Calabria Is the Beating Heart of the Italian American Spirit


Devotion to family, a strong work ethic and unwavering faith made Calabria what it is today.

Like a sturdy toe in the world’s oldest boot, there you’ll find Calabria, a cradle of history that lives on through strong, self-reliant people.

Yes, it can truly be said the region, which is both coastal and rugged, shaped Calabria’s destiny–and ours.

History:  The Greeks ruled Calabria for 400 years beginning in 800 B.C., and named it Magna Grecia (Great Greece). The Greeks brought their advanced political system, law and civilization to the region, as well as olive trees, fig trees and grape vines, which would prove to be the source of Calabria’s economy for centuries to come.

The name Italy (Italia) was given to the region by the Greeks, and the name later extended north and came to identify all of the land encompassing the Italian peninsula.

Calabria then became part of the Roman Empire for the next 800 years, beginning in 400 B.C.

Thereafter, nearly every major power in the western world took occupied Calabria, including the Byzantines, Saracens, Normans, Spanish, French and Bourbons. It was the Byzantines who actually began calling the area Calabria, which means “fertile earth.”

Among the most impressive castles of Calabria, the Aragonese castle of Le Castella has, over time, become a symbol of cultural tourism in the region.

All of these foreign influences allowed Calabria to develop a unique and diversified culture of its own. It also taught the Calabresi to develop the cunning and skills necessary to survive during times when the foreign powers sought to take all of the crops, resources and wealth out of the region, leaving the Calabresi with little or nothing to themselves.

This article first appeared in La Nostra Voce, ISDA’s 28-page monthly newspaper, which chronicles Italian life, culture and traditions. Make the ISDA pledge and subscribe today.

Geography and Population: Calabria, which is the toe of Italy’s boot, is a long narrow peninsula. It is surrounded on three sides by the Ionian and the Tyrrhenian Seas, and is separated from Sicily by the two-mile wide Strait of Messina.

Over 90% of Calabria is covered by hills and mountains upon which sit the hundreds of small towns and villages from which many ISDA families have emigrated to America.

The current population of Calabria is 2 million people, and its largest city is Reggio Calabria with a population of 186,013. The capital of the region is Catanzaro.

The gorgeous view of the Scilla coast in Calabria, Italy.

Economy:  Agriculture and tourism are the main pillars supporting Calabria’s economy. Calabria ranks as the second most productive region of Italy for olive oil, and is the largest producer of Porcini mushrooms.

Calabria has 485 miles of coastline with many beach resort towns, which have made the area a very popular tourist destination. There are also several towns, such as Cosenza, with impressive castles, churches and monasteries that also attract tourists.

Freshly harvested olives in the hands of an Italian farmer.

Language:  Although standard Italian is taught in all of the schools, the older Calibresi still speak with a dialect in family settings, that is very similar to the Sicilian dialect.

Family roots run deep in southern Italy.

Religion:  The vast majority of Calabresi are Roman Catholic. Calabria is known as “The Land of the Saints,” as it was the birthplace of an unusually large number of Italian saints. The patron saint of Calabria is St. Francis of Paola.

Catholic tradition remains strong in Calabria as nearly every church in town still celebrates an annual feast with a procession honoring its patron saint.

The Santa Maria dell’Isola church at sunset in Tropea, Calabria.

Conclusion:  Calabria has a diverse history and culture forged by the influences of the many foreign powers who have occupied it. It is an area of Italy that is currently experiencing a resurgence due to its coastal resorts and appeal as a tourist destination.

The Calabresi are a strong and rugged people who epitomize the qualities of southern Italians — family loyalty, a strong work ethic and respect for elders — that has allowed so many of its descendants to be successful in America.

Calabria’s history, culture and traditions are similar in many respects to those of Sicily, although each of these regions takes great pride in its personal identity. The Calabresi have produced many well known Italian Americans including Tony Bennett, Connie Francis, Leon Panetta, Lou Costello and Jerry Vale.

This article, written by ISDA President Basil M. Russo, first appeared in La Nostra Voce.

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