The rugged land to the north and west of Venice was dirt poor in 1918 when Carlos Antich's great-grandfather packed up his family and struck out for the New World. Antich's ancestors, the Bolgan clan like boatloads of others who fled the Veneto region's relentless poverty wound up in Argentina, where expanding agriculture and construction projects required cheap and eager labor. Even after Antich's grandfather, Carlo Fortunato Bolgan, worked his way into the Argentine middle class, nostalgia for Italy ran deep through three generations of the family. But it wasn't until Antich's arrival in Veneto eight months ago that a family member again set foot in the Old Country. In October, the fair-haired 26-year-old even tracked down the abandoned three-room house in Salzano, just west of Venice, where his maternal grandfather was born nearly 90 years ago. Though glad to find the house and a few distant relatives still in town, Antich didn't come to trace his genealogy. Coming home to a place he's never been before, he is in Veneto to work and he plans to stay.
The Cordoba native is part of the first, small wave of Argentines of Italian extraction to be offered a free plane ticket, start-up housing costs and a steady job to resettle in Veneto. The Italian government's €1.5 million Project Return is engineering a reversal of the age-old immigrant tale. Antich, who was laid off last year at a Renault plant outside Cordoba, says he could have eventually found a "job to eat and survive" in Argentina even after the country's recent economic collapse. "But if I want a good future, it's here," he says during a morning shift at the Electrolux-Zanussi refrigerator plant outside Feltre in northwest Veneto.
Project Return is, in part, a way to help some of the millions of ethnic Italians suffering through the current Argentine crisis, which has seen unemployment soar to 22%. Newspapers in Italy regularly report on the backlog at Italian consulates around Argentina of descendants seeking passports. But there is more than heart driving Veneto's handouts. Northeastern Italy which as recently as 40 years ago sent many of its young men abroad to find work is now one of Europe's most productive industrial regions. And like the Americas a century ago, businesses are looking abroad to fill a constantly expanding labor demand.
Veneto which like the rest of Italy has a very low birthrate must turn largely to immigrants from North Africa and Eastern Europe to fill its growing labor gap. Through the 1990s, foreign residents in the region grew from 25,000 to 140,000; in the past year, one in every four new hires in Veneto some 22,000 has been an immigrant. Like elsewhere in Europe, there has been an angry backlash to this growing foreign presence, which is blamed for crime and a dilution of the local character. Politicians like Umberto Bossi, the leader of the once-separatist Northern League party and author of the Italian government's new strict anti-immigration law, slip into racially charged rhetoric when railing against immigration. One of Antich's co-workers, taking a break from the assembly line that turns out Zanussi refrigerator motors, speaks of "suspicion" and "apprehension" toward those coming from places like Algeria and Albania. "We definitely do not welcome them with open arms," admitted Nadia Zatta, a local union representative.
Arms have opened wide, however, for Antich and the other 43 Argentines taken on by Zanussi, Italy's largest private employer after Fiat and a full partner in Project Return. Technically, this is not an immigration issue at all. Every participant in the program must be an Italian citizen, not hard to find in Argentina, where some 40% of the population has at least one Italian grandparent and thus the right to a passport. In Cordoba, chosen as the Argentine base because of an existing Veneto regional office there, some 8,000 people have already sought a place in the program. There are more than 150 permanent Zanussi positions awaiting Argentines over the next year, with hundreds of new requests each month by other employers seeking to participate if the program is expanded.
Andrea Peressutti, a Zanussi personnel manager, says immigrant hirings of all stripes tend to work out well, but the Italo-Argentines have had an especially smooth transition. "They've integrated into the factory very quickly," he said. "You see it in their dna they're Italian." For those who are chosen based on their work qualifications and an interview by a Zanussi representative in Argentina the offer comes with two weeks of lessons in Italian language, history and customs before even setting out for Italy. They also are helped with any outstanding paperwork and receive special employer training both in Argentina and upon their arrival. Lodging is paid for during the first six months, and arrangements are made to bring over spouses and children within the first year on the job. Take-home pay is around €1,100 a month.
Antich, whose only other experience outside Argentina was a brief vacation in Brazil, said homesickness is the hardest part of emigrating. While he hopes his longtime girlfriend will join him, much of his non-factory time is spent playing with a local semiprofessional rugby team. Antich says his heritage sets him apart from other arrivals. "I don't feel like an immigrant," he says. "But I see the guys from Senegal and Morocco and I know we're here for the same thing."
Though the program's charter calls for a preference of Venetan descendants, most of the first wave of Argentine arrivals have roots elsewhere in Italy mostly in the south. That part of Italy is still economically depressed, with unemployment above 20%. But southern Italy's poverty which prompted a wave of internal immigration to such places as Turin and Milan during the country's first boom in the 1950s and 1960s is marginally less desperate now. Unemployment benefits coupled with poorly paid, off-the-books jobs tend to keep most would-be emigrants at home.
Staying put was not an option for Domingo Vitale's father, who left Taormina, Sicily, in 1951 in the last Italian wave of immigration to Argentina. Fioravante Vitale did manual labor to provide for his two sons, who both worked their way through university. An electrical engineer, Domingo had always thought he would put his own two kids through college until he was laid off in 1999. Years of savings had been whittled away by the time the offer came from Veneto. "It's like starting from zero all over again," says Vitale, 43. After putting away the first bit of money from his job at Zanussi, he now is awaiting the arrival of his wife and kids. And if all works out in Feltre, Vitale's secret wish is to eventually bring back his 74-year-old dad to live out his remaining days on Italian soil.