The rise to the White House of Dr Jill Jacobs Biden, the first Italian-American first lady in US history, has awakened from its slumber a normally quiet and offbeat corner of Sicily rarely picked by tourists, roamed by sheep and dotted with crumbly farms.
It's a sedate but stunning side of Sicily, known for cliff-hanging sanctuaries, lookout towers and a spectacular view of the Aeolian Islands. Visitors often stop by just to hop on the ferry boats.
But the Biden win has shattered the tranquillity.
The entire province of the seaside city of Messina has been rocked by the near certainty that Dr Biden’s Italian ancestors hailed from here, although from which town, or towns in particular, has yet to be fully pinned down.
The "Biden connection"
Following local researchers’ work and potential distant relatives who popped up after the US presidential elections, the main focus is now on two rural villages claiming to be the birthplace of the first lady’s great grandparents, who after landing in the New World at the end of the 19th century Americanized their Sicilian surname of Giacoppo into Jacobs.
However, at least two other villages in the same area might also boast ancestral links.
The rush to secure the "Biden connection" would boost the tourist appeal of these so far unknown and remote spots. It’s also a matter of pride and it is fueling what Italians call "campanilismo," aka territorial rivalries even if nobody openly admits it.
Castanea delle Furie
In Castanea delle Furie, an old village set high up on the hills where locals are proud of their peasant origins and have always felt "different" from the seaside hamlets, a few alleged Giacoppo relatives have stepped forward.
Supposed relatives took a while to realize they might have common roots with America’s first lady. “I didn’t give it much thought at the beginning but then neighbors who remembered our past called me and nudged me to come out,” says local resident Giovanni Giacoppo.
“I remember my grandfather telling me that some distant member of our family set sail for America and never came back," Giovanni tells Lonely Planet. "I am sure our surname Giacoppo originated in Castanea delle Furie – this is where the family founder was born and is now buried in the graveyard. Our family dates back to at least the 1700s, so it is reasonable to say that Jill Biden’s great grandfather came from this village, and in Italy it’s the male line that rules.”
The name Castanea delle Furie hails back to the town's ancient chestnut harvests (castanea means "chestnut"), and it's linked to the mythological fury deities believed to bring havoc. Surrounded by pristine fields and forests, it’s famous for the Christmas living nativity scene with villagers dressed in costume. For locals, any potential link to Dr Biden could turn out to be a moneymaker, drawing investments to upgrade roads and buildings, giving the whole town a nice makeover.
Alleged Giacoppo relatives have also popped up in the nearby village of Gesso, a sleepy village with narrow alleys and a laid-back vibe. Local researchers say Jill Biden’s great grandfather and grandmother were both born there. They’ve dug out documents from Ellis Island archives and traced back at least five distant eighth-degree cousins. Gesso is smaller than Castanea delle Furie and there’s always been a bit of historical rivalry among the two.
I had the chance to speak to three excited distant relatives who showed me old photos of dead family members and family tree sketches. Gesso’s reaction to the Biden win was ecstatic. Locals threw street parties and cheered, happy of being in the spotlight – a sharp contrast to Castanea's more subdued, delayed reaction.
The great grandfather's hometown
Gesso and Castanea’s claims were soon weakened when another Sicilian researcher stepped forward saying that the Giacoppo line originated in neither town. Although Dr Biden’s great grandma was indeed from Gesso, her Giacoppo great grandfather came from another village near Messina which still needs to be pinpointed, according to researcher Fabio Cardile.
“The great grandma migrated very young, alone, and she met Jill’s great grandpa when she was already in the States," Cardile tells Lonely Planet. "The Italian community was tight-knit and Italian immigrants stuck together. The couple had several babies including Dominic, Jill’s grandpa. It was custom to Americanize Italian family names over fears of discrimination.” Cardile is an expert in recovering family trees, Italian-Americans often ask him to trace back their ancestral history. He began his research by starting from the early mentions of "Giacoppo" in regional archives and has since made a few interesting discoveries.
Cardile says there are another two towns where people called Giacoppo have been around since at least the 1600s – nearly a century before Castanea delle Furie's claims to a branch of the Biden family tree began. One is Villafranca Tirrena, a seaside location surrounded by fruit orchards that was once an ancient Roman port and later a rich Renaissance county ruled by a powerful lord who built a majestic fortress. Famous for its folklore festivals and picturesque carnival, a popular outlaw who lived here inspired the works of Alexandre Dumas.
The other "Giacoppo spot" is Calvaruso, a tiny rural hamlet featuring a holy sanctuary with a statue that is said to have been chiseled by an angel.
But so far no alleged relatives have showed up in either locations.
“It’s extremely difficult to locate the precise village of Jill’s great grandpa," says Cardile. "It could take a lifetime to analyze all archives and birth certificates of the whole Messina province. It’s massive work and the quest is open,” he says, adding that he will be deepening the study in his spare time.
So the search for Dr Biden’s family name continues, and it entails digging along the Giacoppo trail into the past of roughly 150 towns that dot this eastern part of Sicily, both along the coast and in the deep rural zones.
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