MIDDLETOWN — Growing up, Liz Mazzotta Bazazi remembers the seasonal ritual of caring for her family’s fig tree.
“[You] had to turn it over and bury it into the ground every winter and stand it back up in the summer,” she said.
It was just one memory she has of growing up in a Sicilian family in Middletown, among relatives who hunted rabbits, made their own wine, cooked steak and roasted peppers in the basement fireplace and used olive oil as a home remedy for wood splinters.
Now, Bazazi wants to learn to speak the language of her grandparents. She asked Angelo Glaviano, a professor of romance languages at Middlesex Community College who is also from Sicily, if he would be willing to teach a course on the language for Middletown residents who are interested in learning to speak Sicilian.
Bazazi said that she met Glaviano when he interviewed her uncle – and later her — for a documentary that he is producing about the Sicilian history of Middletown.
Get ten people together, Glaviano told her, and he’d run a class. She posted on Facebook looking for other people who might be interested in learning. The response, she said, was far beyond what she expected.
The Facebook page for the class, called “Sicilian for English Speakers” now has 70 members.
According to the UNESCO Atlas of the World Languages in Danger, Sicilian is a “vulnerable” language with approximately 5 million speakers in Sicily and potentially more abroad.
Glaviano said that most young Sicilians don’t want to learn to speak Sicilian because they feel they will be looked down on for speaking it.
“They don’t understand that language is part of your identity. In my opinion, if you give up on your language, you give up on your identity. You don’t know who you are,” he said.
But Glaviano said the response from residents in Middletown, which has strong ties to the town of Melilli in Sicily, has been heartening.
“I see Sicilians gradually becoming more and more proud of themselves,” he said. “I see Liz and everybody else so proud of being Sicilian.”
Bazazi said her grandfather, Carmelo Mazzotta, came over from Sicily and settled in Middletown, in a boarding house on Clinton Avenue. Her grandmother, Philomena “Minnie” Bellobuono, who lived across the street, was also Sicilian. Bazazi said that her relatives were from the Syracuse region, the area where Melilli is located.
Growing up, she said, her exposure to the Sicilian language and culture was largely centered around food. On Sundays, she remembers going to a store near Grand Street for mortadella — the barrels of olives, she said, were as tall as she was. After that, they would go to Schaeffer’s Bakery on Main Street and buy two loaves of Italian bread — one for home, and one for the car ride, and she and her siblings would fight over the heels.
As an adult, she tried to carry on some of those traditions. For twenty years, she said, she made the “seven fish” – the traditional Sicilian dinner on Christmas Eve.
“One year we tried to make the eel and my son had pliers trying to pull the skin off. We have it on video,” she said.
Bazazi said she’d done her own research on Sicily and was taken by its rich history. Sicily was ruled by a number of ancient civilizations and modern powers – Greeks, Phonecians, Carthaginians, the Roman Empire, the Byzantine Empire, the Arabs, the Normans, the Spanish and the French. All of those invasions influenced the Sicilian language and its culture.
“When the Greeks came, they actually brought the olive trees. So olives are Greek. The Arabs came, they brought the lemons, they brought the oranges and they brought the ice cream,” said Glaviano. “We have been the crossroads of northern and southern people and we were even part of the German empire.”
Right now, Glaviano is in the process of writing the syllabus for the course, which he and Bazazi envision as a once-a-week class for two hours — one hour of language and one hour of culture. Bazazi said they will probably offer the first three weeks for free, as a kind of introductory course, and then see what happens. For now, the class will be on Zoom, although Glaviano said eventually he’d like to move to in-person teaching.
Bazazi said her interest in the language doesn’t hinge on whether or not she’ll be able to use it. For her, it’s about connecting with her ancestors, and particularly her grandparents.
“I’m not learning it for a purpose,” she said. “I’m not thinking of its utility at all. It’s just really, really interesting.”
The legacy of the fig tree also carries on. Bazazi said that when her uncle went into an assisted living facility, he brought with him a potted fig tree. After he could no longer care for it, her family members brought it back to her house. She took its roots and planted several small fig trees.
Her nieces have each asked for a cutting.