“I thought I’d find in Italy a living space, a breath of civilization, a welcome that would allow me to live in peace and to cultivate the dream of a future without barriers or prejudices. Instead, I am disappointed. Being black in this country is a limit to civil life. Racism is rampant: Those who ask only for solidarity and respect receive instead bullying, abuse and daily violence. We, the people from third world countries, are contributing to the development of your country, but it seems that this does not have any weight. Sooner or later, one of us will be killed and then our existence will be acknowledged.”
Jerry Masslo wrote these words in 1989, when he was indeed killed by gunshots from a gang of criminals, who had broken into his cabin to steal from him and the other workers the hard income they earned after days in the fields. On Thursday, these same words were read before his tomb in Villa Literno by a middle school girl. Among the small crowd paying tribute to him, there were the secretaries of the CGIL and FLAI unions, Susanna Camusso and Ivana Galli; the mayor of the Campanian town; and the consul of South Africa (Masslo’s country of origin). This small crowd also paid tribute to the many immigrants who pay our pensions, lower the prices of our tomatoes, and create for us a diverse and multicultural Italy.
THE DAY BEGAN at 5 a.m., at dawn, when three road union buses arrived from Castel Volturno to three piazze where illegal hiring takes place: Villa Literno, Mondragone and Pescopagano. The hell at Mondragone goes beyond the most imaginative representations, making you realize that Gomorrah is just a TV series: Stalls with lines of cocaine are brazenly exposed at the corners of the tower blocks, near the main square. The crumbling balconies, the long line of clothes hanging from the windows, and an army of Bulgarian laborers — at least 1,000 in the area, but at least 2,000 show up in high season — most of whom, despite having lived here for a few years, still do not speak a word of Italian.
When roaming among the garbage cans, where stray dogs rummage, while the vans of foremen are whizzing through the streets since 5:30, you feel like an outcast because here the word “state” is nonsense: But of course, we all know very well that even this is Italy.
Trade unionists from FLAI approach the laborers to distribute leaflets written in their language, a cap with the logo of the union and raincoats for shelter from wind and rain. Many are women wearing a headscarf or a kind of traditional Bulgarian dress. We are able to talk to some of these workers through the mediation of Valentina Vasylionova, a Sofia union representative invited by CGIL.
“YES, THANK YOU, IF WE need to, we will go to the union.” But the laborers seem more interested in the cap, the T-shirts and raincoats than in the flyer. These items can be scarce: In the countryside, any clothing item that covers can be invaluable. They say they are here with their husbands, but some came by themselves, and their children have remained in Bulgaria. They send the money back to the grandparents who are raising them. Meanwhile in Mondragone, they have to pay the rent of those buildings, food to pull the day, and then, of course, they also have to pay the foremen.
They smile from their vans. They also accept the CGIL cap and show their good faces, but when the hold doors are closed and the women greeting us smile like little girls, it becomes a different matter. The union becomes an enemy. Another worker, who can speak a few words in Italian, repeats what he’s told: “Do not go to them.”
Thanks to the trust Valentina is able to earn, considering that she speaks their language, finally, a small window of opportunity has opened: Fifteen Bulgarian working men and women decided that next Wednesday they will go to FLAI for a meeting with secretary Igor Prata.
Prata Explains: “It is more complicated to communicate with the Bulgarians. They have a rather closed community. It is different with the Romanians, Ukrainians and the Africans from the Maghreb who also work here. We are happy that we have created this line of communication: At least just to help them for documents or for small needs. Maybe later we can think of disputes.”
Also because the countryside of Caserta duplicates the conditions of so many other parts of Italy: €25-30 per 12-14 hour workday, five of which go to the foreman. They have few breaks and suffer under bestial schedules. Health and safety are pushed beyond the limits of human dignity. In this case there are no huts, and the Bulgarians live at the Mondragone tower blocks, where up to 15 people share small 60-70 square meter apartments with almost non-existent services.
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