Editor’s note: This blog was written after Easter 2019. We decided to wait to publish it in time for Easter this year, although we have updated the ending to reflect the circumstances in southern Italy today.
A Griko Easter
By Manuela Pellegrino
Easter time is a vibrant period in the two Greek-speaking communities of southern Italy. It’s when the Salentine Greek language—simply called Griko—echoes in the villages of Grecìa Salentina (Salento, Puglia) through the words of I Passiùna tu Christù, or The Passion of the Christ.
I passiùna is a form of popular theater through which singers narrate the death and resurrection of Christ. The performances take place in the Griko-speaking villages during the week preceding Palm Sunday until Holy Thursday. Each village has its own unique version. Historically, two men, usually locals, would sing the forty verses at village crossroads or on tobacco farms, accompanied by an accordionist or organ grinder, and would end with the collecting of alms.
The tradition waned in the mid-950s, as Griko itself struggled under the symbolic domination of the national language, Italian. It was not until the late 1970s that the communities started to revive and sustain this Easter expression. Today, the singing of I passiùna is considered one of the strongest manifestations of Griko culture.
In the village of Zollino, where I was born and raised, the tradition of singing I passiùna on the steps of the church on Palm Sunday has further strengthened since its revitalization, so I was particularly happy when Mary Linn, the director of the Smithsonian’s Sustaining Minoritized Languages in Europe (SMiLE) project, confirmed that her visit to our community would coincide. It was the perfect time to “travel through Griko,” to meet the Griko community, and to get a taste of the activities linked to the valorization of the language. Our journey would also take us further south, into Calabria, where my fellow SMiLE researcher, Maria Olimpia, works with her Greko (Calabrian Greek) community.
As I typed my reply to Mary, my phone beeped. “Just reminding you about the rehearsal of I passiùna! Saturday afternoon, same time, same place.”
It was my friend Annu. I had agreed to check the transcription and translation of the verses for the local children, who would perform it this year. She and my friend Donato learned the performance through La Bottega del teatro cultural association initiative for reviving the tradition, and they had the privilege to learn directly from Antimo Pellegrino, the quintessential singer of I passiùna (see video at bottom). Now they have taken on the task of transmitting this tradition to schoolchildren.
On Palm Sunday, Annu was fully focused on helping the kids line up on the church steps, where each would sing one stanza. Still, I couldn’t help noticing her warm smile when she saw Mary and me standing right in front. Thoroughly enjoying the sun spells, Mary carefully followed the lyrics, at times pointing out to me words she could understand or guess. The crowd was emotional—the elders singing along, others just moving their lips, some mumbling the lyrics.
After the performance, I went to hug Annu. “Lucia’s voice is perfect for I passiùna, isn’t it?” She was proud of the kids’ engagement and achievements, even if they didn’t always know what they were singing in Griko.
As odd as it may seem, neither Annu nor Donato speak Griko. Like the majority of my generation, they are “passive speakers.” They can understand the language fairly well since their parents are mother-tongue speakers, but they cannot speak it, nor have they actively engaged in improving their limited competences. Those who do so are and have long been a minority inside the minority. Yet, they express their attachment to the language through I Passiùna tu Christù, participating in a shared cultural orientation: they “live” the language by performing it.
Greko Comes Alive
By M. Olimpia Squillaci
While Manuela and Mary were attending the performance of I passiùna, I was further south in the Area Grecanica, the Greko area of Calabria, hosting an intensive language revitalization school. The aim of the workshops—called “Fantastic Languages and Where to Find Them,” run by the COLING project—was to gather local and international experts, language activists, researchers, and community members in the Area Grecanica to discuss and find possible solutions to problems that challenge our Greko revitalization movement. Like Griko, Greko has experienced a significant shift to surrounding majority languages: local Calabrese (Romance) and Italian.
During the week-long school, however, I noticed that while the support of our international guests was fruitful, something else on a local level was happening. Language activists Freedom Pentimalli, 31, and Tito Squillaci, 65, gave the first ever academic talk in Greko, “ghost towns” were once again resounding with traditional Greko music, young people were walking older people to their abandoned family houses after many years, and elder Greko speakers were moved while listening to young new speakers address them in their language. We were actually strengthening intergenerational community ties, enhancing the use of Greko as a language of communication among us, and boosting our confidence in our local movement.
This became particularly evident during the Palm Sunday procession, which we all joined as part of the school program. For this event, people carry papazze (woman-shaped figures) made of intertwined olive leaves on a reed structure while singing religious songs through the streets of Bova. Unlike the performance of I passiùna in Grecìa Salentina, the Easter songs are in Italian or in the Romance dialect, as no Greko songs have been preserved for the Holy Week rites.
During this procession, however, I could hear Greko all around me. Scattered among hundreds of participants, tourists, and journalists, there were small groups of young and old people chatting together in Greko, as if they had to retrieve in one day all the Greko they had lost. Up until three years ago, none of us in Calabria could have imagined this.
After a day-long journey from Zollino, Mary and Manuela arrived just before the Greko poetry reading. Salvino, one of the poets and a Greko speaker, talked with us after his performance.
“Now I see things differently,” he said. He thought about the poem he had just read, then looked out at the crowd of enthusiastic new speakers and outside supporters. “This poem is about language death. It no longer applies to Greko. Now there is future.”
By Manuela and M. Olimpia, 2019
Mary has been traveling through Griko and Greko with us, and with Griko and Greko through our communities. Echoed in the Easter and springtime celebrations, young new speakers in Calabria strive to revive the language, embracing the motto An me platespise, zio: “If you speak me, I live.” They speak Greko every day, in any context, and with the full support of the older speakers.
In Grecìa Salentina, instead, the language is experienced through initiatives such as I passiùna, which are not about creating new speakers but promoting the intergenerational transmission of traditional cultural practices through it. Performance is the seed waiting for further growth.
By Mary Linn, 2020
On my trip to southern Italy last year, I encountered warmth of the people and joy in their languages everywhere I went, dispelling the cold and clouds of early spring. In both communities, I saw elderly people still using Griko and Greko in their daily lives, although less and less, while the younger generations have found different and equally meaningful ways of preserving them. I was thrilled to learn that last summer both communities traveled to each other’s towns and spent time together sharing their experiences and languages.
I just got off the phone with Manuela, who told me that she, M. Olimpia, and their families and friends are safe, although the coronavirus has shuttered most of Italy. There will be no Easter gatherings this year in Zollino. Instead, after the Palm Sunday mass, which is not open to the public because of COVID-19, the priest will broadcast a recording of I Passiùna over the local radio. The singers and the children who performed last year are also recording a video from home; each will sing a stanza, and a compiled video will circulate among the families.
I worry about my dear friends abroad and closer to home. I think of the unspeakably sad statue of Mary—Maria Dolorosa—in the church at Zollino, looking toward humanity in her sorrow. I remember my own upbringing at Easter. At the Good Friday services, my mother was the one who walked the eternal light out of the sanctuary, symbolizing the light of the world extinguished. Does it matter if that light is relit three days later, or months, or years? Like the promise of spring and the fruits of revitalization, it will be relit, and songs in Griko and Greko will be sung together again.
Manuela Pellegrino and M. Olimpia Squillaci are the principal researchers for the Griko and Greko case study of the Sustaining Minoritized Languages in Europe (SMiLE) project. Manuela holds a PhD in anthropology (University College London) and is now a research fellow at the Center for Hellenic Studies in Greece, Harvard University. M. Olimpia holds a PhD in linguistics (Cambridge University) and is now a research fellow at University of Naples “L’ Orientale.” Mary Linn is the curator of cultural and linguistic revitalization at the Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage and the SMiLE program director.
SMiLE Research Awards are sponsored by the Smithsonian Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage with funding from Ferring Pharmaceuticals Inc.