The basement auditorium of Casa Italiana Zerilli- Merimò in Manhattan was nearly full the Tuesday before Thanksgiving. By 6:30pm, the scheduled start time, the auditorium had reached capacity. People stood in the aisles. Dozens were sent upstairs to watch a broadcast of the guest of honor, Domenico “Mimmo” Lucano, a former mayor of a Calabrian town the size of one New York City block, tell his story.
Filomena Critelli showed up early to the event, taking a break from her Thanksgiving duties. This summer, she met Lucano for coffee while visiting Calabria. The renaissance of Lucano’s town, Riace, resembled that of her own in America’s rust belt. For the first time in thirty years, Critelli said Buffalo’s population had grown, neighborhoods were revitalized and homes renovated, thanks in part to the refugee and immigrant population that had settled there. Remembering her visit to Riace, she was impressed by the murals. She said they were still there, even after many migrants and refugees had left. Critelli, a professor of social work and migration studies, had come once again to pay her respects and show her solidarity for Lucano.
“He attempted an innovative and bold model to address the issue of people who have been displaced,” she said. “To me it’s a pity that what’s been successful in Italy is now somewhat destroyed.”
This was Lucano’s first visit to New York City. When the former mayor entered the auditorium wearing a black shirt and jeans, the room applauded. The master of ceremonies, Pietro Costa, acknowledged him warmly. “You made a long trip to be here. You made a long trip reminding us what it means to be human,” he said.
Before Lucano joined the panel discussion with NYU Professor Stefano Albertini and Professor Teresa Fiore from Montclair State University, Prof. Tiziana Castro (Montclair State) read a passage from The Odyssey. Castro suggested the ancient notion of Greek hospitality reverberates in the acts of Lucano, who welcomed arrivals by sea without asking who they were, where they came from, and what they wanted. “Reflecting back on what Mimmo has done, I ask what is hospitality for us?” she said to the audience.
On stage, Domenico spoke in Italian and described the situation in Southern Italy after decades of emigration. Riace had become a ghost town, destined for a fate of “abandonment” and “silence.” He said his “community was aware that their future was elsewhere and they had a sense of being there only temporarily.” His aunts and uncles had left for Argentina and the USA.
His vocation was born out of this atmosphere and found its first expression in student activism and a love of multiculturalism of the 1990s. That led to a job as a chemistry teacher and time on the town council. “Like many people of my generation, I had a dream that a better world was possible. I realized that for many, it was only a stage,” he said. “But I kept having the dream, and I felt I wanted to start something from, and for, my local reality and local world.”
Domenico became the mayor of Riace in 2004 and was re-elected for three terms. The first time, his own mother didn’t vote for him. He said of the time, he was “all over the place.” People told him his plans were a utopia. But that didn’t matter to him.
He persisted, seeking funds from the Italian government to support his association “Città Futura” (Future City), which subsidized the renovation and reuse of homes for asylum-seekers. Newcomers who had arrived from over twenty countries could live rent-free while promising to work in stores, learn a trade and the Italian language from locals. Lucano said it was a circular economy.
“Human relations are the basis of life, and they give you the opportunity to believe in what seems impossible,” he said. “I was turning things upside down. I always imagined that in [Riace] as long as we have universal values of openness, these areas are welcome areas, where you can have a dream.”
In 2011, German director Wim Wenders came to Riace to shoot a short documentary called “Il Volo” (The Flight.) He was invited by a resident of Riace, Ramadullah, a nine-year old boy from Afghanistan, whom he’d started to interview in the planning stages of the film. Lucano said Wenders told him, “The true utopia for me is not the fall of the Berlin Wall, but what I saw in Riace.”
While the panelists spoke, Lucano stared into the bright lights in a state of deep reflection. When he spoke about memories of the town, his face relaxed. When he spoke of politics, Italy’s anti-migrant agreement with Libya and the “fortress” of Europe, his brow furrowed.
In the early 2000’s, Lucano said people appeared on Riace’s beaches and were welcomed before there was government red-tape and “aggression.” He said as refugees shared their stories of war, the people of Riace began to understand their place in the world, and how their country’s actions had created the circumstances these people had fled. “In Riace, we have no camps where people can land, they live in our homes. It’s an example of integration,” said Lucano. “That’s why this social component is deeply felt, these people are not seen as a challenge or invasion or security issue.”
In 2016, Fortune Magazine named Lucano one of the world’s greatest leaders and the following year, he received the Dresden Peace Prize. But in 2018, Lucano’s situation changed. He was put under house arrest for allegedly abetting illegal immigration, being charged with orchestrating a marriage of convenience. Former Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of the Interior Matteo Salvini has attacked him on Twitter.
Last year, residents organized a hunger strike to protest the trickle of funds from the Italian government. At that time, Lucano told The Guardian, “We are reaching the point of no return. If the funds do not come, 165 refugees will end up on the street, 80 workers will lose their jobs and everything will collapse under a pile of rubble.”
The talk ended. The audience applauded again, but this time, Lucano gestured for them to stop. It was clear he was still thinking about Riace.