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Sicily and Shreveport, LA

A Sicilian gentleman, He rests here in sleep

Waiting for a table at popular Herby K's

Colorful and eclectic Herby K's
by Melissa Cicci

My family and I recently traveled to Shreveport, Louisiana, to attend a women’s college basketball tournament in which our daughter’s team competed. I knew little about Shreveport, only that it lies along the Red River in northwestern Louisiana. When I travel, I make a point of learning something about the places I encounter, whether I’m there on purpose or just passing through.

With a few hours’ break between game action we headed out to explore. I’d read about a popular diner that specializes in Po’ Boys. Hungry, we set the GPS for Herby K’s. Almost to our destination we passed by St. Joseph’s Cemetery. I’ve always been fascinated with cemeteries; you can learn a lot about a place by understanding who lived and died there. We put lunch plans on hold and wandered through the cemetery for nearly an hour.

A plaque outside the gates explained that St. Joseph’s opened in 1822 as Shreveport’s Catholic cemetery, and that many pioneering members of the city’s Italian and French Societies are buried here. I knew about Louisiana’s French history, but until a recent (and excellent) documentary on PBS, “The Italian Americans,” I didn’t realize how many 19th-century Italian immigrants to the U.S., most from Sicily, made their way to Louisiana and New Orleans.

Judging by the names on so many of the headstones in St. Joseph’s, many of those Sicilians also made their way to the farthest reaches of Louisiana. [The distinction between Sicilians and Italians is important. Italy did not become a unified nation until 1861, but was a collection of city-states and provinces, each with its own culture and dialect. In fact, a Sicilian colleague told me that Sicily today has at least nine distinct dialects, only two or three of which are written. Some of the interred at St. Joseph’s had been born before Italy’s unification, others not until the family arrived in America.]

As we read the names and birthplaces on the headstones, we came upon family after family who’d come from just a few small comuni (towns) in the provinces of Palermo and Trapani, in western Sicily. Towns that must have mourned the emigration of so many. Over and over again, the headstones read the place names: Cefalù, Contessa Entellina, Poggioreale. Salaparuta. Often, and not surprising for the late 19th and early 20th centuries, many of the headstones bore the names of young children.

Today, with one exception, these towns number only a few thousand inhabitants. Cefalù is the largest with over 10,000. Poggioreale and Salaparuta were both destroyed in a devastating 1968 earthquake. Later, the townspeople moved and rebuilt their villages nearby.

After nearly an hour of reading the names of the families Fulco, Roppolo, Tuminello, Mondello, DeFatta, and Feducia, among others, we finally made our way to lunch. Waiting outside in the brilliant sunshine for an available table, with a cold beer in hand, we struck up a conversation with a local family. Yes, they confirmed that the descendants of the first Italian/Sicilian immigrants remain an important part of Shreveport’s cultural mix, along with French-Americans and African-Americans. Popular Herby K's is clearly a part of this mix, as the wait for a table ran more than a 1/2 hour on a warm Saturday afternoon.

At St. Joseph's, one headstone struck me. A man born before Italy’s unification, who must have traveled to America in search of stability and prosperity. We didn’t see any other headstones bearing the family name. What of other family members? A wife or children? But the epigraph on his headstone suggests that he may have found what he sought.

Eterno Epifanio Loiacono: Qui riposa nel sonno. He rests here in sleep.

“The Italian Americans” is available to stream at The Italian Americans

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