One rainy evening in February, I was making my way through the narrow streets of Ballarò to meet someone named Richard at a place called Porco Rosso. Not knowing what to expect, I imagined a formal space with a front desk where I’d have to give my name and state my purpose for being there, a thought that made me nervous, since I didn’t know what I was doing yet. But I found nothing formal about Porco Rosso: it looked like a café with a bar, with basil plants in the windows and a small library. People were speaking in several languages, playing Checkers and Connect Four. A few people looked up when I walked in, but no one seemed to mind that I was a stranger. I was surprised at how immediately comfortable I felt there.
We’ve all been places where we felt we weren’t allowed, even if there were no written rules forbidding us from entry. This is part of my daily life as a woman in Palermo, a city where patriarchy is so thick it’s a full-on sensory experience (if you didn’t know, patriarchy looks like fading photographs of Padre Pio and blinking neon lamps, and smells suffocatingly sweet like caffè with sambuca). There are places I walk by and feel the push of some force telling me to stay away: unwelcoming stares or conversations falling quiet in my presence that don’t resume until I’m gone. Porco Rosso is not one of those places.
Like any city, Palermo is immensely segregated, but in a way that would be unfamiliar to most Americans. Race, class, and gender are so mixed up with questions of citizenship and locality here that every square inch of this city is encoded in rules about belonging. Palermo prides itself on its open arms towards outsiders, but “us” and “them” is never lost here; even when born here, someone with foreign origins is often indissoluble into Sicilianness. To be from here is also to be “from” here, which is not just a question of birthplace but also of blood.
Couple that with the recent election of an openly racist, anti-immigrant deputy prime minister (Matteo Salvini), and the dramatic surge in racially-motivated attacks across all of Italy, and, if it were not already, then the provincial question of “belonging” becomes overtly, unavoidably, racial.
The irony, you’ve likely heard, is the extent of anti-immigrant and even quasi-racist hatred that was once (and continues to be, though to a lesser extent) directed at Sicilians in other parts of Italy and the world. You’ve likely also heard that the economic situation here in Sicily, like much of southern Europe, is rather precarious. Palermo’s many unemployed men often pass the day loitering in the streets, on benches, church steps, or curbs; large groups of them get together and sit silently, watch passerby, and maybe finish a whole pack of cigarettes by 3 pm.
Employment is even scarcer for migrants, but you won’t find so many migrants loitering in public; the public sphere, unsurprisingly, is not theirs to loiter in. Policemen park their cars in places where immigrants, especially Africans, tend to gather. If immigrants “belong” anywhere in Palermo, it must be hidden from view. Life has to be painfully boring, then, for anyone who can’t find work here, is in an endless state of limbo waiting for documents that may never come, but also lacks the social capital to simply kill time in public. One theme that has come up again and again in my conversations with immigrants is that of incredible boredom.
And this is why Porco Rosso is so magical: it’s one of the few places in Palermo where you will see anyone taking up as much space as they want. I don’t know if I can effectively explain how important that is. Apart from all the other wonderful things that Porco Rosso is (a drop-in, free legal counseling center for immigrants, an art venue, a meeting place) it’s also a place to go when you’re bored, a place where you are welcome to sit and do nothing, to nap if you want to, to use the wi-fi and watch YouTube videos at full volume or to call your friends and family and speak in your own language without having to whisper. For those of us who feel safe, permitted, even welcome, in most places, it’s hard to imagine how meaningful that might be for someone. Having lived here, I think it’s nothing short of revolutionary.
Porco Rosso was founded by a group of young Sicilian activists, but the space is practically run by a pair of North Africans; one, Khalid, turns every table and bare wall into a canvas for his artwork, sets up twinkling lights in a different spot every week, makes sure the lights above the bar are always swinging back and forth, and comes around at random with a tray of sweet mint tea.
Then there are the array of African, Arab, Bengali, and European men and women whom I know and who know me by name; the little boy from the neighborhood who runs in and out to play (today he and his friends came by to show me a butterfly with a broken wing. “Poverina,” he said, and asked me if they could take it to the animal hospital); the older man with a cane who insists I call him “Zio” (uncle), but always forgets my name; the countless first-time visitors who seem immediately taken by the place the way I was the first time I walked in. And then, there are the people who do the work: Richard with his quiet brilliance, Giulia’s humor and tireless dedication, Fausto whose mere presence makes everyone involuntarily smile, Kamal’s genuine kindness, and so on.
One Thursday some months ago I was closing for the evening and asked everyone to leave so I could lock up. A group of young African and Arab men who had been playing checkers together got up reluctantly. “Now what?” one of them asked the other. “Yeah,” the other said. “Where do we go now?”
Please donate to this miracle of a place that gives people a place to go. It’s been there for a lot of people, and, though I did not escape poverty or conflict to get here, and am allowed to be most anywhere in Palermo (save for those male spaces), Porco Rosso has been there for me too.
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