By Julia Gaspar-Bates

Cecilia Volterra
Courtesy of Cecilia Volterra

Beset by tragedy at a young age, Italian native Cecilia Volterra spent most of her early life in Rome, before she eventually settled in Hyattsville as a young adult. Volterra was born in a small village outside Rome, and when she was two years old, her life took a sudden turn when her mother was killed in a hit-and-run car accident. Volterra, who was in the car at the time, miraculously survived and, with her journalist father and infant sister, moved in with her grandparents in central Rome. 

Two years later, misfortune struck again when her father was killed in a car accident. “My dad was devastated because he loved [my mother] so much. He started doing drugs and was on his way to a job interview for a TV channel when he got into a car accident. I remember asking my grandfather when my dad was coming home. He kept saying he was at work and would come, and I had to wait. I always thought my father had died of a broken heart. I didn’t know that he had died in a car accident until I was 19.”

Because she was so young at the time of both accidents, Volterra didn’t experience the loss acutely, saying instead that there was nothing she missed growing up. Her paternal grandfather, in particular, played a very active role in raising her and her sister. “My grandfather was super open-minded and had a lot of respect for everyone, regardless of race or identity, so everything I appreciate came from him. He was my best friend.” 

The girls divided their time between him and their maternal grandfather, too, who “was more closed-minded,” according to Volterra. “We were a bit scared. You had to finish your food, or we would get yelled at. The two families didn’t like each other. It was like Romeo and Juliet. One would talk badly about the other side of the family.”

Volterra lived a normal teenage existence in Rome, although she says she did not conform to the Italian concept of “la bella figura,” which connotes a sense of proper dress and behavior and of projecting a positive image to the world. “I was a bit of a rebel. I had purple hair and baggy pants. I went through a punk-rock phase, but just in the looks. My behavior was always very proper, but people would look at me like I was odd and weird.”

She appreciated the access to many cultural events, such as the “sagre,” or festivals with local foods, music and dancing. Volterra also spent many summers in the southwestern province of Calabria, where she felt at home. She explained, “People in southern Italy are very warm, and there is always a place at the table for you—’un posto a tavola.’”

After finishing high school, Volterra spent a gap year in the U.S. Although she had never traveled, because her grandfather was afraid of flying, Volterra decided to venture out on her own. I came here, initially, when I was 19, because a family friend invited me, and I needed to find myself and what I wanted to do with my life. I really enjoyed it. My grandfather was overprotective but also gave me my space. It was hard to leave everyone behind. I don’t regret it, but sometimes I wonder what it would have been like if I had stayed home.”

Although Volterra did not experience major culture shock, she was surprised to discover she could no longer be served alcohol in bars in the U.S., as she was able to in Rome, due to the minimum drinking age. She also began to appreciate the history and culture of her home city more. “I began to realize how beautiful Rome is because it [had been] so available to me, so I never stopped to think about it. I would go on walks and see the Pantheon and St. Peter’s [Basilica], and here I would go to the [National] Mall.”

Volterra graduated from the University of Maryland (UMD) with a degree in art and education, and currently works as an art teacher at Friends Community School in College Park. She met her husband, Rrezart, while she was at UMD.

Eventually, they moved to Hyattsville to start a family. “I’m so happy living here. The neighborhood is excellent. There’s such a great sense of community. I like that I can walk places, which is something I missed, because living in Rome, I could walk anywhere. I like the different local stores, such as the farmers market in Riverdale, and the Hyattsville porch festival. I thought it was so fun to walk to different houses and listen to bands. That didn’t happen in Rome.”

Although Volterra does not plan to move back to Italy in the foreseeable future, she is at times nostalgic for home. “I miss certain foods and speaking Italian. I miss friends and family eating together. It’s not just about eating. You stay at the table for five hours. Here you just eat and go. Maybe when I retire, I will live in Italy again. Who knows? I like the idea of going there as a vacation place, but I know that, living there, [it] is so hard to get a job, especially for young people.”

“Cultural Connections” is dedicated to bringing forth the voices of Hyattsville’s international residents. Interested in sharing your story? Please contact culturalconnections@hyattsvillelife.com