A Winters tale: What's in a name?

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Quite often when I meet people here in Winters, they wonder about my last name. “What is that?” they ask. “Sicilian,” I reply proudly.  In those moments, I am reminded that Sicily is very much in my DNA. My great grandfather was born in a hillside village outside of Palermo. Mezzojuso. Its small, roughly half the population of Winters. Founded in the 11th century by Arabs, it was called Manzil Jusef, hamlet of Joseph. So, like Winters it was named for its founder.  Unlike Winters, Mezzojuso is not evolving or growing. In fact its population is dropping, as more and more young people choose lives in bigger cities.  Lack of opportunity was the reason my great grandfather Battista chose to leave, along with four million other Southern Italians who abandoned their homeland, and sailed for America. With his wife Anna, Battista arrived in New York in 1889. Then, like so many of his fellow immigrants, he quickly assimilated. He learned English, worked in the grocery business, raised his children, and became an American citizen.  I am ever grateful he found his way here. As much as I love the land of my ancestors, I might not have achieved the kind of happiness I have today had I been born in Mezzojuso.  Still, I have always felt the pull of Sicily. And so, 35 years ago, I made my first trip to see the point of origin of the Lagattuta family.  I was a young television reporter, and carried with me an old style video camera. I filmed a documentary which aired on TV in Los Angeles. I would later screen the film for many groups, most of them Italian-Americans longing for a taste of the old country.  On that first visit to Mezzojuso, I knew not a soul in town. I had simply hopped on a plane, rented a car and showed up. I spoke almost no Italian.  In the local bar, I asked, “Are there any Lagattutas here?”“Molti,” was the barman’s reply. Many.  I mistakenly thought he said “Morti”. They are all dead. And I figured my quest was over. But within minutes, a man appeared. He was 60-ish, short like everyone else, and bore no resemblance to me. He spoke no English. Yet Salvatore Lagattuta was incredibly kind, and treated me like a long lost nephew, which I guess I was.  He found a place for me to stay at a local monastery. I ate my meals with his family. And he introduced me to the rest of the Lagattutas in town.  The butcher. The policeman. Both grocery store owners, the town janitor, the cheese maker, and many more.  I visited the cemetery, and saw dozens of tombstones engraved with my last name. Never had I witnessed so many Lagattutas sitting together so quietly.  I was 27. When I was about to turn 60, my wife Judy insisted we spend that epochal moment in my life in my ancestral homeland.  For me, a lot had changed in 33 years. I was happily married, and I had left the world of journalism. Plus, by then I was fluent in Italian, so no mistaking dead for alive. Upon my return it was clear not much had changed in Mezzojuso. Still, as always, the main piazza buzzed each evening, as the locals gathered to share the day’s news or gossip. I immediately spotted familiar faces.  Surprisingly, every one of the Lagattutas I had met and filmed, except one, was still around, very much alive. They remembered me and I them.  I had a new project in mind this trip—-to photograph as many Lagattutas as I could. One afternoon, we set up the camera and lighting equipment in the main square. For a moment, we didn’t know if anyone would come.  Then one by one, they began arriving, dressed in their finest, honored to take part. We made 50 or so beautiful portraits.  But what I really wanted was to show them my original film. We set up a screen in the local convent one night.  It was a packed house. As the townspeople recognized younger versions of themselves on film, I heard sighs, or laughter.  When the lights snapped on, some of the Lagattutas were crying.The film ended with a dedication to Salvatore Lagattuta, the man who had been my guide three decades earlier. He was unable to attend the screening.  The next day I went to visit him. At the cemetery. I placed my hand on his gravestone and whispered, “Hello, old friend.” ]]>

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