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Ticino's Identity Crisis

August 16, 1987|WILLIAM TUOHY | Times Staff Writer

LOCARNO, Switzerland — Ticino is the only Italian-speaking canton in Switzerland, and the people here seem to have the best of two worlds--the efficiency of Switzerland and the charm of Italy.

But every paradise has problems, and Ticino is no exception.

"Our problem," says professor Sandro Bianconi, a linguist and sociologist, "is one of identity. Politically we are Swiss, but culturally we are Italian. If we want to keep up with the modern world, we must accept the German-speaking businessmen who are coming in. But at the same time, we want to keep our soul intact. Ticino is going through an identity crisis. We want to plan for the future but keep our roots."

About 10% of the Swiss people speak Italian as their mother tongue, most of them in the canton of Ticino, which has a population of 275,000. Many of the older Ticinese speak a crude dialect, but their children answer in standard Italian.

More and more these days, German and English are heard here, and this explains why people like Bianconi are concerned about identity. The question is whether Ticino should remain true to its traditional values, the values of hard-working mountain people, or whether it should adapt to the new ways to which it is being exposed.

Ticino suddenly finds itself awash with tourists and financial capital. Its natural beauty accounts for one and its location next to Italy, together with the Swiss talent for banking, account for the other.

Drawing the Line

Along with tourism and banking have come German-speaking Swiss from the north; their no-nonsense ways sometimes clash with the easier-going style of the Ticinese. For nowhere in Europe is the line between north and south, Teuton and Latin, so well-defined as in Ticino. It can be drawn precisely at the St. Gotthard Pass through the Alps.

The pass also separates Ticino, a land of lakes and flowers, from the harsh, gray climate of the north. In the past, when snow filled the pass, Ticino was closed off from the north for about half the year. But six years ago the world's longest auto tunnel was put through, allowing traffic all year and bringing in increasing numbers of West and Swiss Germans, many in search of a place to retire.

"We are definitely getting a German coloration in the canton," Bianconi says. "Some people resent it, but the Ticinese are easygoing. They don't fight back.

"Still, this will increase our identity problem. If you are a big country like Italy or France, you know who you are. But we are a small canton in a small country, and it is a question of which way we look."

The situation is not helped by the fact that Ticino has no university.

"This means," a local official says, "that if one goes to a university elsewhere in Switzerland, one must speak another language--French in Geneva or German in Zurich. If one wishes to be educated in Italian, one must leave the country and go to Milan or Florence. It can be a difficult decision."

Some have suggested that with the advent of modern communications, Ticino has become more Swiss and less Italian.

Access to North

"In terms of culture, religion and economics," an official in Bellinzona, the canton's capital, says, "Ticino had been closer to Italy. But lately, with the good access to the north, I think Ticinese feel very Swiss, and now many people feel closer to Zurich than to Milan."

It is Ticino's proximity to Italy that is credited with the boom in banking and related financial services. A huge amount of capital has moved up from Italy in recent years, particularly in the years when the Communist Party of Italy was strong and the terrorist Red Brigades threatened Italy's stability.

It has gone into banks in Lugano, Chiasso and here in Lucarno. Lugano, which now has about 40 banks, has become Switzerland's third-largest banking center after Zurich and Geneva.

Gerardo Morino, editor of the newspaper Corriere del Ticino, says: "Partly because of the increase in finance, Ticino is rapidly becoming urbanized. We used to be a rural canton. Now 50% of the people live in the cities."

But many Ticinese, though urbanized, maintain their roots in the mountain valleys.

"I live in Bellinzona, the capital," Fabio Sorgesa, a canton official, says. "But people like myself still feel a strong kinship to the valleys we came from. We live in Bellinzona but we always go back to our valley home in Corzoneso, where we have a 300-year-old house."

The valleys are remote and rugged, reaching out away from rivers like the Ticino. They contain dramatic waterfalls and thick growths of chestnut, figs and magnolia, and gem-like villages with towering church spires and houses with roofs of the local granite.

But the progress and prosperity of the cities are not so apparent in the rural areas. The sight of a mountain farmer carrying hay in a gracefully shaped wicker gerla seems light years from the bustling financial centers.

Morino, the editor, says: "The cities have some very rich people compared to those up in the valleys."

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