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Ticino returns to its Swiss roots

The Ticinese are re-asserting their Swiss identity


Virtually every aspect of life in Switzerland's canton Ticino has been shaped by its close proximity and cultural ties to Italy. The region's dual identity weighs heavily on its inhabitants, many of whom are trying to assert their identity.

Lying in the southern foothills of the Alps, Ticino is very different to the rest of Switzerland. The locals speak Italian, the architecture resembles the buildings of northern Italy far more than those north of the Alps, and palm trees dot the landscape, giving lower lying areas a distinctly Mediterranean feel.

Appearances, though, are deceiving. The people may sound and look Italian, and their lifestyle may be more like that of the Milanese than the Bernese, but ask the Ticinese where their hearts lie, and the vast majority say Switzerland.

"The people of Ticino are much more Swiss than one would expect," says Ricco Maggi, director of Ticino's Institute for Economic Research. Despite being closed in between the Alps and Italy, their culture, politics and values are much more oriented towards the North.

"They do have Latin roots, and they would love to be as open and dynamic as the Italians are. But the fact is they are an alpine people, and this creates a sort of love-hate relationship with Italy."

Sociologist and economist, Christian Marazzi, agrees that it is difficult to define Ticino's identity. He says this has much to do with the region's long economic dependence on both Switzerland's northern cantons and Italy, as well as its fear of poverty, born of centuries of hardship.

The effect, he says, has been to spur the Ticinese to seek financial independence at almost any cost. "We've entered into this complicated phase of globalisation without thinking about what's good for us. We've been obsessed with bringing in capital, in the form of banks and casinos, and exploiting whatever is exploitable."

Marazzi's view is that this quest for wealth has led to a sort of social and economic "schizophrenia", which is further complicating Ticino's relationship with Italy and the rest of Switzerland.

One effect of this recent drive for greater economic autonomy has been a desire on the part of many Ticinese to assert their identity as a Latin people, but one distinct from the Italians south of the border.

Nowhere is this more apparent than in the re-emergence of dialect among younger Ticinese.

Fifty years ago, Italian was seen as the key to economic prosperity, and parents were at pains to ensure that their children spoke the language properly. "After the Second World War, dialect was seen as 'disadvantageous and vulgar'," says the director of Ticino's Centre for Dialect Studies, Franco Lurà.

In recent years, he says, "there has been a resurgence in dialect usage", driven partly by a "need for identity," as well as a profound desire to understand Ticino's history.

Barbara Lunari, who also works for the Centre for Dialect Studies, cites globalisation as one of the driving forces behind this return to the use of dialect. "I think people are a little bit scared of globalisation, so they use dialect because it makes them feel part of a community."

She believes that local dialects are important because they allow the Ticinese "to feel that they are Swiss and that they belong to this little corner of Switzerland".

The head of Ticino's tourism office, Eugenio Foglia, agrees that the Ticinese place great value on both their Italian heritage and Swiss nationality.

"The Ticinese are very proud to belong to the Italian culture but at the same time, we are proud to be an important part of Switzerland and its culture."

by Anna Nelson, Lugano

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