markets that I worked on around Piazza Garibaldi was Via Bologna market, which spread out along a side street leading off the piazza and got its trading licence in 1998 (see Figure 1). The regular traders – mainly first-generation Senegalese, Malian, Guinean and Nigerian men and women migrants (predominantly men and predominantly Senegalese) – were given this space on the grounds that they only sell African artisinal items, such as West African fabric, wooden statues, and household objects made out of raffia and cloth, from between 80 and 120 stalls along the road. However, most stalls were selling Chinese-made clothing and accessories instead of wax cloth and wooden sculptures when I arrived. There were also a number of stalls along Via Bologna selling the kinds of domestic product that West African customers look for, such as bags of kola nuts; green tea to make Senegalese tea (attaya); Carotene skin-lightening soaps; and rough, brightly coloured flannels for use in the shower. Following the election of Mayor de Magistris, and the eviction of a number of Neapolitan street traders from Piazza Garibaldi, there were also three or four of these Neapolitan vendors setting up informally on Via Bologna when I started the research. The official plan was to integrate them into a rejuvenated and redeveloped Via Bologna market that was to be called ‘Napoliamo Road’, although this never actually happened (Zagaria 2011). The shops that ran along the two sides of the street were predominantly small Chinese wholesalers, but there was also an Italian-run grocery which had diversified to sell plantain, cassava, okra and yam for a predominantly West African clientele. The main language of transcultural trade on the street markets around Piazza Garibaldi seemed to be Italian, or a Neapolitanised Italian with a few foreign words sprinkled in. Many of the migrants working there had settled in the area for a number of years and had learnt Italian. I also heard many other languages being spoken, including French, Wolof, Nigerian Pidgin, Arabic and Mandarin.

The organisational hub of the market centred around the entrance to an Italian-owned wholesaler of Neapolitan souvenirs. The owner, Riccardo, used to employ Serigne, a middle-aged Senegalese man who had now become the informal manager of Via Bologna market. Serigne’s wife, Sohna, set up a food trolley outside the entrance to the shop and Senegalese people tended to congregate there, to socialise, eat and have open meetings about the future of the market. Serigne and Sohna (and myself while I was there) were allowed to use the toilet at the back of the shop, although the other traders had to find different solutions. The market day started at about 7 a.m. and extended, occasionally, until 5 p.m., although later on in my research this was shortened to 3 p.m. The street became a pedestrian zone during those hours, although this was frequently disrespected by the people needing to move through the area, particularly as the police officer meant to enforce the rule often didn’t show up.

I mainly spent time on three stalls there. The first was Elage’s (see Figure 2), which sold kola nuts, soap, T-shirts, tea etc., as I have outlined. Elage was usually surrounded by at least four other middle-aged Senegalese men, including Serigne, with whom I chatted in a mixture of Italian and French.

The second was Comfort’s stall. Comfort was a middle-aged Nigerian woman who had been trading in and around Via Bologna since she had arrived in Italy twenty years previously, except for a short period when she owned an internet café and call centre further up Via Bologna. Her stall sold Chinese-manufactured ‘urban’ or ‘hip-hop’ style clothing, although she used to sell wax cloth. Comfort asked me not to photograph her stall. We spoke in Italian and English. She was often surrounded by a group of Nigerian girlfriends who came to greet her and pass the time of day. They were all mainly from the Benin area of Nigeria and often spoke in Nigerian Pidgin and their local Itsekiri dialect. The third stall belonged to Gennaro, a middle-aged Neapolitan man who was one of the historic traders banned from the main square. He sold Italian-manufactured socks and underwear, and set up next to his cousin, Alfonso, who had a knick-knack stall selling things such as watches, tissues, lighters and plastic passport sleeves. Gennaro used to own a shop but had felt compelled to close it following a number of violent robberies, one of which saw his father held at gunpoint until he emptied the till. After that he set up an unlicensed stall in Piazza Garibaldi in 1993 and had subsequently paid to regularise his presence there, until he was evicted in August 2011. He was a keen participant in the various political groups in Napoli that were fighting for job creation and urban renewal, and his stall became the focus of many passionate debates about solidarity and action while I was there. He and Alfonso were happy for me to photograph their stalls (see Figures 3 and 4), but didn’t want to be included in the pictures. We spoke in Italian and Neapolitan.

All these people were introduced to me by Omar, a cultural mediator and anti-racist activist of Senegalese origin who later became the president of Napoli’s Senegalese Association. I was introduced to Omar through other contacts on the city’s anti-racist scene. He features in the book mainly in the moments where Via Bologna market was at risk of closure. There were many other people who had something to do with Via Bologna while I was there, not least those members of the anti-racist movement who worked at migrant charities and joined the traders in solidarity when the market was being closed down.

I also spent a lot of time on three unlicensed market stalls that were often set up in the same spots along the major roads of the city leading out of Piazza Garibaldi. These pitches were subjected to intense police scrutiny and frequent evictions whilst I was there. This is part of a history of City Hall trying to limit this unregulated selling with police intervention. I was introduced to Ibra by a woman who had previously conducted fieldwork in Napoli and had connections to the anti-racist scene. He sold Italian-manufactured hats from a sheet on the pavement outside an Italian grocery shop along the road locals call the ‘Rettifilo’, otherwise known as Corso Umberto (see Figure 5). As well as being one of the main arteries of the city, the Rettifilo is important to the history of urban renewal projects that have been inefficiently implemented around Piazza Garibaldi. It was built in the 1880s as part of a redevelopment, or risanamento, project designed to protect the city’s poor from further devastation through multiple cholera epidemics. In practice the luxurious and unaffordable apartment blocks that populate the length of the road were where the renewal project ended. They simply served to hide the overcrowded and poorly ventilated housing that was there before. These conditions persisted into the twentieth century, exacerbated by the 1980 earthquake in Irpinia that led to the rehousing of many people in the area (Dines 2002: 178–179; Serao 1994, 90; Snowden 1995: 86). Ibra was good friends with Giovanni, who owned the grocery. He was also friendly with Salvatore, the doorman of the apartment block next to the grocery, although their relationship was quite fraught. Most of Ibra’s customers were Neapolitans living in the backstreets around his stall. His first language was Wolof and he had also learnt Italian over the seven years he had been in Italy. He was still in the process of regularising his visa status. Initially he was extremely suspicious of me and suggested I pay him by the hour to stand near his stall. The products he sold were not illegal but the pitch had no permit, as he was not able to apply for one without a visa. After a short discussion in Italian he relented and suggested I come back the next day. I brought Omar to introduce and vouch for me more formally in Wolof, and the fieldwork began. I mainly spent afternoons on the stall, as police controls were more aggressive in the mornings. Often I went to meet Ibra and he wasn’t there because there were too many police patrols. He also told me that he didn’t pay any local criminal groups to use the spot on the pavement for his pitch but the oblique presence of the Camorra in the city’s commercial practices may have been a factor in his initial reluctance.

Modou, another Senegalese street vendor, was introduced to me by Omar. Modou sold high-quality fake Louis Vuitton bags and wallets off a sheet on a side street close to the Rettifilo (see Figure 6). He was Senegalese, in his mid-thirties and undocumented. He had been unable to regularise his visa status in Italy on account of the multiple criminal charges he had incurred for selling fake goods. Nonetheless, he had placed his pitch in the same spot for about five years and had a number of regular customers. He also did good business with tourists. He had very good relationships with the men who worked in the bars around his stall. He insisted to me that he didn’t pay any protection money to, or rent his spot from, any local Camorra group, although, as has been noted by other scholars, it is understandably very difficult to get a clear response on this issue (Rea 2006: 6). We talked in Italian and dialect. He spoke dialect fluently and enjoyed a constant joking banter with his Italian friends in Neapolitan.

Ku was a Chinese street vendor who sold electronic goods from an irregular stall on this road with a group of his compatriots (see Figure 7). He was introduced to me by Wu, a cultural mediator for the Chinese community who, as with Omar, I met through contacts and friends in anti-racism. Ku had a work visa and a market stall permit, but his permit required him to move constantly and not stop in one place. As such his stall was irregular and he was always on the watch for police patrols. His efforts were part of a family business. He worked alongside his father-in-law whilst his wife and mother-in-law ran a wholesaler’s, also selling electronic goods, in nearby Pompei. The stereotype was that Chinese migrants didn’t learn to speak any Italian. I, however, had no trouble speaking with Ku in pretty fluent Italian.

In sharp contrast to the unlicensed pitches, Poggioreale market, also known as the ‘Caramanico’ because of the street it was located on, was a regulated market space known internationally for selling ‘Made in Italy’ clothing, shoes and accessories at wholesale prices (see Figure 8). It was open from approximately 6 a.m. to 2 p.m. from Thursday to Sunday and could be reached in ten minutes from Piazza Garibaldi by tram. The market was strictly monitored and managed, although unlicensed street vendors did set up stalls on the road up to its entrance in the high season (Christmas and the summer months). Vendors paid a higher fee for their spot than at other markets in town and the presence of contraband items was very strictly controlled. All of the stall owners were Neapolitan and they often employed first-generation migrants. The customers were predominantly Italian or West African. This created a different linguistic picture in the market, compared to the other sites I worked in, because of the need to conduct a lot of trade in English.

The Italians came as regular consumers to buy gifts and treat themselves. The West African men and women came in groups to bulk-buy stock for boutiques in Europe and West Africa. This second trade was big business for the vendors. They made agreements with West African men living in Napoli to act as taxi drivers, bringing customers to the market and back to their hotels. Often vendors would take stock directly to the hotels of respected customers. The languages spoken with Italian customers were Italian and Neapolitan, whereas with African customers a combination of English, French and some Italian was the only way to conduct negotiations. I was often called on to act as translator in negotiations.

I was introduced to Titti and Ciro, a married couple who ran the Eddy Pell stall, by the mother of one of the contacts I had made when negotiating access. Eddy Pell sold middle-range Italian designer leather bags, belts and silk scarfs from a stall that had originally been opened to supplement the family’s first business, a shop in the Piazza Mercato neighbourhood beneath my contact’s flat (see Figure 9). Titti introduced me to father and son Peppe and Alessandro, of Peppe’s Bags, which, although it also sold bags, had totally different stock (see Figure 10). About half the stock of Peppe’s Bags comprised cheaper imported Chinese bags, and the other half was Italian designer leather bags. The family also had a shop in the Borgo di Sant’Antonio neighbourhood near Piazza Garibaldi, where Alessandro’s mother and wife worked. They regularly employed a Ukrainian man, Anton, on the stall, to assist with packing and unpacking the stock as well as to sell bags to customers. They also employed a series of different English-speaking West African men while I was there to help talk to the West African customers. Alessandro told me that he had given all his employees contracts and paid them a fair rate.

Poggioreale was the most economically buoyant of all my sites. However, 2012 was still a bad year for the market. There were many ‘dead days’ with very few customers, particularly from January to April, and a large number of empty stalls. Local Italians had little money to spend on luxury goods and there were fewer foreign customers than usual. Napoli was starting to lose its reputation as a go-to destination for good-value high-end products, and many buyers told me that they were making fewer trips to Napoli and more to Turkey to stock up their boutiques. These stresses, and the imperatives of getting by through trade that often had to be conducted in English, created cultural and linguistic interdependencies that rubbed uncomfortably alongside national and local understandings of race, difference and belonging.

While my fieldwork mainly took place at these market sites, I also ended up making notes on things that I witnessed and took part in during marches and protests; community events; and, as I went about my regular life in the city, doing my shopping, hanging out with friends and travelling on public transport. The kinds of vivacious and open sociability that take place on buses and trains in Napoli made these journeys particularly interesting occasions to observe everyday interactions in the city. That, coupled with the fact that many street vendors used public transport to move their merchandise – and created stress when occupying space with large bags during peak times – offered rich opportunities to observe the fraught and convivial transcultural interactions that extended out across the city from the street markets I was working on.


1As Sidney Tarrow pointed out, southern Italy had, in any case, been a ‘semi-colonial’ territory from the twelfth century and was largely governed through a ‘logic of colonial exploitation’ by a series of rulers, starting with the Normans (Tarrow 1996: 394). In keeping with this rationale, the Bourbon rulers, who were overthrown by Unification, failed to implement critical land reforms in the south, and ideas about southern Italian inferiority also originated at this time (Verdicchio 1997: 3). This book does not address the pre-Unification period in Italy except to note that the southern regions should not be perceived as a homogeneous mass, as they have historically presented differing levels of urbanisation, agrarian development, industrialisation, banditism and nascent mafia activity (Tarrow 1996: 392–393).
2But see the work of scholars such as Lidia Curti (2006), Angelica Pesarini (2017) and S. A. Smythe (2018), who have been attempting to recover this history in the present.
3The ‘Made in Italy’ merchandise mark indicates that an item has been planned, manufactured and packed in Italy.
4The available data on migrant occupations do not reflect the total migrant population in Napoli and Campania because of the numbers of undocumented and informally employed. However, it would appear that just under half of migrants are employed in the service sector (in particular as carers and domestic help), with 14.5 per cent employed in construction, 12.5 per cent in commerce (including street vending), 10.8 per cent in catering, 9.7 per cent in agriculture and 5 per cent in the food industry (Amato et al. 2009: 124).

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Race talk

Languages of racism and resistance in Neapolitan street markets


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