Though they are few and little is known about them, the Arbereshe arrived in Argentina by the hundreds between World War I and World War II. I went searching for them, and this is their story.
“I always say that I am Albanian, Italian-Argentine and Latin-American, but the most important thing for me is my Albanian blood,” said María Colacino. In the heart of Palermo, one of Buenos Aires’ most beloved neighborhoods, I find the Frascineto Association, founded by the Arbereshe in 1955. There, María is waiting for me along with other founding members to narrate the endless exodus. All members of the association are from Frascineto, a small village located in the region of Calabria, Southern Italy.
“My sister and I were born in Frascineto and when I was just five we came to Argentina,” said Ludovico, María’s brother, adding that “María and I still speak Arbereshe.” Ludovico said that the first words he spoke were in Arbereshe, an archaic form of Albanian. He was already in Argentina when he first had contact with the Italian language. Sixty years later, he still refuses to forget his ancestors.
After the death of Albanian national hero George Kastrioti Skanderbeg (who gained his 15th-century fame for his abilities to both unite the Albanians and defy the Ottomans) on Jan. 17, 1468, many families were forced to immigrate to Italy to avoid Ottoman domination. They arrived in Italy between 1470 and 1478, moving from one place to another until 1490, when the Greek monastery of San Pietro gave them land. They settled in what is now known as Frascineto. Though they spread throughout Southern Italy, their two most inhabited areas were Eianina and Frascineto, where they remained for more than four centuries until the two World Wars ravaged Europe. Italy was devastated and the economic crisis was endless.
“My parents always told me they didn’t have enough to eat,” said Dominga Giordano. While Europe was facing an unprecedented crisis, Argentina was known as the “granary of the world,” a country with a vast territory but small population, a land of opportunity for many immigrants.
“The Arbereshe did not migrate to different countries. They chose mainly Argentina,” said Dedier Norberto Marquiegui, a researcher for the University of Luján. “More specifically, Buenos Aires and its surroundings. They created their own neighborhoods such as Santa Elena in the city of Luján.” Marquiegui also highlighted how the patriarch typically travelled first and, once settled, he would send for the rest of the family. The second migratory wave may have been more planned and organized, but it kept the same pattern as the first: choosing a common destiny.
Still, one wonders how this group of people managed to keep their identity, customs and religious rites intact. For Ludovico, the key role in this epic story has been the language, transmitting it from one generation to the next to retain the memory of an old nation.
“Language is preserved, but also the cuisine. Every national holiday we eat Albanian sweets as kurskull and petula,” added Ludovico.
According to Roberto Blason, the Arbereshe are very protective of their families, and this has kept their traditions alive. Roberto is Italian but was introduced to the Arbereshe when he met and later married Dominga Giordano.
“I had no choice but to learn the language because the Giordanos used to talk in Arbereshe among themselves,” Blason said. He is one of the founders of the Frascineto Association.
The secretary of the association, Maria Elena Vitale, is also Italian. After she married an Arbereshe man, she became so fascinated with the culture that she decided to make it her own.
“We founded the association in order to keep in touch. Here we meet to honor our ancestors,” Vitale said.
The group’s plans for the future include teaching Albanian, motivating their children to follow in their footsteps and marching in the Procession of the Virgin in their native dress. “I still have my grandmother’s dress. It’s as good as new,” said association member Carmela Groppa.
Despite their enthusiasm, they are concerned for the future of the association. Only close relatives and those married to an Arbereshe can become active members. This, especially for Blason and Vitale, can mean the beginning of the end if they fail to engage their children and grandchildren in the Arbereshe story. The Arbereshe understand that the best weapon against time is the emphasis on oral transmission; the challenge is to pass on their legacy to their children. While everyone recognizes that their “Italianization” and “Argentinization” have been inevitable, their patriotism has been essential in preserving the Arbereshe community and customs.
One can’t help but wonder what actually links them to Albania and how they can be nostalgic for something they have never seen. “My bond with the Albanian people becomes stronger when they are criticized. It hurts because they have suffered but still stood brave,” said Maria Colacino. The idea of suffering and courage is raised behind the figure of national hero Skanderbeg. His life reminds them of their perpetual diaspora and has been essential in establishing the identity of Arbereshe, so much so that it haunted one of the greatest names in Argentine literature. Writer Ernesto Sabato’s bond with his Arbereshe mother, Juana Ferrari, inspired his great interest for the Arbereshe. In his book “The Angel of Darkness,” Sabato reaffirms Skanderbeg’s courage as the reason for “the Republic of Venice and maybe all of Occident” prevailing. In 1998, Sabato saw his dream realized when he visited Albania to receive the Kadare Award, assuring he did it “not to deny that poor, heroic country, again.”
The story of the Arbereshe is a struggle against ages, but also against modern time. They have never denied their past and have created their own narrative. This can serve as an inspiration for many Albanians, for children of a diaspora, scattered and taking root in new lands while never forgetting where they come from or who they are.