What do Sicilians Look Like? Let’s dig into the DNA

What colour are Sicilians?

This seems to be the most controversial and provocative question one could possibly ask in relation to Sicily.

I receive a regular stream of distressed or outraged comments from people who cannot bear it when I mention that Sicilian skin spans a range of many tones. They are always Americans with Sicilian grandparents or great grandparents, rather than people who live in Sicily.

Some of them actually send me photos of Sicilians to “show me how white Sicilians are”. This is not necessary because I have lived in Sicily for eleven years. I see Sicilians wherever I go. I even see one in my bed every night. Explaining that Sicilians are white is like explaining that the Queen is posh. Why would you feel the need to mention it?

Shocking prejudice

I realised why, when a Sicilian-American friend told me recently about the staggering prejudice she had experienced growing up as an American with a Sicilian surname. My mouth literally hung open when she recounted what people had said and done to her.

Here in Sicily, the people – obviously – don’t experience any of that nonsense. They have no reason to re-write the narrative of their own history or heritage. They are proud of every part of it.

In Europe we consider all indigenous Europeans to be white people, but that doesn’t mean you can’t have a bit of something else in you too. We’ve been invaded so many times we probably all do.

Early Sicily... prototype for a Benetton advertisement?
Early Sicily… prototype for a Benetton advertisement?

What’s in the Sicilian gene pool?

We had our family DNA tested a while ago. I wondered what would turn up from this list of the people who have invaded and/or settled in Sicily:

Three original tribes called Sicani, Elymians and Sicels.  They were the first arrivals after Sicily rose up out of the sea, and ancient writers thought they originated from Spain, mainland Italy and Greece.

Carthaginians (Carthage is now called Tunis). They were Phoenicians (from what is now Lebanon) mixed with a few North African Berbers.

Greeks

Romans

Jews, who were the only ones to migrate to Sicily instead of invading. Nobody knows exactly when they came but they were here before the Moors invaded.

Moors from North Africa (they were an ethnic mix of Middle Eastern Arabs and North African tribes)

Vikings (otherwise known as Normans or Norsemen)

Vandals (a Germanic tribe)

Ostrogoths (from the Byzantine Empire)

Swabians from what is now South Germany

Angevins from what is now France

Aragonese from what is now Spain

More French and Spanish and also Austrians

Bourbon French

And finally, Mainland Italians.

As you can see, the gene pool is quite varied.

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My Sicilian husband’s DNA

Firstly I want to say that connecting people’s DNA with geographic regions or races is in its infancy as a science, and has a certaintly level ranging from 50% to 80% – so it is speculative and far from certain. It’s still fun to look into it, though.

My own DNA results were so boring it was hardly worth the money. They just said British British British British British British British, 0.1% Broadly North European, British. (The only exciting part was 0.1% African. Wherever did that come from? Being one-thousandth African suggests you had one African ancestor in early medieval times. The mind boggles.)

The kiddo was a bit more exotic.

For Hubby, we got 81% Italian, a lot of “broadly southern European” and a little “broadly northern European” (this means they cannot work out exactly where it comes from), a little bit of Spanish and a little more French and German, about 4.4% Middle Eastern and North African, and about 1% west (sub-Saharan) African.

Why so much variety among Sicilians?

There are plenty of national and ethnic groups in the list of invaders which did not make an appearance in my husband, but which might be heavily concentrated in other Sicilians. Based on Sicilian people who have told me their DNA, the variety is immense. Some had as much as 24% Middle Eastern DNA in their report. Some were 20% German. One was nearly a quarter Greek.

I think this lack of homogeneity is because Sicilians have spent centuries marrying people from the same village. If a village or town was a Greek town 2,000 years ago, chances are it pretty much still is. If it was originally Moorish, it may still have a major spike in African and Middle Eastern DNA.

It’s only very recently that significant numbers of Sicilians have started marrying people from other towns and begun seriously mixing up the gene pool. It will take many generations before they achieve the homogeneity that mainland Italians now have. (As a result of the Roman Empire, Italy with its slave economy was very multi-ethnic 2,000 years ago.)

Out of Africa

One particular gene called a haplotype can tell you, if you’re male, who you father’s father’s father’s father was, going exclusively through the male line back to when you were only just human. Women can go back directly through the femal ancestry.

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In this male line, Hubby’s haplotype evolved 23,000 years ago in Eastern Africa and then one of his ancestors migrated, along with others of his tribe, into the Mediterranean region at some point. This haplotype is still most heavily concentrated in Eastern Africa around Ethiopia and Somalia, where almost 100% of the men carry it.

The tantalising thing about genetics is that we can never know if this African male ancestor turned up in Sicily during the Moorish invasion in about 1,000 A.D., or 22,000 years earlier than that.

So, what colour are Sicilians anyway?

Let’s go back to those Sicilian Americans and the question of what Sicilians look like. The short answer is that there’s no such thing as a typical-looking Sicilian. There’s just far too much variety. You get tall ones, short ones, sturdy ones, dainty ones, very dark ones and very pale ones and even a few gingernuts. There’s one boy in my village with platinum hair and freckles, who looks Swedish.

When Sicilians have a baby, the question on everyone’s lips is, what carnagione do they have? Carnagione means skin tone, and in Sicily, you never know what you’ll get. Dark like Nonna Pina? Blonde and green-eyed like Nonna Anna? Deep olive skin like uncle Danilo? I have a brother-in-law who is extremely dark but his son has platinum blonde hair and blue eyes.

Meanwhile the photos I am sent from America always look like Sicilians in winter. Of course Sicilians are pale in winter. But what about summer?

Most Sicilians spend as much of the summer as possible on the beach. I have never, ever seen a Sicilian buying or applying sunscreen; they just don’t need it. How dark they go is partly a result of their genes and mainly a direct measure of how much leisure time they get. Very white people get lots of pity and commiseration, whereas the dark ones attract slightly envious admiration.

I’ve seen Hubby looking the same colour as me, and I’ve seen him after a lot of time on a yacht looking, I swear, as dark as an African. Except for his buttocks, which were so white they glowed in the dark.

I expect his backside is his 2.5% German part.

***

Feel free to say anything you like about this post but, if your comments are rude to me, or to anyone, or ranting, or designed to provoke, I will not publish them.

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271 thoughts on “What do Sicilians Look Like? Let’s dig into the DNA

  1. Its wonderful to see that the post has not been removed as the previous two were. On the question of gene pools, race and phenotype, a rule of thumb to follow is. The closer a population is to the Arabized North Africa, the more that population has in common with these Arabized peoples. It’s always been so; a matter of geographic proximity, not foreign input .So Sicilians and indigenous Grenada Spaniads are very similar to their North African neighbors. As one goes north, in the case of Italy, to what was once the ‘other Sicily’, people would have a lot in common phenotypically with Greek Cypriots, Syrian -Lebanese and post Helenic types. North of these parameters, A distinctive Alpine /central European phenotype is usually discernible. Around Rome however one might well expect inputs to the gene pool from all over the regions that constituted the Roman Empire.

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    1. My Sicilian grandparents immigrated to Ellis Island probably around 1910-1012. Thank God they were not made to change their name like Guy Feirri’s grandfather was made to do. Glad Guy took the name back. My grandparents came with the Sponsoring of my grandmothers brother in PA. It was an arranged marriage, they married and then came to live in MD. For years I believed I was Italian. Then I was told my grandfather was a wine maker and barrel maker for the wine in Cefalu, Sicily. I have his tools passed down to me. Yes I was also called names but took it as my father being made fun of. My grandmother could not speak English as my grandfather could. I only new my grandmother, grandfather passed at 67, she at 84. I’m proud to be Sicilian and don’t care about my DNA except my mother was mixed, German, Irish and American Indian I was told. I have a issue with the German part, as I know what the Germans did to the Jews. So I will remain believing I’m Sicilian and leave it at that. My Dad didn’t have much education, but he left my mother a bankful when he passed. Some people never acquire that much with a couple degrees. Thank you for your article that I stumbled onto. A proud Sicilian American. Ciao. Donna Giardina

      Liked by 1 person

      1. All 4 grandparents come from the same town in Sicily..we all look different..some very white/blonde and some Olive/brunette…sicily was Invaded by 19 different cultures..I have not done a dna test because it doesn’t matter..my grandparents were awesome people..thats what matters

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      2. That’s awesome!!! My father’s entire side is from Sicily!!! My Grandfather’s family is from Cefalu and my Grandmother’s family is from Palermo!!! 👍😉

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      3. I enjoyed your article about Sicilian DNA. I just found out my grandpa is Sicilian on my dad’s side and my mother’s side is Icelandic. Haha so i am one of the blonde hair hazel eyed white yet i tan to perfection people. My entire family have dark brown hair and brown eyes except my dad who has hazel eyes. They have beautiful olive skin and tan extremely dark. I always thought i was the mailmans baby but your article helped clear up we are all different shades and all the same too. 👌

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    2. anyone have a Sicilian mate with warm/hot to the touch….like real warm.

      My Father was like that, I am..according to my Pamela

      My nephew’s wife experiences that with him.

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      1. Ha haaa!
        This sounds like my son. When he was little and wanted to get in bed with me, it was like having a hot water bottle!

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      2. My mom roots are in Sicily (and Calabria too) while my dad is Ashkenazi Jewish (from Germany) and many people have always told me how my mother is much more “warmer” then my dad LOL! 🙂

        I also agree with your bottom comment though. “White” and “black” aren’t colors. And no one is actually “white” or “black” in skin color. And their are people with all kinds of skin tones all over the world. You add in other labels like “Asian” and “Arab” (which denote people from vast and diverse areas) and It’s all really just a front to divide everyone even further.

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  2. I am half Sicilian, according to my dna test, from my father’s side. I agree with you about the variety of Sicilian coloring. My dad looked Arab (his parents came from the western side of the island from Campobello di Mazara) with olive skin and black hair, but his father had fair skin, blond hair and hazel eyes. His nickname growing up was “Tedescho”, the German. My dad looked like his mother, and I look like her, but my skin is fair. My dna covered every possible area all around the Mediterranean, so you never know what the next generation will look like as the genes make their own mix. My son looks exactly like my dad, but with ivory skin, and my daughter looks exactly like her paternal grandmother who was born in Rome. And even though my mother was a blend of Northern European (German, Irish, Scottish, etc.) None of us (my siblings nor my kids) look like that particular blend. You just never know. By-the-way, I was never hassled in my life about being Sicilian, except for the occasional Mafia remark, and I’m nearly 70 years old. I have always been proud of all my heritage.

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  3. This was a very interesting article…and yes it is very well known that Sicilians are totally a mixed breed due to all the invasions over the centuries…I’m very proud to be an American of Sicilian/Calabrian descent…one more thing to ponder is this….is anyone aware of the old Southern Italian custom if a woman is widowed at an early age…if her husband had a brother who is still single, she would have to either marry him or go back to her mother in laws house to live…this was very shocking to hear…as it happened to my maternal grandmother…which was the best kept family secret…she had gotten married to my grandfather as a widow with one child, as she had previously married his younger brother who died at age 30…she had a child after marriage to my grandfather (who was my mother)…and then she died at the age of 28..when my mother was a year old….the story gets better…less than a year later my grandfather marries her cousin!!….I found out all of this thru geneology research long after all had passed on…it was explained that in those times, they wanted everything kept “in the family”….unbelievable..RoseMarie

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    1. My 4 grandparents are from Vizzini..I can explain to you why they did that…when a girl gets married her family gives a dowery..can be $$ but also a donkey or two .she now becomes dependant of her husband and his family..also she has little chance to get married again because she is not a virgin…so the brother takes responsibility for her…

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    2. This doesn’t surprise me in the slightest as it’s still very common in Sicily to marry cousins, though finally dying out at least in the larger cities. I had a very dear friend who had dated the love of her life as a young girl, but had been separated from him as his mother forced him to marry one of his cousins.
      My friend said she might have been able to accept it a little if the girl had been pretty or clever, but she never passed an exam in her life and “looked like a mattress”.
      I also had the hilarious experience, when being admitted to hospital for the birth of my son, of being asked by a doctor if my husband was my first or second cousin. I laughed so hard I nearly fell off my trolley, till Hubby said his parents were cousins. That was the first I’d heard of it!

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  4. This article is one of the only true and respectful threads I’ve seen written about Sicilians/Italian Americans. I’ve had identity issues a lot in my life about where I belonged, Looking for answers I found a lot of white supremacy forums basically obsessing on Sicilian dna makeup. I hate that I had to see that. Im 17 and because I’m a guy I can see both maternal and paternal lines on the 23andme kit I got for my birthday. Both my parents already did it. My dad is mostly British. My mom is 60% Italian and broadly Southern European, the rest is a mix of North African, Egyptian, Asian, and a bit Sub Saharan African. My mothers father is a dark skinned 100% Sicilian. He and I both tan very easily. He is dead sadly, so we can’t see his results, but my mothers brother also is a very tan Sicilian. Both my mothers parents were 100% Sicilian; and my grandparent’s parents came to America in the early 1900s right before they were born. I am not going to mention my fathers side of the family since I’m focusing on the Sicilian side. My grandmother and mother are not very tan at all, but my grandfather and uncle are. My family on my mothers side is so Sicilian it has relatives who’s surname is an actual crime family that does not operate anymore. Here’s my main frustration: Sicilians are always lumped in with Italians, and Italians are lumped in with northern Italians, and then lumped in with Europeans. In the state I live it is very politically extreme, White people are considered bad, even white kids say “I ****ing hate white people” and my problem was when I was called white. I was called white before and I didn’t care. Hell, I wanted to be whiter when I was a little kid. I envied my paler cousins. Italian culture is very similar to Hispanic and Black culture, like solid family values. I had long hair growing up and putting it in a pony tail was so thick you couldn’t even feel your other finger when you pinched it. My moms hair is super thin, and so is my dads. I don’t understand. People have actually asked if I was adopted once. I am constantly mistaken for being Latino or in rare cases, half black. My cousins are mostly whiter than me, they were jealous of me going outside for five minutes and getting more tan than they did all day. The only cousin that resembles my skin tone is part Native American and Mexican. And some distant cousins I rarely saw growing up. I just hate when Italians are generalized into one category when we’re a lot similar to Puerto Rican’s with having a massive gene pool. Hell, my Puerto Rican/Black girlfriend and I shared facial features. There are even ignorant articles on the Washington Post saying “Italians were always white” which just isn’t true. I understand the oldies deny having any black dna, but it’s a proven scientific fact that people blatantly ignore. People choose when to call me white and when to call me brown to make their argument that I’m racist or who was to blame for smoking weed. It pisses me off. I got a bad rep. Most my friends are Mexican, black, or middle eastern. I used to make off color jokes in the name of comedy and for the most part my friends defended me. There are plenty of documented lynchings of Italian Americans because they weren’t found guilty of crimes they didn’t commit. And people assumed a lot of innocent Italian men were gang members when they weren’t. Sound familiar? Our #1 slur is based on an African country just like the n word, “guinea”. And I’ve heard a lot of people throw that word around in a racial context acceptably. In reality Sicilians are a mixed race. Asian DNA is common, and North African/Egyptian DNA is almost always there, sometimes over 25%. we don’t get any validation for any of that. Dark skinned Sicilians had to write “black” on the census until the 40’s when the US declared middle eastern people and Italians to be “white”. Trying to find answers about my heritage led me to a lot of nasty comments about Sicilians. Hispanic/latino countries, all get social validation, middle eastern countries, yep. But who cares about Sicily, right? Literally if we spoke Spanish we’d be “non-white” In America everything is about race and I couldn’t avoid it. I’ve had a lot of identity issues and if anyone here has had the same issues I recommend sharing your story too. Too different from white people but not enough to be accepted as a minority. I felt stuck in between the lines my whole life, skimmed over and never seen. Thank god for the most part I’m accepted, it’s just the times a close friend assumes that I haven’t experienced racism or Italians in general never did. To clarify in my opinion northern Italians aren’t even Italian cus they hated Sicilians so much historically.

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    1. Pinstripe,
      Your story is literally almost identical to mine it’s not even funny. I’m the same situation my moms whole family is italian(calabrian/Neapolitan) and my dad is British/Irish/ little Eastern European. People only occasionally treat me as white, but most of the time they don’t. I did 23andme and found out I was about 12% middle eastern, and little amounts of sub Saharan African and East Asian. Literally everything you said was me. I can sometimes pass as maybe half black, or definitely Latino if I’m tanned, or I have my curly hair grown out. Calabrian DNA is almost identical to sicilians as they have a huge amount of middle eastern DNA. I’m always going through identity issues because I feel I don’t fit in to anywhere. White people domt treat me white, hispanics sometimes see me as white/don’t because I don’t speak Spanish. It’s funny because I’m darker than them. Everything you said i feel the exact same way, like 100%. My mom gets so defensive if I even bring up the fact that she’s part black or middle eastern, when it’s pretty obvious it’s there. She straightens her hair, never goes into the sun, and tries to sound extremely white at all times. I can’t blame her for how she was raised, but it seems lots of Italians were very white washed, which breaks my heart. On top of that she married a white guy and had me and I still don’t even look white! That just shows how strong the Middle East/African gene pool is that Italians have. It’s not like Italians have a huge amount of sub Saharan blood, but it has been proven that it’s there in various amounts. Also it is everywhere in southern Italy, not just specifically Sicily. The middle eastern bloodlines are also very significant, I have cousins who are full Italian(Calabrian) who get up to 40% west asian(middle eastern) on 23andme. I’m just glad someone is in a similar situation as me and I hope there aren’t other out there as well like me.

      Liked by 2 people

      1. white, black…not even a color….a ruse….to separate, divide….easier to divide two “non colors” than over two dozen ACTUAL identities….

        Look at a DNA report…no mention of white or black…nor gray…a global RUSE…”globalism”..

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    2. HI! I’ve mentioned it several times but my dad is Asheknazi jewish and my mom’s Southern italian (Sicilian and Calabrian roots). My dna test showed that I’m about half Ashkenazi Jewish and the other half is a mix of Italian/Southern European and North African/West Asian (Middle Eastern).

      I am very brown skinned. I have full lips, curly hair and big, brown almond eyes. Most people don’t “know” that I’m “white” until I say my ancestry and then they call me a “white girl with a tan”, even if I look at myself and I wouldn’t describe myself as being “white”. I don’t really care about what my “race” is. I am who I am and ancestry wise, I am very “mixed” like basically everyone else.

      Many of my Fathers Jewish ancestors weren’t considered “white”, obviously not by the Nazis and according to my grandparents and great grandparents, people in America and Europe have called them “swarthy” and “other”. A similar story happened to my mothers darker skinned grandparents/relatives when they arrived in English speaking countries. It’s silly. The idea of “whiteness” is silly because any “race” or ethnicity can have light and dark skin and everyone is so diverse in looks that you can’t put people in boxes. But sadly, it is what it is

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  5. This article really hit home for me! My father’s parents are from Palermo and Naples. I was always amazed at how fair my dads skin was in the winter (still had brown eyes, dark hair and eyes brows) with an olive undertone, and could get SO DARK in the summer. He never wore sunscreen and his arms compared to his stomach, looked like 2 different people. You story was fun to read and make a connection with.

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  6. Hi! Your article was an interesting read. But I want to say that it is foolish to assume that “every” ethnic/”Native” European sees themselves as “white”. The concept of “whiteness” and “race” is a social construct that was masde specifically to put certain ethnic groups down and divide everyone even further then just Nationalistic/Cultural/linguistic background. I have met Europeans who look at their skin and call themselves “brown” not “white”. I’ve met Southern Italians who saw their DNA tests (and scored a lot of West Asian/Middle Eastern and North African dna) and while they viewed themselves as being “European” also see themselves as being “mixed” in ancestry. I have Jewish friends who don’t view themselves as “white”, despite “looking” it and have told me stories about how their ancestors weren’t seen as “white” either.

    I am of German Jewish and Calabrian/Sicilian ancestry, living in New York right now but grew up in London and spent some of my years in Berlin, Paris and Rome. My Jewish ancestors have been living in Europe for a LONG time and although they can vary in looks, with some looking very “Semitic”, and others looking “Nordic” There were times in History when people didn’t see them as “White” and as “inferior”. The Nazis in WW 2 sure as hell didn’t see my paternal Jewish ancestors as being “white”. And for a while European Jews were considered “West Asian” in the American census until recent decades. There were many instances in history where Europeans did view Europran Jews as being “other”.

    The problem is “White” skin color is for many, synonymous with people of European ancestry but that is not true. no one ever mentions about how many East Asians have pale “white” skin.

    And for some reason, if you have very olive skin and are of European heritage, you can never be called “brown”. I have a teacher from Southern Italy. She has very curly hair and brown skin. Though for some reason no one calls her “brown”.. she gets described as a “tanned white girl” even though she’s darker then so many “non-white” people I know.

    The concept of “race” is nonsensical and silly. For example: Many people say that “Asian” is a “race” but we are taught that Asia is a continent and Middle Easterners are Asian, They are “West Asian”. but for some reason many people don’t consider them “Asian”. In some countries like the USA census, they are actually considered “White people” but we’re also taught that “Asians” aren’t “White” so what’s the truth? “White” people are suppose to be “Caucasian” but the “correct” “racial” terminology literally has the world “Asian” in it.

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    1. I think you are seeing this through a US filter.
      I still remember a group of Spanish friends coming back from a study course in America and telling me they had fill in an ethnicity form. They checked “white European” and were then gobsmacked to notice further down a box saying “Hispanic/Spanish origin”. Why did they have a separate box just for one country? they asked, and were told they could check that one as well if they wanted to. Eventually they decided they were white Europeans and Americans just complicate things needlessly.

      I agree with you that the way we categorise races is just a cultural convention and quite pointless. It’s clearly done at random, since different cultures divide races differently.

      Liked by 1 person

  7. I am about 40% Sicilian and 60% N. European. I was born and raised in England and am basically considered a foreigner in my own country. White supremacy is still a big problem in Europe and I never realized just how bad it was until I started being called racial slurs, getting hostile stares and treated like I wasn’t even human, as an adult. It’s got much worst since brexit. In my last job I even had people doing Nazi salutes as they walked past. I get verbal abuse in the street as well.

    Race is a social construct, And it was invented to justify colonialism and the “inherent” superiority of Northern Europeans, who are some of the most violent peoples in history. You can categories people in anyway you want, and if you want to do it over height, skin tone, hair colour, eye colour, build, nationality, attractiveness then you can. But normally there is some agenda behind it.

    Don’t let the racists make you think you’re less than them. You might live in a country with inherent structural racism, but you don’t have to accept the premise, or play along with their fantasy.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’m sorry I only just found your comment to approve – I don’t know why WordPress didn’t show it before.

      I was shocked and amazed to hear about the horrible xenophobic experiences you have had in England. This is just horrible and I hope it doesn’t go on very much. I’m relieved to say my husband and son haven’t experienced anything like this even in the the heart of Brexitland… though of course that doesn’t make it any better for you. As you say, there’s normally some other agenda behind such behaviour and above all, people who behave like this are saying a lot about themselves but nothing about the person they are trying to insult.

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    2. tha’t’s “my line”….social construct…i.e. “Each to their own”…simply illustrates natural law….FAMILY familiar…all that good stuff….salute

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  8. I am half Sicillian, my Mother was also born in Sicily. I loved my Grandparents, my Grandmother would kiss me on the mouth until i was about 14. My Grandfather had two Barbershops, and my Great Uncles were Shoemakers. I can burn in the sun, but if i am a little careful i can get pretty dark.

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  9. I’m of Sicilian heritage. My father was adopted by his parents, but it said that he was Sicilian on his adoption papers. My skin is olive and my eyes are a hazel green, though sometimes blue. Not to mention that my hair is a little curly, all the features inherited from the man. I have yet to do a DNA test as those are expensive. However, I had to deal with racism when I moved to West Virginia due to the ignorance of the people in my area. I was called all kinds of slurs, ones meant for Hispanics from south of the border, ones meant for Iraqi people, and Arab (which is possibly accurate). I’ve even been called the N-word before. When I tried to explain that Sicilians were basically southern-Italians, no one believed me because the one guy who had an Italian last name was fair-skinned.

    Basically, I used to hate my skin. However, it’s part of who I am and I’m proud to be of Sicilian heritage.

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