Faculty Research: Dr. Randy Lewis on Texas Tavola in the Old Country

Today we have a special treat for you: Dr. Randy Lewis has penned this fascinating account of a recent trip he took to Sicily to screen a documentary about Sicilians in East Texas. Enjoy his words and his photos – all the photographs are by him!

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I had a remarkable experience over spring break. Along with my partner, the anthropologist Circe Sturm, I headed to Sicily to screen an ethnographic film that we co-produced several years ago. Texas Tavola: A Taste of Sicily in the Lone Star State traces the migration of food, religion, and identity from Sicily to Texas, with a focus on the elaborate rituals associated with the tavola di San Giuseppe (the St. Joseph’s altar). The altar is not just a complex expression of religious devotion and folk creativity by women who prepare dozens of sculptural breads and desserts. It is also a holy banquet to feed the poor, a vegetarian feast for a crowd that can swell into the hundreds in Sicily and East Texas alike.

Bringing the film to Sicily was a long time coming. Although it had appeared at academic conferences and a number of universities in the US, a lack of subtitles had kept the film out of wide circulation in Italy. We were lucky that a graduate student at the University of Sienna, Maria Grazia Candido, decided to subtitle the film for her MA project, suddenly allowing it to find a new life in Italy. Would Sicilians recognize Sicilian-Americans as their own? Would they get past the Texas accents and oversized belt buckles to care about distant relatives they had never met? Would they be interested at all? That’s what we were here to discover.

Taking us hundreds of miles around the island, the screenings brought us to urban universities in wonderfully grand ballrooms, smaller cities filled with baroque architecture, and rural villages in the western countryside. I’m writing at greater length about this experience elsewhere, so for now I’ll simply describe the final screening in the western Sicilian town of Poggioreale.

Once a stately town with a concert hall, Poggioreale was destroyed by earthquake in 1968, languished in a corrupt rebuilding process for two decades, and finally rebuilt down the hill in a sad modernist parody of the original. The mayor had invited us to show our film in the modest town hall on the feast day of St. Joseph, when elaborate altars are set up in the towns of the surrounding valley. We were arriving at the same time as a group of Circe’s relatives who were visiting the Sicilian altars for the first time. Quite by accident, three generations of Sicilian-Texan women and one delightful fellow named Ross, most of whom had appeared in Texas Tavola, would be converging on their ancestral home while I shot a constant stream of video and photos.

We had a powerful screening in this final stop—for us as filmmakers and, I think, for our audience. What we had done was relatively simple: we had recorded the ancient rituals of a small town thriving in a faraway place. But for this small act of ethnographic attention to the improbable flow of global culture, the community was effusively grateful, presenting us bouquets of flowers, equally florid speeches, and a generous luncheon in a town with scant resources. The mayor spoke, the deputy mayor spoke, even the “baby mayor” spoke with impressive authority (he is a 12 year old who wears a tri-color sash to indicate his official role as a junior politician). The Sicilians marveled that Texans still constructed altars in the old ways, taking over an entire house to construct something that would last only a few days like some sort of mezzogiorno “Burning Man.” One bystander said what was happening in Texas was “like something from Sicily 200 years ago.” Old people cried and shook our hands like we had found a long lost relative, which, in a modest sense, we had.

One comment on “Faculty Research: Dr. Randy Lewis on Texas Tavola in the Old Country

  1. […] and students live and work in all corners of the globe, whether volunteering in the Peace Corps or presenting innovative research and projects in far-flung […]

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