Sicily and the Mafia

Song: U padrinu (The godfather) 

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   In the mind of many of the media people in general and of many of the renowned moviemakers and TV producers in particular, Sicily is synonymous with the mafia. It is unfortunate that these individuals feed these kinds of non-truths to millions of people. Unaware (?) of what Sicily is and who the Sicilians are, to the point that, many times, with the word Sicilian, they let transpire the connotation of Mafioso. Nobody can deny that the mafia was born in Sicily. It is nothing else but an organization given to illegal activities such as drug trafficking, black market, illegal contracting, kidnapping, and imposing its criminal will with intimidation and even killings, with the hidden, or not so hidden, knowledge of some lawmakers.

   The mafia, was born in Sicily during the Bourbon domination and affirmed itself as a vocabulary term with the unification of Italy. However, when was the mafia really born and why? Before we discuss that and run the same risk as others have, that is, to let understand that to say Sicilian is to say mafioso, let's see what kind of people the Sicilians are. To have a good and solid idea what it means to be Sicilian, let us start very early on. Sicily, in the course of the centuries has suffered countless invasions. While some invaders have brought good things to Sicily, most have been there only to exploit it. And exploiting it they have done, with heavy taxation, mistreatment, oppression, and persecution.

   These bloodthirsty Sicilians, these gangsters, these killers, distinguish themselves from day one by helping to bring about and develop the western civilization If these people, that so easily define Sicily the land of the mafia and the Sicilians as common criminals, would just bother to become a little more educated about world civilization in general, and Sicilian history in particular, they would find out the glory and the light that bathed and still bathes Sicily. The Sicilians were the first European people to use the alphabet given to them by the Phoenician merchants. Without going to the beginning, let us start at about 650 BC. It is at this time that we find the greatest Sicilian legislator of ancient times. His name is Caronda of Catania, leader of that city and very little known by our contemporary people. He made a body of laws from which almost the entire known world of that time took example. His laws were directed at the moral betterment of society at large, strengthening the human values and, above all, the family nucleus in particular. His laws were very severe towards thieves, liars, and slanderers.

   They were sentenced to go around town carrying a wreath on their head as a sign of their deceitfulness. Deserters were sentenced to stand in the town square for three days dressed as women for their own shame and to be despised by the citizenry. For the first time in history, false witnesses were punished by his laws. He was the first ruler to decree that poor children should have school expenses paid by the State. Caronda, above all, protected the orphans, and forbade widowed men who remarried to serve in public office. If a person cared so little for his children as to impose on them a stepmother, then that person could not be trusted to serve in the assembly. Still for the orphans, he decreed that they should be taken care of by the maternal relatives, while the paternal relatives should administer their inheritance. Since the heirs, in the case of the demise of the children, were the paternal relatives, it made sense that if the care of the children were given to them it would be possible that something could happen to the children.

   To avoid the politicians from changing his laws, Caronda decreed that if someone wanted to change a law, that person had to appear in the Assembly and propose the change of the law in question, stating his reasons. If the request did not pass, the proponent would lose his life. Caronda had a religious respect for the law: He had forbidden that anybody could go armed in the Assembly. One day, back from a search for criminals, hearing much noise coming from the Assembly, he ran there to bring some order. Someone made him notice that he had broken the law: He was armed. Caronda right then and there pulled out his sword and killed himself. An example of Sicilian adversity to violence dates from 480 BC. After the victory at Imera of Syracuse and Agrigento over Carthage, the wife of Gelone, Tyrant of Syracuse, and daughter of Gerone, Tyrant of Agrigento, had a clause included in the peace treaty by which the Carthaginians could no longer sacrifice their first born to the gods when they reached their tenth year.

   The Romans and, above all, Marcus Tullius Cicero, praised the goodness, generosity, hospitality, loyalty, patience, and culture of the Sicilian people. It was from the Sicilians that the Romans learned the use of the solar clock, or the meridian. When the Roman Consul Marcus Valerius Messalla , curious, wanted to know what the meaning was of the steel rod coming out of a marble plate on the wall of a building in Catania, he was told that the rod was telling the time by the shadow that the sun was casting on the marble plate. Immediately, he ordered the plate and the rod taken out and brought to Rome. Of course, that meridian would not work well in Rome. The Romans did not know that the meridian has to be regulated according to the geographic location. The Romans also learned from the Sicilians the use of public baths, the existence of barbers, and the use of a high cuisine. As a matter of fact it was a Sicilian, Archestratus of Gela, who, in the IV century, wrote the first cookbook, The Sweet Taste. It was a Sicilian, the first great cook of ancient time, Miteco of Syracuse, who was also a mathematician.

   The Romans were victors over the Carthaginians thanks to Sicily. It was in Sicily that the three Punic wars were mostly fought, while Sicily was feeding, arming, and dressing the roman legions. Many are the testimonials regarding what was just said. An English author of Sicilian history writes, - Sicily was so fertile, so that the island became a magnet for emigrants: the America of the ancient world. Stesicorus of Imera and Teocritus of Syracuse invented different metric measures for poetry while Empedocles of Agrigento was one of the greatest philosophers, mathematicians, statesmen, and physicists. Archimedes of Syracuse, whose physical-mathematical findings are helping us to this day, made the taking of Syracuse by the Romans very difficult and long, thanks to his inventions. These are the catapult, used to launch projectiles to the enemy, the winch, with which he would pick up roman ships that got too close to the city walls, and the burning glass, by which he would set afire the roman ships. The Romans were amazed at such defenses and thought that they were fighting gods instead of men. So glorious is Sicily's history and its land that the Latin poet Lucretius wrote a poem about Sicily saying, among other things,

Well it is that this land of such beauty proud
to the peoples should be pointed,
and much should be admired, plump
of enviable riches and full of noble hearts.

   Many sang of the mildness of the climate, the fertility of the land, the richness of the sea, and the beauty of its women. Opportunely, Tucidides and Plutarcus write of the most beautiful Laide of Iccara, now Carini. A popular poet, to exalt the beauty of his girl, sang:

Bedda, ca si cchiu` bedda veramenti
di la bedda di Liccari (Iccara) brillanti…

beautiful, you more beautiful really are
of that beauty that in Iccara shone…

   Sicilian was Diodoro Siculus from Agira, who, in the first century BC wrote the Biblioteca Historica in 40 volumes. It is the most important tool for the knowledge of Sicilian history. Apuleius, a roman philosopher, born in Algiers, called the Sicilians trilingual, because the he spoke Greek, Punic and Latin. Epicarnus of Syracuse, in the V century BC, was the inventor of the written comedy. He gave it artistic forms, and all the future comedy writers modeled their work from his. The Sicilian humor was very much appreciated by the Romans and it was Cicero who writes about it, saying, There is not an ugly situation where the Sicilians will not comment with a very good sally. It is a common opinion that Marco Polo (1254-1324) brought spaghetti from China. This is farthest from the truth. Marco Polo, in his book The Million, says that he knew pasta before he went to China. The credence that spaghetti was brought to Europe, from China, by Marco Polo, comes from a publisher who , in 1500, in publishing The Million commented that Marco Polo had brought spaghetti from China. What Marco Polo says in his book really is that in visiting the island of Little Java, he saw "…the inhabitants using <<tree flour>> to make dough with which they made different foods, like we do in making spaghetti and lasagna, and it is very good." This is an assertion that shows that he knew pasta before his travels.

   It is a fact that spaghetti, or pasta in general, existed about two centuries before Marco Polo left for China. Pasta came from Sicily. The proof is irrefutable, as it comes from an historic source such as the Arab geographer Idrisi. This geographer was commissioned by King Roger II of Sicily to write a geographic exposition of the known world with emphasis on Sicily. Idrisi, one century before the birth of Marco Polo, wrote in his book, -…West of Termini there is the town of Trabia , enchanting place, rich in perennial waters and wheat mills, where spaghetti are made and in such quantity to be exported in Italy and Africa. Pasta was born in Sicily after the coming of the Arabs, not because the Arabs knew how to make it, but because in Sicily is cultivated the hard wheat which produces the semolina that is the prime ingredient to make pasta. Soft wheat, cultivated in most of the rest of the world, produces flour with which to make bread.

   It was in Sicily that the first Parliament of the world was born, which elected Roger II King of Sicily. At his court of Palermo started the gathering of high minds, which then was brought to high sphere by Frederick II, himself a poet, linguist, scientist, mathematician, and lawmaker. With Frederick II the court of Palermo rose to be a very strong and real literary school, which later was defined as The Sicilian Poetic School. The court of Frederick was filled with the brightest minds of the time. They hailed from Sicily, Italy, and even from abroad. The court made the great leap from Latin into what was then called the Vulgar Language (opposite to Latin, considered the classical language). The Vulgar Language was a mixture of Sicilian and Italian. It gave the School a national characteristic, thus making the Sicilian language first among the rest. So, as it was affirmed first by Dante, and, later, by Petrarca, the dawn of Italian literature was in Sicily, during the court of Frederick II, at Palermo.

   The premature death of Frederick II gave way to a new historic condition, civil and political, which moved the School from Sicily into Tuscany. There the great Dante, Petrarca, and Boccaccio affirmed the Tuscan language as the Vulgar language, giving it the name, "The sweet new style". The new civil and political condition, after the death of Frederick II, was brought about by Charles I D'Angiou. Favored by the church, D'Angiou was finally able to put his hands on Sicily. Since Sicily did not want to accept him and favored the Suebians, he treated Sicily in the worst way possible; denying the people any freedom and even proprietorship. All kinds of horrific crimes were committed against the Sicilian people and an impossible taxation was imposed on them. It did not last long.

   It should be known that Sicilians are very jealous and protective of their families, especially of their women and children. The family values and the sense of honor are most dear and sacred to a Sicilian man. On the 30th of March 1282, on the Monday after Easter, a day in which the Sicilian people, up to this very day, have the tradition of celebrating this day as "Little Easter" or Pasquetta by swarming to the country side to have pic-nics, the Palermitans gathered outside the City to enjoy the day. A French soldier eyed a young bride and started to search her to check if she was carrying arms. The young lady, at that, passed out for fear and shame. Her young man, not able to take the affront, threw himself at the soldier and killed him. That was all that was needed; the people rose against the French right there and then. Before anybody realized, the people became a mob, sparing no French soldier that came across them. Even civilians were stopped if they were not known and they were asked to pronounce the word "ciciri" (cheecheere), which the French could not pronounce right, saying "kikiri", signing their own death sentence. A popular poem expressed the way the Sicilian people felt toward the tortures and repression of Charles I D'Anjou:

Nun v'azzardati a viniri in Sicilia,
ch'annu juratu salarvi li coria,
e sempri ca virriti 'ntra Sicilia,
la Francia sunira` sempri li martoria.
Oggi a cu dici kikiri in Sicilia,
si ci tagghia lu coddu pi so Gloria;
e quannu si dira` "Qui era Sicilia",
finira` di la Francia la mimoria.

To Sicily don't you dare to come,
who to preserve your skin in salt swore,
if an attempt to come to Sicily you make,
the death bells France has to ring.
Today if kikiri in Sicily one says,
his neck will be cut to his glory,
when they say " Here Sicily once was",
that's when the memory of France will cease.

   Some have said. and others will still say, that the carnage caused by the Sicilian Vesper revolution was something due to the very barbaric nature of the Sicilian people. We have said quite a few things to explain who and what Sicilian people are: their goodness, hospitality, generosity, family values, human values etc., etc. The point is, no matter who and what you are, when you are cast in a position where your honor, your family, your liberty, your very life is treated as non existent, things will change and they may change drastically. Give a chance to a caged lion and there is no telling what can happen. Charles I D'Anjou brought to Sicily as hateful a tyranny as Sicilians had never seen before. The Sicilians were opposed to the ruling of the Angevins from the beginning and for good reason. They had been free and had autonomy from any foreign hegemony under their own king for a long time.

   Charles I D'Angiou made the Sicilians pay for this by sequestering their estates, torturing and deporting their people, raping their women, forcing the aristocracy to keep the officers of his army in their mansions and serve them, forcing the people to make room in their homes for the soldiers, with the consequences that such an arrangement could bring into the families, and a very oppressive fiscal system. He even coined money out of tin and copper, forcing the Sicilian to buy it with their gold coins. Such repressive policies would have moved mountains to do the impossible. Because of the goodness of the Sicilian soul, it was a Palermitan writer, in the XVI century, who proposed the abolition of the death penalty saying, "This life, which God gave us, I would like to be spared". Another Sicilian, in 1580, proposed the abolition of torture, because many persons accused themselves of what they had not done. It was Sicily, in 1812, that was the first State to abolish the death penalty.

   Now that we have seen some traits of the Sicilian people through some examples of Sicilian history, let us return to the subject at hand, which is the mafia. The Sicilian people have been, for the longest time, subject to brutal, cruel, repressive, and oppressive occupation. Such occupations have led to poverty, many times to the point of starvation. A people pushed to such an extent resorts to any means to survive: stealing, cheating, lying, and, for their lives and the lives of their families, even killing. It is for this that, starting from the middle ages, a secret sect was born which called themselves "Vindicosi" (The Avengers). This group worked for the poor and the oppressed, trying, in their own way, to right the wrongs that the powerful would do to the powerless. After a while, according to the type of government, more or less oppressive, this sect went dormant, especially under Frederick III and Alfonso IV, called the Magnanimus. In the XV century, these two rulers took interest in the welfare of the people and kept the barons and the aristocracy in check.

   After the death of Alfonso IV, and with the advent of the Spanish rule, a fierce fight came up among the most powerful families of the land for supremacy. This conflict left the people unprotected from the Barons oppression and often without even food to eat. Once again the oppression, repression, and corruption of the Barons, Administrators, and the Judiciary was so great as to give birth yet again to a strong delinquency for survival that plagued the country side, against which authority had little power. All this went on for centuries, along with the worst famine brought about by the greed of the powerful rulers as well as killer earthquakes. These latest brought about by the instability of this volcanic Island. These injustices were exacerbated by the Austrian rulers and finally made worse by the Bourbons, who more than once instituted a police state of terror in Sicily to achieve their goals. With the advent of the Bourbon rule, the injustices and oppression went so far that another secret sect was formed on the footsteps of the medieval "Vindicosi" called "Beati Paoli". Its origin is in the dark. This was a secret association with members of every social standing, people of noble sentiments, who felt the need to defend the rights of the oppressed.

   It was a power within a power opposed to the oppression of the administrators of the law for their own advantage. It was also opposed to the injustices of the Judiciary and the Office of the Inquisition, which were giving out judgments and sentences, which extended from pecuniary payments and physical punishment, to even death sentences. Again this sect will be more or less visible according to the ways of government. During this time, justice was for sale, so if you had money and, accordingly, how much, you could extricate yourself even from murder. The Spanish domination introduced the "Camorra" in the reign of the two Sicily, which was a form of mafia, the oppressive and homemade legal way of obtaining from somebody whatever one wanted. It was a political way of extortion by double or triple taxation, by selling to the highest bidder honorific titles, and by donation requested (actually imposed) either by the Spanish ruler, the viceroy, or other high officials. The owners of power were the rich and powerful and they helped each other to the point that any violence, any crime they committed, were assured of impunity, while the common people had misery, and were hit severely and rigorously with injustice for any fault, real or invented.

   The suffering of the people was invisible and silent to the nobles. To the people was left only to obey and serve. All they expected and wanted was a piece of bread to survive; all the while holding on their shoulder the weight of the riches of the aristocracy, and the severity of their violence and their laws. Sicily was at the point of exasperation in 1860 when a savior came into Sicily. Giuseppe Garibaldi, animated by a sense of justice and the ambition to power, came into Sicily with the half promise of autonomy and the promise of good times. With the heroic help of the Sicilian people, he was able to free Sicily from the oppressive Bourbon rule. He fought the Bourbon forces all the way back to the countryside of Naples. There, in the battle of the Volturno, Garibaldi definitively defeated the Bourbon army, forcing Francis II of Bourbon to abdicate. This should have been the time for Garibaldi to take charge of the two Sicily, instead, in a gesture of personal sacrifice and submission to the house of Savoy, he handed his victory to Victor Emmanuel II. Being excluded from any governmental charge, he retired, with heartache, to the island of Caprera.

   With the unification of Italy or, rather, with the annexation of Sicily to Italy, the economic situation in Sicily did not get any better. On the contrary, for the inadequacy and the ignorance of the Sicilian culture, on the part of the new government, and especially demonstrated by the First Mnister Camillo Benso di Cavour, things got worse, much worse. The new Kingdom had many needs; political and, above all, economic. Sicily was hit with the imposition of a new language; the Italian language, new laws, on the model of the Piedmont sovereign, which could not work on a completely different culture and in an opposite economic situation, and an arraign of new and exorbitant taxes which the Sicilian people could not pay. The Spanish oppression became the Italian oppression, felt worse than before by the people because they had expected better treatment by the new king who was Italian. The thing that offended the Sicilian most was the imposition of the draft. Sicilians have a great sense of family value. While the woman is honored and respected as the keeper of the house and the center of the family, the man has the heavy responsibility as provider, supporter, and defender of the family. The draft left the family with no one to care for the family.

   Even if, in a family, there were more than one man, the family was large enough where one man would not be enough to provide for the family, given the low resources of the family. The families could not afford to have the man, or one of the men leave; they would lose anything they had and starve to death. Another reason was born for the man to walkout of the law to become an outlaw. It is now that, for the first time, we hear of the mafia as a word and as a force against the law. These people, forced by the oppression of the governments to become outlaws, steal for a living to support their families, little by little, organize themselves into an orderly organization with their own rules. They stop stealing randomly and start stealing from the rich and helping the less fortunate at the same time. In time, their power is such that instead of stealing directly, they strike deals with the rich people to protect them and their shady deals. The corruption of the mafia is already at the horizon.

   By the time Mussolini gets to power in 1922, the mafia is already a power on its own. In its own way, it has brought forth an agrarian reform; forcing the large landowners into rental contract of their lands. Now the profit goes to the owner who has to pay, handsomely, the renter for the services rendered, as well as all the help and the taxes. The mafia is almost assuring work to the peasant; commanding the respect, gratefulness, and obedience from the peasant, now obliged to acquiesce to any favor he may be asked by his benefactor. It is almost a legal way of making a lot of money. With the advent of Fascism, the mafia throws itself at the service of the new regime as it has already done for other political parties. Once Mussolini consolidated his power at the government, he did not want to be identified with the mafia. Now he was the mafia and he did not need anybody else. Cesare Mori was a ruthless police official who had distinguished himself on the job with his iron fist. In 1925, prompted by his advisors, Mussolini nominated Cesare Mori, though he despised him, to clean up Sicily by eradicating the mafia. A vigorous campaign was launched by the government against the mafia, with the excuse of extirpating lawlessness in Sicily. The real reason was to consolidate Fascism in Sicily.

   Cesare Mori came down on Sicily with 800 men and unlimited power. He fought delinquency with incarcerations, exile, and confiscation of the holdings of anyone even suspected of adhering to the mafia. His methods were cruel and unjust. This brutal fight against the mafia did not realize its goal; it was a complete failure. It was nothing other than a police action with no social consequence. Mori was just able to scratch the surface, to barely molest the small and weakest groups. When he stepped on bigger toes, Mussolini recalled him and removed him from the job. As anyone can see, and as a Sicilian congressman said in a speech to the Italian assembly in 1899, "The institution of the mafia is not the shame of Sicily, it is rather the shame of the government that maintains it." Up to this point, and until about 1946, the mafia operates and proliferates in the countryside, with the exploitation of the landowners, peasants, irrigation channels, clandestine emigration, and many similar things related mostly to the survival of people.

   With the deportation to Italy of Lucky Luciano, released by the United States for his services rendered during the occupation of Sicily, the mafia goes through a period of renewal. It introduces itself in the cities, initiates contracting of public and private buildings, control of prostitution, job sale in State's employment, kidnapping for ransom, cigarette's black market. Later, the mafia discovers drugs (where huge amounts of money can be made in very short period of time), arms trafficking, and money laundering. These, 70's, 80's and 90's are the roughest years in the history of the mafia. Rival gangs killed each other by the dozens daily for territorial control. We can see from what has been said that the mafia was born more as a protection safeguard than as a lawless organization. However, as anything that is human can, it degenerated into something greatly immoral. Soon after having defeated the Red Brigades in Northern Italy, the carabinieri's General Carlo Alberto Della Chiesa was sent to Sicily, in 1980, to fight the mafia. Because of higher interests by governing political people, on the night of September 3, 1982, at 9:45 p.m., as he was coming home from work (although his itinerary was supposed to be unknown), he was ambushed and killed with his wife and his body guard on a Palermo street. The people of Palermo filled the assassination site with mounds of flower and a big sign that read: "Here died the honest Sicilians' hope".

   As one of the most famous of contemporary Sicilian writers, Santi Correnti, says, there are five million people in Sicily and only about 3500 mafia members. After having had a small glimpse of the Sicilian soul and its history, and after looking at the ratio of the mafia members against five million people that work and slave to make an honest living everyday, how can anyone say that saying Sicilian is to say mafioso? I do not expect the media or the movie makers nor the TV producers to understand or believe all of this; after all what do they know of oppression, persecution, political, civil and religious, injustices, famine due to the greed of the powerful, pestilence due to apathy and carelessness of the government. In fact they show that they do not know any of this and that they do not even care to read history and enlighten themselves, either by choice or by ignorance.