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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)


Air Date: Week of

In the next installment of his occasional series, Living on Earth's Sandy Tolan spends time with the town mothers and fathers as they prepare for their annual ritual, the St. Peter's Fiesta in this depressed fishing community.


CURWOOD: It's Living on Earth; I'm Steve Curwood. Once it seemed there were plenty of fish in the sea. That was before high-tech fish-finders and tax breaks for new boat captains, sent hundreds of vessels out to drag George's Bank in the North Atlantic. A combination of over-fishing and poor government management led to a collapse of these stocks, and now strict federal regulations designed to help the cod and haddock recover are in place. But when a resource crashes like that, communities which base their livelihood on the sea are hard hit. In his continuing series, "Gloucester at the Crossroads," Living on Earth's Sandy Tolan takes another look at his adopted home of Gloucester, Massachusetts, as the town mothers and fathers prepare for their annual ritual, the St. Peter's Fiesta.

(Women's voices, singing in Italian)

TOLAN: For 9 nights, each summer, the Italian women of Gloucester gather upstairs at the St. Peter's Club. They sit in folding chairs, and sing from old music sheets, praise for the patron saint of the fishermen. This novina is a ritual their grandmothers and great-grandmothers began in the 1920s, when Italian fisher families were new to America. Lured from Sicily by the bounty off the Gloucester shore, they sailed wooden boats into rough Atlantic waters to harvest haddock and cod. Now, the major fishing grounds are closed, fished out. Many fishermen are down to a legal limit of 88 days at sea a year, and the federal government wants to buy back their boats and retire them.

ROMEO: I asked my husband and his friends, "When you were younger, didn't you ever dream, you know how--"

TOLAN: Sefatia Romeo, vice-president of the Gloucester Fishermen's Wives Association, came to her first novina at age 5.

ROMEO: This is rot. I got up, my father had a fishing family boat. At 7:00 in the morning, I was 7 years old, we'd get up, we'd do, we'd go out fishing, then go to school, come back, do that--He says, "This was in all our dreams." I say, "well, don't you have a dream now?" He says, "I'm so confused now, I don't know what it is to have a dream." That's sad. Everyone has a dream. When you ask these fishermen, they look at you, and say, "Dream? The dream is to be fishing. The dream is gone."

(Sound of singing fades. Marching beat of drum starts)

TOLAN: On Friday, at dusk, gentle hands remove St. Peter from his window looking out at Main Street. Young men hoist the 5- foot statue onto a platform, and lead a slow procession. Everyone lights candles and follows solemnly, one hand shielding the flame.

(Drum beats and trumpet blares a marching tune)

TOLAN: St. Peter wobbles ever so slightly, a basket of fish at his feet, his halo gold in the fading light.

(Trumpet and shouts, fading)

TOLAN: Most of the year, St. Peter's Square is a parking lot. Tonight it's an altar on the waterfront. Red walls, lined with white lights, make a replica of the basilica in Rome. As St. Peter is set in place, Tom Brancleone, chair of the fiesta committee, takes the podium.

(Whistles and clapping)

BRANCLIONI: Viva San Pedro!

TOLAN: Tom is captain of the "Paul and Dominick [phrase?]." The government has offered to buy back his boat. At first, Tom thought he would cash in, pay off his debts, and retire. Now he's having second thoughts.

BRANCLEONE: You see now, the tradition here, in Gloucester. And this, it's a tradition we all, I owe to you people forever. The longer we have Peter here, and we have it--Italian people are people with heart. What people look forward to all this tradition.

(Clapping, then "One, two, three," and crowd sings in unison, "It's the most wonderful time of the year! We give thanks to St. Peter and sing the novina, a time we hold dear! It's the hap, happiest time, of the year!)

TOLAN: For all of Gloucester's fishing community, the fiesta is a respite, a time to put aside the hard choices ahead. With the fish stocks depleted and strict, new conservation laws in place, the industry is shrinking. The Gloucester fleet is an estimated 10% of what it was in the high-rolling days of the '80s. When the government buy-back is over, the Gloucester off-shore fleet of big boats will be reduced to about 12. Many fishermen are out of work, some speak little English and have no other skills. If they're young enough, they may try to scrape by, a little herring, a little yellowtail, some tuna, until the lucrative cod and haddock stocks recover, perhaps in 10 years. But city officials already are turning to new options.

(Amphibious captain:"--to be on board the Moby Duck. My name is Frank. If you have any questions, feel free--")

TOLAN: Every summer, the Moby Duck, an amphibious vehicle converted from duty in Vietnam and the Persian Gulf, cuts through Gloucester's streets.

(Amphibious captain: "And this is St. Peter's Park, back here. This is where they have the Festival every year, the big St. Peter's festival for fishermen--")

TOLAN: And then plows into the harbor, smiley duck face bobbing above the water.

(Amphibious captain: "If you don't quack for the duck, it sometimes gets a little down. Come on! Quack!" at which the captive audience of passengers gleefully quacks in rhythm and shouts as the boat/car zooms head.

FITTING: If there's going to be tourism, what kind of tourism is it going to be. There's a lot of concern that our kind of tourism not turn into sort of plastic, trinkets, trivializing, sort of cutesy stuff.

TOLAN: The Reverend Wendy Fitting, upstairs at the Independent Christian Church, a block from St. Peter's Square. Reverend Fitting is part of Gloucester Initiatives, a grass-roots group grappling with the town's shifting identity.

GIAMBANCO: Much of it boils down to, how do people make their living? Can you make enough money to live here in a way that's honorable, and puts money back into the community. Can you live here, or is it owners living in some other state or country, draining the money out and giving you a crummy job. 'Cause if that's the case, then the traditions will go. Then the St. Peter's Fiesta will be another sort of relic trinket show that people say, "I wonder what this was, once. I wonder if it really meant something to people at one time." When you can't find that anymore, then the soul of the place is lost. That's our real choice here. Are we going to have marine industry that's based on fish products, or are we going to create a quaint walk-through fishing village, you know, turn it into the nostalgia industry.

GIAMBANCO: What we're trying to do is not become a Disney World or a T-shirt shop. I don't think that Gloucester will benefit from just a facade.

TOLAN: Grace Giambanco is in charge of tourism for the city of Gloucester. She grew up here in a fishing family. Her sister is Sefatia, the Fishermen's Wives vice president. Grace says the city has no intention of replacing fishing with tourism. For example, there are rules against hotels or condos on the main waterfront. Most tourism in Gloucester, Grace says, will be based not on smiling amphibians, but on Gloucester's living history.

GIAMBANCO: People come here because there are real fishermen. It is not a picture-perfect town. It is a working blue-collar town. You really do see the catch of the day being taken out. When I was younger we used to drive down towards the beach, and you could smell the fish processing plants. And it was awful, and I remember saying, "Oh, that's terrible!" and my mother would look at me and say, "No, that's money." I mean, the entire waterfront was full of businesses, and now they're slowly, slowly becoming these big, empty spaces that now will never be filled again the way it was. We need to market Gloucester as a destination. We already have the tourists. They come anyway. We might as well maximize the benefit from them.

(Tour guide on whale watch: "...one of these whales is actually drifting in closer and closer to us. Watch her dive, a very high arc to the back from one of these whales, and just lifting her tail fins out of the water. That's the typical way a humpback whale goes down for a dive..." Oohs and aahs from the audience.)

TOLAN: The whale watch 10 miles out of Gloucester harbor. On deck, the naturalist guides visitors in shorts and sunblock. In the wheel house, Captain Sebastian LoBosco, Jr., stares out at a flat slate gray sea. He sits in the captain's chair, his arms folded, steering with his feet.

LO BOSCO: This is my tenth year as captain of the Privateer. I've lived in Gloucester all my life. Before that I was captain of our family's fishing boat. The name of that boat was the St. Jude. It was in my family for 22 years, co-owned by my father and my uncle. I started fulltime fishing about a year after I got out of high school. We pulled in all kinds of fish depending on what time of the year it was. Codfish, whiting, shrimp, crawber.

TOLAN: Are there any regrets that you're not out there making a living off the sea as you were?

LO BOSCO: Yes, there are some regrets. We had a lot of good times when we had our boat. My father and I all became very close. That's the part of the fishing that I miss the most.

(Oohs and aahs from the audience)

LO BOSCO: Gloucester fishing will never be what it was. It used to be hundreds of boats. Now no one wants to build a boat. No one wants to do that kind of work any more.

(A clergyman sings, backdropped by an organ: "Forever and ever." Congregation: "A-men. A-aaaaa-men.")

TOLAN: Fiesta, Sunday morning. High mass at St. Peter's Square.

(Brass instruments play)

TOLAN: Communion. Cardinal Bernard Law stands in red vestments in brilliant sunshine, placing small wafers in cupped hands and on tongues. St. Peter stands on the altar behind him.

(Brass instruments continue)

ROMEO: You know when the sadness? Is when the Cardinal goes to bless the fleet.

TOLAN: Sefatia Romeo, one of the fishermen's wives.

ROMEO: When he needed 3 hours just to get from one end of the wharf to the other just to bless all those boats, and when it now just takes a short period of time, that's the devastation. I say in a half an hour he'd be done, where it would take a 3-hour procession, you know? And all the fishing boats would be all painted brand new, and they'd have all their different colored flags all over the place. It was a wonderful wall full of beautiful. And each year saw it decline, decline, decline, where some people can't even afford to paint their boats. You know, some of them don't even have the spirit to put the flags. You see, we don't blame St. Peter. See, the Italian culture, the Italian fishermen don't blame God, they don't blame the saints. We're just thankful for what we have left.

(A choir sings)

TOLAN: If there is blame to be laid, many biologists say, the fishermen must have their share. For they took too much. In some cases more than the legal limit. Some say the stocks crashed in part because of greed. But this weekend is not the time for blame, or at the moment, for a whole lot of self- reflection.

(A man shouts [in Italian?], answered by a shouting crowd of men)

TOLAN: At least not for Sefatia's brother, piling out of a stretch limousine in front of his mom's house with 10 friends dressed in drag.

(The men continue shouting and cheering)

TOLAN: Compared to his friends Anthony Giambanco is dressed modestly: no falsies, no wig, no stockings, not even a dress. Just head to toe in gold sequins. He is the enforcer, the sheriff of the main Fiesta event, the greasy pole. The idea is to walk out there on a 42-foot long grease-coated log above the harbor and be the first one to grab the flag and the greasy pole championship.

A. GIAMBANCO: You have to walk up there. There's no shimmying. You can't win, you've got to be out on your feet or diving at it to win.

TOLAN: Anthony stands, glittering, picking roses from a bush at his mother's front lawn: good luck for the pole walkers. Inside his sisters Grace and Sefatia keep the pasta coming.

WOMAN: Where did the meatballs go?

MAN: The limo driver wants a piece of lobster.

G. GIAMBANCO: They start like a ritual at my mother's house on middle street to get all excited and all ramped. And I have the biggest mouth so I (shouts in Italian) Viva St. Pedro! You know screamin', it's like oh, big mouth again, you know, and screamin' and hollerin'. It's fantastic, and it's like you can be a kid again.

(Horns blare; people shout and cheer)

MAN 1: Guys all set?

MAN 2: Do it, do it, do it.

MAN 1: Shawn Pauper's first. Just listen to who's before you, okay? Listen to who goes before you. Shawn Pauper, Rich Hopkins, John Paresi...

TOLAN: On the beach, a thousand people stand and watch the 35 men poised and ready atop the pier.

MAN 1: ... Peter Tartiero, Niko Fraglioni! (Horns blare) Cusumano! Johnny Karol!

TOLAN: Anthony Giambanco looks out at the long pole covered with 6 inches of blue axle grease glinting in the afternoon light. Summer boats surround the pole, bobbing in the water. It is the moment of coexistence: the locals and the tourists fused in ceremony and tradition, all focused on a flag at the end of a grease-coated pole. Some locals grumble that the whole thing has become a crazy spectacle. Anthony says he's got a feeling he can't quite express.

A. GIAMBANCO: It's just it's just hard, you know what I mean? It's hard to explain. If you wasn't born an Italian or a Portuguese. It comes from the heart. That's what it is.

(A man speaks into a bullhorn in the background, amidst cheering and whooping)

A. GIAMBANCO: What this is all about is, though, it's it's the fishermen. That's where it all comes from. And it's a prayer of St. Peter because he is the fisherman's saint. And that's what it's all about. That's what it was first based on. Everything else is secondary.

TOLAN: And then it's Anthony's turn.

A. GIAMBANCO: What a rush. What a rush! Watch my jacket, guy.

MAN 1: Anthony Massa Giambanco!

(The crowd cheers)

TOLAN: He walks swiftly under the pole, hits a patch of grease, slips, regains his balance, slips again, and it's into the water.

(A big splash; a horn blats)

TOLAN: The other men follow, grease dripping off the pole, their drag costumes floating in the water. Until finally enough grease has come off, and one competitor darts his way out, grabs the flag, and splashes into the water.

(Tumultuous cheers and shouting from the crowd)

TOLAN: And then all the men jump into the water and swim to shore, their bodies glinting in that yellow light of a perfect late afternoon.

(Shouting and cheering, horns blaring; fade to a woman singing an Italian song)

TOLAN: That evening, as St. Peter watches, the victor stands waiting to take his trophy as an old Italian song sets the stage.

MAN: A big inspiration today was my uncle Frank, and he come out and he walk the pole today, and when I see him climbing up the ladder I was like I just couldn't believe it. And I'd just like to thank my family. I love my family...

TOLAN: This song was popular many years ago when Sicilian fishermen first left their shores to come to Gloucester. Look at the sea, the song goes, how beautiful. It inspires so many feelings.

(Singing continues)

G. GIAMBANCO: Four days of happiness and thankfulness and friendship and everything else stops at Sunday night at midnight. They return St. Peter in the St. Peter's Club. And then at 12:01 everyone goes home, and they start taking down the altar and taking everything out, and by the time you get up in the morning it's gone. It's like it never existed. People are waking up Monday morning, face the music, going back to work, and it's reality, and it's just so hard. Because then you see these boats are gone. You can see these men, and it's in their faces and it's like, where do I go now?

(Singing continues)

TOLAN: For Living on Earth, this is Sandy Tolan reporting.



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