Maria Bertucci Compagno placed the seed-and-wine cookies on a platter in her kitchen in Mandeville, explaining how artifacts of her Sicilian heritage like this are never far away.
“If I don’t have cookies or meatballs or red sauce, I feel naked,” she said.
The platter prepared, the former restaurateur moved to the front door to greet Guiseppe Benito Ranzino, a sausage maker and fellow Sicilian immigrant. The two friends, both 80, talked of family, music, food and the land they both left in the middle of the last century, speaking mostly in fluent Sicilian.
But conversations like this are growing rarer. Sicilian is listed by UNESCO as a language that is “vulnerable” to going extinct worldwide.
Native speakers like Compagno watch it fade with each succeeding generation. Her grown children understand a fair bit. But her grandchildren know only a few words, some of them picked up on trips back to her native Ustica, a tiny island off Sicily’s northern coast.
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But now, like many endangered languages, Sicilian has inspired something of a revival effort among descendants of the Sicilians who began arriving in southeast Louisiana in the latter half of the 19th century.
Compagno’s friend Steven Campo, three decades her junior, is a third-generation Sicilian-American who grew up in Amite, in the heart of Tangipahoa Parish’s Italian and Sicilian community. He never learned Sicilian as a child. But a trip to the island in 1993 awakened an interest in the land of his ancestors. He traced his family tree back to the start of the 18th century and met cousins who still lived there.
Two decades later, he began to pursue the language, reaching out online to those who could teach him and asking to practice with native speakers. He got in touch with them in New York, Philadelphia and elsewhere. And he started a Facebook page for people who wanted to learn to speak Sicilian that now has more than 11,000 members.
These days, Campo teaches the language at the Italian Cultural Museum in Independence. The class began with a handful of students four weeks ago, but the number has grown to a dozen or more. They range in age from their early teens to their 80s.
Among them is Lena Robbins, 77, of Independence. Robbins grew up with grandparents who didn’t speak English. She picked up the language as a child, but once her elderly relatives passed away, she stopped using it. She said Campo’s classes have helped her reconnect with a heritage she always has treasured.
“It’s been decades since I spoke it,” she said. But after four weeks of classes, “things start coming back, words that I have not remembered.”
Efforts like Campo’s may be the best hope for keeping Sicilian alive, according to Roberto Nicosia, a visiting professor of Italian studies at Tulane University. He said things don’t look all that great for the language in Sicily itself, where Italian is encouraged as the official national language.
The government in Rome has emphasized learning Italian over the dozens of regional dialects and languages that exist within the modern-day country’s borders.
Modern-day Italy wasn’t unified as a single country until the middle of the 19th century, and authorities have worked hard to impose a national identity.
“They tried to make a unified country that never existed,” said Nicosia, who is himself Sicilian. “There are different languages, dialects and cultures everywhere.”
Even for Sicilian natives like Nicosia, the language is complicated. Sicily, roughly the size of Massachusetts, is a rugged, mountainous island. Towns and villages often are isolated, allowing small pockets to develop idiosyncratic accents, dialects and vocabularies. Successive waves of migrants have left their imprint as well.
In northeastern Sicily, where contact with mainland Italy has been greater, the Italian effect is pronounced, while in the southern part of the island, there is an Arabic influence. Greek, Spanish, Albanian and even French words are present as well.
“If I go in some parts of Sicily, probably in the interior, I could understand maybe 40 or 50 percent,” Nicosia said.
The first Sicilians came to New Orleans in the first half of the 19th century, according to Justin Nystrom, a Loyola University professor who is writing a book on Sicilians in New Orleans. Many were fruit traders who came along with the hardy Sicilian lemons on sailing ships and set up shops as produce merchants and brokers. A second wave came after the Civil War, many as farm workers.
About 90 percent of the Italians in New Orleans are of Sicilian or southern Italian descent, Nystrom said. Many of them headed north from New Orleans to the area around Ponchatoula, where strawberry farming was — and remains — a major industry.
Donnie Orlando’s great-grandparents were among those strawberry farmers. He grew up proud of the Sicilian culture that surrounded him, but he never learned the language, something he is trying to make up for now with Campo’s classes.
“I loved my heritage,” Orlando said. But when it came to the language, he knew only a word or two.
Like any foreign language, learning Sicilian can be tough, he said. “It’s got its difficulties, but it’s coming on,” he said, praising Campo’s teaching style.
The success of his class has encouraged Campo to keep proselytizing for the language.
He’s planning an open house June 17 in Independence at the Italian Cultural Museum. There will be songs, poetry and dancing, showcasing Sicilian arts and language.
He hopes the event will help make people aware of the potential demise of the Sicilian language and persuade them to help.
Nicosia also fears the disappearance of Sicilian. He recalled the words of the Sicilian poet Ignazio Buttitta: “You can take everything from the people, but you murder a culture if you erase the language of the people.”
Follow Faimon A. Roberts III on Twitter, @faimon.