Written by Silvia Pellegrino, Illustrated by Simona De Leo
Being stateless in your own country
We are standing stock-still, as if under some spell, watching the sunset. Lovely Mr Scagnetti’s cart has been emptied of hay and the chickens have been put to bed. In the distance I hear my mother shouting, urging me to come home because the wind is picking up and with my t-shirt wet with sweat I could get sick. I don’t answer her immediately, I extend the contemplation for a few minutes. Then me and my friends walk home, letting the tall grass along the sides of the road caress our hands. After entering through the front door, we all hurtle down the corridor to the kitchen. My mum is there, draining pasta in the sink, enough to feed an entire army. While she greets my friends, I take the opportunity to steal a spoonful of ragù from the pot. Its intense aroma has filled the whole room and I can’t resist. But I don’t have time to swallow, as she turns around and lightly hits my hand with the wooden spoon. Then she bursts into one of her laughs that are so thick and full that everyone joins in. I believe my love for food and cooking was born that day. When my father arrived in Italy from Cape Verde in the 1970s, my mother was already working as a maid for a well-off family in Trigoria. They called her Cristallina, because she had a smile that was as natural and disconcertingly dazzling as crystal, but her real name was Maria Geltrudes. I stopped watching the sunset from the day of her death until today. Until this fiery sun, framed between the edges of the window, reminded me of myself as a child, of football matches and of her smile. The melancholy that manifests itself on these occasions — I cannot feel it as I would like to, in its purity, because it is suffocated by a thin and impenetrable veil of anger that pushes me to put off the moment of absolute abandonment. They want me to believe that nothing that has happened in my life so far was real. As if I had lived in the demo of my existence and now the trial period was over, sorry — GAME OVER... Yet I am here, in my home, with my dreams and my loved ones in danger of being erased, separated from me forever. And in this condition of uncertainty, in the face of which my every action seems in vain, I have learned to survive the present by looking it straight in the eye. Only this fucking clock, with its pounding ticking, continues to mark the time I have left, making me live like a ghost, a haunting ectoplasm, a second-class human being forced to watch life from a bench without ever being able to kick the ball into the net. Just this morning, while I was driving down the road to see my father at the clinic, I saw the empty soccer fields of Trigoria and I imagined replaying a game with the same lightheartedness of the past. I immediately let go of that feeling, which I can’t quite describe, and walked into my father’s room. He seemed calm to me, but who knows if my impression was really accurate. Joaquim Antonio, as a good man of the sea, has learned to weather emotional storms since he was a boy. Stoic in his ways, he has never surrendered to excess of any kind and in any way. He experiences pain as joy, with a solemn composure that makes him look like a bronze statue, like an ancient warrior. He has not collapsed in the face of anything, neither his sudden illness nor the premature loss of my mother. The biggest wound he carries inside is the possibility of suddenly losing me, too. “My son, how you are treated by others is up to you alone, it depends on you and only you.” That’s what my mother told me one day when I came home from school and she noticed my eyes were bruised and swollen with anger because a group of fascists had called me fucking nigger. There were very few migrant families in the neighbourhood at the time, but they were well integrated. I have never paid too much attention to this issue of integration. I was a kid like so many others — passionate about football, girls, and especially music. And music has saved me so many times, leading me to meet someone who for me is one of the purest and most beautiful human beings on Earth. Stefano, my producer, is not only a friend, a brother, but also the first person to have believed in me and in my music. Distant tales of an evocative Cape Verde, described by my mother as an Eden with an uncontaminated and rebellious natureza, mixed with the suburban reality of my city to shape my musical style, which embraces and brings with it the whole world. I always told Stefano that we had to aim high, that singing on the stage for my people would be my destiny sooner or later.
Then one day, out of the blue, I received that damned letter in which I was told not only that I was an unwelcome guest for the Italian state but that I did not even exist. ‘Go back home’ — it did not mince its words; but my home is where I was born, where I grew up, where I found the woman of my life, Hélène, who brought the sun back to that world. Together we worked hard for an artistic project that then turned into a life project; and now a neat little row of pen-pushers want to take everything away from me, without even knowing my name.
I wonder what ‘home’ means to these people and what they think I could take away from them by staying here, where I have always been. I’ve never seen Cape Verde. This is my home, and if they thought that I would keep quiet and not make a fuss in the face of this violence they were mistaken. I fight every day in my own name and that of my brothers and sisters who have been deprived of their fundamental rights. Stateless in their own home. Then the day I should have regained my status as an Italian citizen finally came. Hélène was by my side, as excited as I was to finally be free to plan, to travel, to live without this feeling of insecurity that made us sink I don’t know how many times just when we were about to take flight. She stayed outside the police station waiting for me for a whole day, while I was locked up in a room alone, looking forward to once again feeling like a legitimate son recognised by his homeland. When they deprive you of your own identity, they can try to silence you and abuse their power however they want, but you will never stop looking for a way to regain your dignity.
And during those interminable hours of forced coercion, in which my fate was casually manipulated by the hands of others, I realised that I had lost a mother for the second time. Then, suddenly, she appeared to me: a beautiful woman, strong and marked by time. She was Rome, my Rome, and she spoke to me. “You came back to me.” “I never left. I waited for you every day.” “Why have you been waiting for me all this time?” “Because we belong to each other and I don’t care if some judge, court or politician wants to kick me out without just cause, make propaganda, or respond to a senseless and inhuman law, I will continue to fight and make my voice heard.” “I need you to understand that I have no power. I’m not the one who wants to push you away. Look at me, look at me I said. I’m no longer the same as when we first met. They raped me, beat me up, robbed me of my own sons and daughters.” “Stop feeling sorry for yourself. If you could just make yourself heard through your people, together we would be able to eradicate the cancer of prejudice and take back our freedom.” “They won’t listen to me, they won’t listen to us. We don’t exist for anyone.” “Look at me, look at me now. I exist and I am still here, I have not vanished and what I want is to live with dignity and die, giving back to my family a name that they can mourn. Say my name, come on — say it!” “Your name is Luca and you were born from my womb. I am your mother, your land, your home.”
Luca Neves, born in Rome in 1988 and raised by Cape Verdean parents, is one of the 900,000 people born in Italy who have been denied the right to citizenship due to the passage of time or bureaucratic quibbles. People who have become ‘ghosts’ and are waiting to get their identity back.