Southern Italy as a Nexus of Women’s Transnational Migration

Author:   Laura E. Ruberto

Laura E. Ruberto, Berkeley City College

Contemporary Italian transnational migration has mainly been studied in urban centers, and yet looking at migration in Italy’s Southern rural areas is particularly revealing. The dynamic between the image of a Southern Italy that is economically depressed with a deep and continued history of emigration and the image of a vibrant, stable Italy that draws new immigrants is especially hard-felt in rural parts of the South. Given that much of Southern Italy remains economically and politically at a disadvantage in relation to Northern parts of the country, the presence of new immigrants in the South and the visible racism and xenophobia that comes with this presence is striking—the riots spurred on by the clash between immigrants and “native” Italians in and around Rosarno (Calabria) in 2010 are a case in point. My research teases out this complexity through an analysis of contemporary transnational migration of women within rural parts of the region of Campania, in the landlocked hill towns of Alta Irpinia (province of Avellino). (This research was funded by a Fulbright Research Fellowship in 2006 and involved a larger ethnographic project throughout Alta Irpinia from which this is just a part.)  I recognize that looking at the culture and experiences of different kinds of inbound and outbound migration helps uncover, for instance, ways in which national identity gets created and sustained, and how citizenship rights become tied to cultural appropriation. This study’s emphasis on transnational migration, including aspects of both the history of Italian emigration and the contemporary phenomenon of immigration to Italy, recognizes the South as a location for dynamic processes of cultural identity, appropriation, and history, thus countering traditional narratives of Southern Italy as stagnant and retrograde.

Migration as a Backdrop to the Landscape of Alta Irpinia

The towns and villages of Alta Irpinia have witnessed an ongoing decline in population due mainly to emigration. Historically, Irpinia’s economy was agriculture-based, with few industries, thus leaving the area with high rates of unemployment, especially as industrialization hit Southern Italy. The 1980 Irpinia Earthquake further impeded economic growth and also spurred emigration. However, more and more former Alta Irpinians retire (either permanently or seasonally) in their native towns and villages and become, in essence, returning emigrants. This elderly age group, coupled with the changing demographics throughout Italy that has resulted in more and more younger generations living in urban centers, has led to a rise in the need for elder care. This type of domestic labor, as with other domestic labor sectors in Italy today, is almost exclusively performed by immigrant women—in Irpinia, mostly women from the Ukraine or Poland.

In fact, in great part due to this curious population flux in the small towns and villages of Irpinia (its native population overall continues to decrease although its retirement-age population slightly increases) new immigrants have increasingly moved to the area. Again and again immigrant men and women I interviewed noted their contentment with having found work in small towns where there was less competition for service jobs and the cost of living was lower than the cities; even though a larger city might offer a better paying job, more cultural networks, and social assistance for immigrants.  Italian National Institute of Statistics (ISTAT) figures demonstrate an increased presence of new immigrants, as do the existence of weekly buses that go to and from the former Soviet Union and elsewhere, the rise in multi-cultural events in the towns, and recent publications from the area.

Overlapping Dislocated Identities

In this study, I trace the migration stories of three women residing in Alta Irpinia: “Rosina,” a former emigrant to Argentina, “Assunta,” a former emigrant to the United States, and “Lubica,” an immigrant from the Ukraine. Juxtaposing these stories illustrate how specific case histories of women’s lived experiences highlight individuality within a broadly shared global economic context. Oral histories afford points of view and perspectives often obfuscated by more standard narrative techniques. Scholarship on returning emigrants have noted, for instance, a kind of culture shock that sometimes comes with a move back to Italy; my interest is in examining that fissure in specific cases and in relation to a more intricate criss-crossing of migratory paths to and from Italy. The bottom line for this research is recognizing how the transnational aspects of Italian migration help create critiques of the nation and nation state. Considering women’s lived experiences through their own voices provides, as I have written elsewhere, “the possibility of a subaltern alternative to the hegemonic culture of the nation-state,” by underscoring marginalized subjectivities within dominant national idioms (Ruberto, Gramsci, Migration, and the Representation of Women’s Work, 2007/2009).

Lubica who was living in Calitri when I interviewed her but who is originally from the Ukraine, explains the nexus of migration in a straight-forward but telling way:

We have many Italian acquaintances and friends, but not real friends that you hang out with, have over for parties, celebrations.  Everyone has their families and their own ways of doing things. If Italians come here, and I serve them some Russian salad, they say, oh yuck, mayonnaise. Then I feel bad that they haven’t eaten and it ruins the party. It’s not a party if people don’t eat your food and they don’t have an open enough mind. We are more open. The only Italian we are friends with who isn’t like that is an older gentleman, in his 60s, who is single. He lived in Holland for 40 years, and he understands, he says, he was like us.


Her anecdote reminds us of the ways in which everyday interpersonal experiences lead to what we can consider a “dislocated” identity (a phrase whose use I borrow from the work of Rhacel Salazar Parreñas, Servants of Globalization, 2001). This dislocation encompasses both the institutionalized and cultural ways migrants’ identities are fractured but also the manner in which migrants negotiate or even resist this fracturing. Indeed, this kind of resistance is something apparent in the experiences of the three women I focus on here. Consider Rosina, originally from St. Angelo dei Lombardi, and a former emigrant to Argentina:

 [Mi considero tambien Argentina, si.] I still consider myself Argentine, yes. Because I spent most of my life there. Here I’m considered a foreigner and even there I’m considered a foreigner, but I don’t, no, I don’t consider myself one. Here, they treat me differently, I’m considered poor, ignorant, but they’re the ones who are ignorant. The people here are the ones who have never been away.

Rosina’s negotiation of dislocation is apparent in the linguistically charged way she clarifies her own subjectivity and in the way she positions herself against others’ definitions of her status. Assunta, originally from Cairano but who had returned from the United States, describes this contested identity as a reflection of her own happiness:

I was not happy to return. I knew that I would no longer be able to get used to living here because me, I’m a person who likes to live and here it’s all about dying.

For Assunta, Southern Italy supports a moribund past rather than a vibrant future.

An International Popular Culture Through Oral Stories

Together, the individual stories of Lubica, Rosina, and Assunta are in line with other cultural expressions of belonging and not belonging associated with transnational migration. The  women’s stories I collected in Alta Irpinia highlight themes of alienation, non-belonging, contradictory class mobility, and sense of social exclusion. Noting the similarities between the experiences of return migrants and new immigrants within the same location suggests a more hybrid sense of national identity and way of recognizing the role of globalization within what is often seen to be a nation-specific framework of migration.

All three women present a hybrid identity, informed by a series of dislocations—from conflicting class mobility to social alienation. And all three women recognize Italy’s (especially Southern Italy’s) own rocky position within global migration history as ways of explaining their own emotions and responses; the macro, structural affects on these women’s lived experiences. Put differently, it is precisely because they are women (who for the most part are in Italy performing gender-specific jobs), that their oral stories and their lived experiences underscore the kinds of contradictions inherent in Italy’s culture and history of migration. The public negotiation of identity imposed on women migrants due to social pressures and physical practicalities creates particular layers of dislocations. From such dislocations we might arrive at what I call an “international popular culture,” where the women’s oral histories “by demonstrating a complex idea of cultural identity,” create a counter-hegemony:

we can imagine how the women’s diverse histories and experiences…might point to the transformative potential the women have on their work and living environments. (Ruberto, Gramsci, Migration, and the Representation of Women’s Work, 2007/2009)

These three oral stories seek to remind us that transnational migration experiences inform how individuals think about their own identities, how they negotiate relationships with others, and how they negotiate their own sense of whatever temporary or long-term space they might call home. These negotiations are not dream-like but instead are visible on women’s faces and in the words they use to talk about their lives.


Laura E. Ruberto, Humanities Professor, Berkeley City College; author of Gramsci, Migration, and the Representation of Women at Work and co-editor of Italian Neorealism and Global Cinema. Her research interests include cultural theories of transnational migration, Italian American culture (gender, media, material culture, and the West), Italian transnational migration, and Italian cinema.

*For a complete version of this paper, see “Always Italian, Still Foreign: Connecting Women’s Lives Through Transnational Migration,” La Questione Meridionale, Num. 2, Feb. 2011, 77-97. 

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