Thursday, February 16, 2006
831 >> TALES FROM THE AREA CODE
Fresh biscotti and homemade persimmon bread sit on an island in Carol Lynn McKibben’s kitchen. McKibben baked the biscotti for her son who lives in San Francisco—“I’m not Italian for nothing,” she jokes. The persimmon bread is a gift from Catherine Cardinale, whom McKibben interviewed for her recently published book, Beyond Cannery Row.
The book tells the story of the Sicilian immigrants who settled in Monterey at the turn of the 20th century, and sometimes migrated back to Italy. It depicts a fluid community, in which movement between Sicily and Monterey continues today. While researching and interviewing people for her book, McKibben visited the three villages in western Sicily where Monterey’s Sicilian families originated. “I walked into these little towns and saw 30-something women living the lives their grandmothers left,” she says.
The book is a study of migration, community and identity, and the integral role Sicilian women played in all three. “Sicilian women,” McKibben writes, “were largely responsible for this reinvention of identity as fisherpeople…weaving ethnic identity with a fishing identity.” Women did this by working in the canneries, building communities by organizing festas and other gatherings, and taking care of their families and finances.
McKibben quotes Cardinale early on in the book: “When you are a fisherman, it’s in your blood. You have to fish. You have to follow the fish. You have to be at sea…That’s what I used to tell the children when they would complain about [their father] being gone so much. ‘This is our way of life.’”
McKibben shows how Sicilian women helped create a permanent community in Monterey by playing a vital role in creating this identity.
“There are these myths about Sicilian women especially, that they were reticent and passive,” McKibben says. “This is so not true. They were partners and full participants.”
The idea for the book came from a 1992 article McKibben wrote for The Monterey County Herald about cannery workers. She noticed that workers identified themselves as two distinct groups: Sicilians and Others, which included immigrants and nonimmigrants. “It seemed odd to me that there was this clear separation,” she says. “[Sicilians] considered themselves different, but, more importantly, everyone else considered them different.”
This oral history project would become her doctoral dissertation. In 1999, McKibben received a Ph.D. in history from UC-Berkeley. Her specific field of study was American History and her second field was sociology.
McKibben, who taught history and international policy studies at the Monterey Institute of International Studies for 12 years, has a personal interest in the subject matter, too. Her maternal grandparents, Giovanna Paluzzi Caliri and Orazio Caliri, immigrated from Sicily. “My grandmother was a model of all things strong and good about Sicilian women,” McKibben writes in the opening acknowledgments in Beyond Cannery Row.
Her grandparents owned a ranch in Gilroy and grew apricots, prunes and walnuts.
In writing the book, McKibben wanted to contribute to local history and better grasp her own ethnic heritage.
“As a scholar,” she says, “the literature on immigration portrayed Italians as the less than successful immigrants, and Sicilians were even worse. I needed to feel I was contributing to the scholarly literature on Sicilian migration and its importance to Monterey’s history.
“And I wanted to understand my own ethnic background. I miss my mother, and my grandmother.”
McKibben is already working on her next project, a social history of Seaside and the role the city played in the civil rights movement, the World Wars, Korea, Vietnam, and the closing of Fort Ord and its impact on the area.
“Nothing has been written,” she says. “I’m at the beginning, beginning stage, and as usual, I’m interviewing way too many people. I think it’s very important. It absolutely has to be comparative.”
But, she adds, history studies of the Monterey Bay area should not stop at Seaside or Cannery Row.
“We need a book on the Portuguese, the Filipinos,
African-Americans, certainly Mexican-Americans. Until these
ethnic groups are studied, we really can’t know or appreciate
the history of this place where we live.”
Carol McKibben will discuss Beyond Cannery Row Wednesday, Feb. 22, in the atrium of the McCone Building, located at 499 Pierce St. at the Monterey Institute of International Studies in Monterey. A reception at 4:30PM precedes the talk at 5pm. 647-3513.