They rose at midnight and took to the fields, barefoot. At night, because the sun turned the petals yellow. Children, forbidden but necessary, entered the fields hidden between their mothers’ skirts. Infants were tucked, drowsy with the scent, in wicker baskets; older daughters plucked the white flowers with nimble fingers, taught by their mothers. Ten thousand tiny flowers made one kilo, and the women earned a mere twenty-five lira per kilo.
Jasmine. The sweetest of scents, the bitterest of tastes: years of low wages and appalling working conditions, illnesses from hours standing stooped in marshy grasses, infections from insect bites to bare skin. Those women laboured all night to feed their families. Sicily, in the post-war period, was an island rife with poverty, strangled by black market politics, rationing and maladministration.
In August 1946 the jasmine-pickers staged the first women’s strike in Europe, the biggest ever in Messina province. They held out for nine full days in August for the most basic of demands: boots to keep off insects, weighing scales so they would be properly paid for quotas reached, a raise in salary to fifty lira per kilo.
The gelsominaie were granted their requests: wages were doubled, weighing scales and boots provided. The scent of solidarity now permeated crates of jasmine exported to France for Parisian perfumeries. Their success was contagious: women who worked in citrus factories in Barcelona, sardine-salters in Sant’Agata, clay collectors in Santo Stefano di Camastra and olive-pickers of the Nebrodi mountains laid claim to their rights.
Now a railway cuts across the fields of jasmine and houses were built in the 1970s to accommodate oil refinery workers.
In Montecastro Street, the story of the jasmine-pickers has a momentous impact on two of the protaganists’ lives: in Agata’s case, in the immediate aftermath of the strike, in Vincenzo’s, in the 1970s.