The Nativists

Around the country, an anti-immigration movement is spreading like wildfire. An array of activists is fanning the flames

AGE: 41

Italian-born gladiator, songwriter, erotic poet and now anti-immigration Minuteman -- it's sometimes hard to know whether Luca Zanna is really a political activist or just a Marvel Comics character set loose in a new homeland. One thing's for sure: Zanna's fellow anti-immigration zealots think he's the toast of the town.

Back in Rome, before he legally emigrated to the United States, Zanna was a gladiator with big dreams. The former surfer spent his days dressed as Spartacus, the insurrectionist Roman slave, hustling tourists for spare change around the Coliseum. In 1997, he told a newspaper he was setting up an escort service to provide female tourists with "their own Italian lovers." Then, in 1998, he headed for the States.

Zanna embraced American capitalism with a vengeance. From his California home, he sold "erotic poems" on one of his many websites, ran a dating service, and offered classes in his own gladiator school. He promoted his skills as a gladiator chef, stirring pasta with a trident on a local cable television show. He even tried to get a reality show in which he would travel the country in a gladiator outfit looking for love in just seven days. Then he discovered immigration.

Last summer, in the wake of the Minuteman vigilante effort to seal the Arizona border, Zanna set up his own Minuteman offshoot -- the High Desert Minutemen. He produced a video that showed himself in the desert near Campo, Calif., giggling as he blasted weird sounds from a boom box toward the Mexican border (part of what he calls "psychological warfare" directed at would-be border crossers). In another shot, he is leaning over a border fence and shouting, "Fuck you, Fox!" at the faraway Vicente Fox, president of Mexico. An anti-Mexican song he wrote plays in the background.

You might think that anti-immigration leaders would be leery of Zanna. But not so. In fact, he was warmly welcomed when he joined the first Minuteman Project in Arizona last April, and again at a "Save Our State" rally in California (he arrived toting two shields and a helmet meant to serve as protection against pro-immigrant protesters). At a major anti-immigration conference in Las Vegas last May, Zanna called Minuteman co-founder Jim Gilchrist to the stage; the two men then knelt and embraced each other as the strains of another Zanna-authored tune, "Minuteman," played in the background. In July, at an anti-immigration event in Phoenix, he finished a boisterous speech by dramatically rolling up his sleeve to reveal an American flag tattoo on his flexed bicep. Everywhere, he was cheered.

Zanna recently released a CD, dedicated to the founders of the Minutemen and featuring his anti-immigration music. It's not meant for everyone, Zanna helpfully warns potential buyers, and most especially not "liberals, communists, American politicians on the payroll of Mexico or other foreign countries, United Nations crooks, antigun freaks, backstabber Frenchies, prochoice Baby Killers, antimilitary hippies, Hollywood chicken wings and illegal alien invaders."