One of the classes I’m taking this quarter is called Italy since 1870, the date at which the Italian city-states were unified into one country. In order to enhance our understanding of Italy’s past as well as the issues the country faces today, the school organized a trip to Sicily, an island with a rich history and the location where the Mafia originated.
At 4:30 in the morning on Friday, we embarked for the Pisa airport, then took a flight to Trapani, Sicily. Our first stop of the day when we landed was a town called Erice, which is famous for its castle atop a nearby mountain. It is said that on clear days, a person standing on top of this castle can see all the way to Africa. Due to the torrential downpours we were experiencing, however, we could only see fog. In fact, that weekend Sicily received more rain than it had in years, causing major flooding, and more than 50 people in the city of Messina died by mudslide.
Since traipsing about in the rain was fairly miserable, we found a pastry shop and tried the local specialty, a warm flaky pastry filled with ricotta cheese and spices called a castella. I ate an incredible amount of other traditional Sicilian food over the next couple of days as well. One night, I sampled pizza with anchovies, grilled pumpkin, two types of eggplant and two types of pasta. The restaurant also served us spicy sausage, which I almost refused due to the amount of wurst I had eaten the weekend before. For a snack, I tried marzipan shaped and colored like different types of fruit. Another meal consisted of couscous with fish, and I managed to taste prickly pear fruit, which reminded me of cantaloupe, but with many more seeds. In general, the Sicilian diet contains much more seafood than the Tuscan diet (Sicily is an island, after all) and is much more varied. Sicily has been occupied by foreign powers time and time again, and this, along with its proximity to Africa, can be seen in the types of food served.
The dominance of Sicily by foreign powers was also prevalent in its architecture. The weather cleared up a bit for our visit to the temple at Segesta, which resembled the acropolis in Greece. Other examples include the cathedral at Monreale and the Cappella Palatina in Palermo. The design of each clearly had Islamic influences, and their insides are filled with textbook examples of Byzantine mosaics.
As much as I enjoyed eating the food and learning the history of the island, the most extraordinary and memorable part of traveling through Sicily was the people we met and the stories they told. I had no idea that the Mafia still existed and operated in Sicily, but in reality, they continue to strongly influence the political system. They work underground, for the most part in secrecy. The testimonials I heard were both shocking and enlightening.
The first day, we were brought to small home to hear one man, Giovanni Impastato, speak about his brother, Peppino, who had opposed the Mafia in the 1970s and was killed as a result. Peppino had started a radio program in order to publicly satirize and challenge the Mafia, rallying young people throughout Sicily. He also started a newsletter, and had decided to run for public office when the Mafia decided that he was too much of a nuisance. The night before the election, they tied him to train tracks and exploded a bomb fastened to his body.
The more I looked around his home and heard Giovanni talk, the more familiar the story sounded, and finally it clicked. Last year for my Italian class, I watched the film “I Cento Passi” and had a very emotional reaction to it. I hadn’t realized that the film was a true story, but the man who was talking to us was the brother of the protagonist in the film. I felt honored to be in his presence.
Giovanni spoke more of his efforts to continue raising awareness about the Mafia and to honor Peppino’s memory, comparing Peppino to Rosa Parks. It only takes one person to start a movement, he said, and the common people need to become involved in order for a revolution to succeed.
The next group of Sicilans we met advanced a similar message. In 1947, the Mafia had massacred a group of farmers meeting to celebrate the first of May in a remote location in the mountains called Portella della Ginestra. Three of the survivors of that massacre came to talk to us. They described the conditions at that time in the 1940s as worse than those of a third world country, with next to nothing to eat. All of the land was owned by the elite, and for the common people, being a bandit or a communist and stealing food was often the only way to support one’s family. That day in May was as much a political rally as a celebration, and the Mafia had moved to suppress it.
Each survivor described how shots came out of nowhere from the nearby hills. Some had friends and family members killed before their eyes. One man choked up with emotion as he told his story, wiping his eyes with a handkerchief. Another spoke forcefully and gestured violently, encouraging us, as young Americans, to be grateful for our lives and to take advantage of the opportunities we have to study and to work, opportunities he and his children never had.
The next man we met, Vincenzo Conticello, owns one of the oldest restaurants in Sicily, la Antica Focacceria S. Francesco. After we ate there, he described his experiences with the Mafia as well. The Mafia came to him in 2005 to ask him to pay a price in order for him to remain unharmed, called a protection fee. They requested 50,000 euros with the addition of 500 euros every month. Vincenzo refused. Soon after, his cat was murdered. He himself was knocked off his motorbike and deliberately driven over by another vehicle. He survived, but now has policemen as his bodyguards every minute of every day.
Vincenzo does not think of himself as brave, but rather says that he’s only doing what is right. The remarkable part is that his reaction is extremely atypical, as ordinary citizens rarely choose to challenge the Mafia. He described how when he first refused to pay the fee, his business declined because people were scared to be perceived as supporting his decision. Today, four years later, business still has not improved.
As Americans, we can help. My peers and I were supposed to work in fields that have remained free of the influence of the Mafia by being a cooperative, picking grapes for the farmers to sell. The flooding made this impossible, but the farmers explained that our presence was more than enough. Our willingness to assist them is a symbol of our support. We show solidarity with the people resisting the Mafia just by being there.
Raising awareness about the Mafia helps as well. By retelling these stories, I feel that I am doing my part.