Looking to long-ago homelands

SUN JOURNAL

Argentina: As the country's financial plight worsens, descendants of European immigrants are looking to familial roots for new beginnings.

March 09, 2002|By Hector Tobar | Hector Tobar,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

JOSE LEON SUAREZ, Argentina - Half a century ago, the Caronna family bade farewell to Italy. Estela Caronna and her three children packed into a bus in Acerenza, a hillside town in Potenza province, and traveled by boat to a South American country whose very name was to them synonymous with affluence. None of them ever returned.

Today, in an Argentina that every day becomes poorer and more violent, Caronna's granddaughter dreams of that village she has never seen. She imagines a country of opportunity on the other side of the Atlantic, a place called Italy.

"I need to get a new start on my life," says Analia Caronna, 19. "Far away from here." In Italy, she hopes to find "romantic cities and people" and a "magical" country that offers plenty of jobs.

As Argentina's once-bountiful economy crashes around them, an untold number of its people are seeking to flee. Thousands have applied in recent weeks to claim the European citizenship of their parents and grandparents.

In Buenos Aires, the capital, long lines form most mornings at the consulates of Italy, Spain, Poland and other countries that, for much of the 20th century, sent hundreds of thousands of citizens to Argentina. Many Argentine Jews, the descendants of European immigrants, are seeking Israeli citizenship under that country's "law of return."

For about 10 million Argentines of Italian descent, the long lines that begin forming before dawn outside the Italian Consulate represent the closing of a historical circle.

A century of Italian immigration left its mark on this country in a national penchant for a tendency to speak with the hands and architectural masterpieces such as the Teatro Colon opera house. Italian Argentines created the Buenos Aires street slang known as lunfardo.

"The Italians who came here found a type of promised land," says Felix Luna, a leading Argentine historian. "People are leaving now because they've stopped believing in the country."

One in five workers is unemployed, and many banks are on the verge of collapse, the fruit of a four-year recession, rampant government corruption and a horribly mismanaged economy.

It is perhaps understandable, then, that many Argentines - more than a third, according to a recent poll - long for greener pastures elsewhere.

At the Polish Consulate, long lines began forming in January at about the same time Argentina devalued its currency and imposed new restrictions on bank withdrawals.

Others apply for citizenship at the Spanish Consulate, where lines are the longest - most people here can claim some ancestor from Spain. Even neighboring Uruguay has reported an increase in the number of Argentines seeking permanent residency.

At the Italian Consulate, the waiting list for citizenship is 17,000 names long. Some claim citizenship rights based on relatives who came to Argentina as long ago as the 19th century. Even so, those who apply today might have to wait two years to become citizens.

"We're working under a lot of pressure here," says Vicenzo Palladino, the consul general of Italy in Buenos Aires. "We're going to have to hire five new people to handle the load."

In the face of televised images of the crowds outside the consulate in Buenos Aires, an Italian senator and a government minister have called for measures to speed up the return of Italian Argentines to Europe.

Although unemployment in Italy, at 8 percent, is high by European standards, it is still less than half the official 22 percent rate in Argentina. More important, an Italian passport grants its holder the right to seek work throughout the European Union.

For the Caronna family, the likely return of granddaughter Analia to Italy represents the latest chapter in a saga that began in the aftermath of World War II, when the family patriarch, a bricklayer named Antonio, first planned a new life in Argentina.

Antonio traveled to South America in 1947, then sent for Estela and their children two years later. Their youngest son - Analia's father - was born in Argentina.

Much of the family settled in Jose Leon Suarez, a Buenos Aires suburb that is home to a sizable Italian Argentine community. A banner hanging over a thoroughfare here proclaims "Italian Citizenship!" and offers help with the complex application process.

"There is nothing here, nothing, nothing," said Rafaela Caronna, Analia's aunt and Antonio's daughter. Her last memory of the town in southern Italy she left at age 9 is of a neighbor weeping as the bus pulled away.

Today, Rafaela's son is contemplating a new start in Europe.

"He's a smart young man," she says. "He went to college, and still he hasn't been able to find work."

Analia has just begun her veterinary studies at the University of Buenos Aires. Since she got the idea that Italy holds the best promise for her future, she has pursued Italian citizenship with a quiet determination and may leave before graduation.

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