Friday, March 12, 2010

I Rumèni ed Gišvala - The Romanians of Giusvalla

I have often been asked - incredulously, what is this about Romanians in Giusvalla? I suppose it seems difficult to accept that our little ancestral hometown could be anything but completely “Italian,” demographically as well as culturally. The truth may surprise you. Allow me to explain.

Giusvalla has always been a tiny little town, the population peaked at around 1,200 souls during the early 19th century. Emigration to South America began in the mid 19th century and continued in full force for nearly one hundred years. Around 1900 the birth rate began to plummet. Giusvalla lost another large portion of the population to the United States from around 1900-1920. By the 1980s, there was just a scattering of less than 300 people left living in Giusvalla. The younger generation had all but moved out to the bigger cities to pursue better opportunities. Those who remained clung desperately to family farms, and the already rustic landscape of Giusvalla began taking on the appearance of an impoverished, hardscrabble ghost town in the wilderness as abandoned, centuries old farmhouses began to collapse due to neglect.

With no local industry and an increasing abandonment of the agrarian lifestyle in northern Italy, the situation seemed hopeless. In spite of the spartan conditions, the price of real estate in Giusvalla continued to sky rocket – further incentive for the natives to “sell” to real estate speculators and move on to better prospects. By the early 1990s, with no new students enrolled in Giusvalla’s little school (and the little school at Cavanna already closed), the town prepared to close the doors to the schoolhouse forever.

No one could have predicted that things were about to change when Giusvalla native Elio Rizzo moved home from Tuscany in 1994 with his new Romanian bride Luminita. What happened then was remarkable. The following year, Luminita’s brother arrived in Giusvalla to visit. He immediately felt at home among the rocky hills and forests of the little village, and decided to stay. Then cousins from Romania began to arrive, then friends and neighbors. Soon the Giusvalla white pages contained family names like Burca, Tuduca, Vasile and Cornel alongside the dwindling number of Baccinos and Bonifacinos. Like other new immigrant groups who come from an inpoverished agricultural background and don’t speak the local language, the Romanians began taking the jobs the Giusvallini had abandoned, working as laborers, factory workers (at the bottling plant in Cairo Montenotte), housekeepers and caretakers for the elderly. There was life again in the abandoned homes "i Rumèni" rented from the now absent Giusvallini. The school in Giusvalla was saved from extinction as they began enrolling Romanian children.

For the first time in nearly 150 years, Giusvalla’s population began to climb again, with approximately 10-12 new Romanians arriving every year. There are now over 400 people living in Giusvalla, of which approximately 30% are Romanian natives. There are also now a significant number of non-Giusvalla native Italians living in Giusvalla, as well as Germans, Swiss, Greeks and even Moroccans, who have purchased some of the old crumbling farm houses and restored them into elegant weekend and summer retreats.

The handful of remaining Giusvalla natives have lovingly embraced their new neighbors as the future of their town. The Giusvalla of today is a much different place than it was just 15 years ago, when Elio Rizzo arrived with his foreign bride, however our little ancestral village has sustained itself and assured its survival in the same way it always has …. through perseverance and an unwavering openness to change.

In the picture: Once largely abandoned and in a state of neglect, località Taranco, is now the home of several Romanian families in Giusvalla.

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