In Sicily, if you open your mouth and say something about the Mafia, if you just pronounce the word Mafia in public, the reaction will be sharp intakes of breath all around you and horrified silence. It is a social gaffe even more hideous than meeting your new mother-in-law with your flies undone whilst going commando.
Padre Puglisi was the priest in Brancaccio, Palermo, when my husband was a little boy.
Brancaccio was, and still is, one of the poorest and most dangerous neighbourhoods in Palermo, and one of Sicily’s richest recruiting grounds for new Mafia members. My husband remembers once, when he was a little boy, having to step over a dead body in the street on his way to school – someone who had been shot by the Mafia the night before.
If you look at the facades of the shops along Brancaccio high street, they are peppered all over with bullet holes. These date from the 1980’s, when there were Mafia shoot-outs in the streets night after night. At this time, the law-abiding families of the neighbourhood lived under a self-imposed curfew. My husband’s family would all be inside by 6pm and my mother-in-law, The Godmother, would lower the metal shutters over every window to protect her children from stray bullets. All the good mothers of Brancaccio made their children do their homework by electric light.
Whilst I have a lot to criticise in The Godmother as a mother-in-law, I deeply admire the woman for the way she brought up her kids in that environment. She insisted they must all have two hobbies and they could only leave the house to go to school or engage in their hobby. Her three boys did cycling races and piano lessons, and her daughter did ballet. She made absolutely sure they had no free time in the streets to mix with bad elements.
Not all the mothers of Brancaccio were like her. There are countless kids there whose mothers let them roam the streets freely and hang out with whomever they choose. These kids grow up knowing there’s nobody who cares about them. They do badly at school because nobody helps them with their homework. They stop even going to school because nobody notices. Their parents may be arguing at home or taking drugs. Once they leave school, they have no chance of a job and nothing to do.
These are the ideal recruits for the Mafia. The Mafia knows how to make them feel wanted, valued and part of something. At last, someone cares where they are and what they do! And if they do as they’re told, for the first time in their life, there’s someone to say “well done”. So the youth of Brancaccio was siphoned off into a life of crime and violence, prison and often, a premature death.
Padre Puglisi was born and brought up in Brancaccio so he knew the problems well. When he became priest at the local church, he decided to offer these kids an alternative by doing something revolutionary in Sicily. He opened a Youth Centre.
The kids of the neighbourhood were welcomed into the church hall, involved in constructive activities, and always found loving adults to listen to them and help them with their problems. He gave them food if they were going hungry at home. He taught them about religion and about morals and he taught them right from wrong. Their parents may never take them to a church service, but he took the church to them by performing mass out in the street. And he told them, he always told them, that the Mafia were bad.
In his sermons he tried to change people’s mentality. Back in those days, fear of the Mafia was so great that nobody reported anything to the police.
Not only that, but the Mafia demanded – and got – total respect from the people. On Sundays, after church in Sicily, people usually go for a walk and chat to their friends in the street. The Mafia bosses would be out, and everyone had to kiss the gold ring they had on their little finger. It was a mockery of the kissing-the-pope’s-ring ritual that goes back centuries. Anyone who refused to do so risked being found dead later. This was one of the many perversions of religious ritual the Mafia employed to make its psychological hold over the people absolute. The Mafia long ago mastered the art of generating Stockholm Syndrome in the population as a whole.
The Mafia bosses always walked at the head of religious processions as if they were more important than the priests. It was yet another way to show who was really in charge of the neighbourhood. Padre Puglisi refused to allow them this honour.
Padre Puglisi constantly urged people, in his sermons, to report anything they knew to the police. His catch phrase, “And what if somebody did something?”, is still sprayed on the wall in Brancaccio.
With Padre Puglisi’s youth cente, the steady stream of new recruits to the Mafia dried up. They told Padre Puglisi he was “a pain in the arse” and he was stopping them from “doing their things”. They torched the houses of everyone who helped him do anything to improve the lot of deprived kids in the neighbourhood, and made constant threatening phone calls to Padre Puglisi.
He carried on, so they shot him. They shot him in the back, on the steps of the church, at point blank range. The year was 1993 and finally, yesterday, he was beatified.
100,000 people from all over Italy attended the beatification ceremony in Palermo yesterday.
It saddens me a great deal that so few priests in Sicily speak out against the Mafia, even today. At Padre Puglisi’s funeral, the cardinal of Palermo, Salvatore Pappalardo, did not mention the Mafia at all. I have never heard a priest in Sicily ever mention it, no matter what happens in the news.
How can they be considered relevant as teachers of morality, when they steer clear of the single biggest focus of immorality in Sicily today? When they never speak of that most towering, pervasive, overwhelming rot that corrupts Sicily’s youth and goes from the highest and richest to the lowest of the low?
Maybe I just cannot fully understand, because I never saw Sicily when people used to get shot in the streets. Maybe I just see things too black and white. Maybe I forget how much progress has been made. But to me, the Mafia in Sicily today still feels like the elephant in the room. It’s all around us, but nobody says a word.
39 Comments Add yours
Another great post.
Thank you. 🙂
Thank you for that beautiful and insightful post. I have been to Sicily twice. The first time I was in Caltigirone (hope I spelled that right) and I saw the word Mafia graffiti -style on a building adjacent to a church. I always wondered how the church approached this issue in Sicily. Padre PuglIsi needs others to carry on his legacy.
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I’m glad you appreciated the post.
Do you know what the building was next to the church? If someone sprayed mafia on it, it would have been done overnight as a way of exposing someone…
It’s a shame the church is so silent about the Mafia. I hope they’ll change. The new pope has spoken out on various issues and I was hoping he would make a point of coming to Palermo to talk about the Mafia for this beatification ceremony. Hmm.
how come that we, coming from one country and diff. culture and now living in a completely diff. country and culture now feel so strongly about certain matters and want (or do!) speak up about them. To be honest, I dare not do this – I have learned in my life to “put a zip across my lips”, but this does not make me blind!
I have to say I’ve never zipped my lips. I was brought up to speak out for what I know is right, no matter what the consequences may be.
Brava, and I hope you survive having published this. Seriously.
Thank you. I’m not scared. You know how often, in a situation where everyone’s thinking the same thing, there’s just one person who opens their mouth and says it? I’ve always been that person. I was brought up to have the courage of my own convictions and to defend what’s right, even if that is dangerous.
It’s when there aren’t enough people who do that, that you can suddenly find out you’re living in a country that puts several million Jews in concentration camps and kills them, for example.
I refuse to live like that.
I, too, applaud your courage.
Each of us, wherever we are, must speak out against whatever injustices surround us.
Your mention of the Jews killed brings to mind to mind another brave religious leader, who instead of remaining silent, spoke out:
Thank you for linking to that fascinating article. I had never even heard of Archbishop Damaskinos, and have now become an admirer!
It was interesting that nobody spoke out as he did, in any other European country. We often forget how many Nazi collaborators there were in the Allied countries during WW2.
What an amazing brave man. And how brave you are for writing about it. I really admire you!
Thank you! 🙂
This was such an interesting post to read. It’s a topic that I never really think about, being in America, but one that is obviously very real to you all. And what a brave man that priest was. I, too, wish there were more out there like him. Thank you for sharing this.
The American Mafia was in my grandmother’s neighborhood, and the families are still around even now, but the feds really broke the power of the Five Families and keep on taking down high-ranking people in racketeering cases. At any rate, there are so many criminal organizations of so many nationalities in the US that are much more violent (the Ukrainians, the Dominican gangs in Northern New Jersey, and the Crips and Bloods; also motorcycle clubs like the Pagans and the Warlocks) that the Mafia is downright civilized next to them.
My grandmother’s family did come from Corleone; we were in Naxos Giardini and I was explaining to our waiter that my father is Italian and “Mia nonna era di Corleone.” The waiter did a mock-gasp and stepped back, and then sent almond liqueur to our table after our meal, on the house. Every time I mentioned where Grandma was from, to a Sicilian, it was amazing how our service improved. Sad.
It’s funny how the reputation of Corleone has that effect to Sicilian Americans. Here in Sicily, Corleone makes people think of fountains! Apparently it’s famous for fountains. And lots of churches.
My husband once tried to take me on a tour of the churches of Corleone, but there was a heatwave so tarmac-melting that I fainted as soon as I stepped out of the air-conditioned car. Hubby scooped me back in, bought an ice-cream which he slotted through a tiny opening in the window, and then drove me back home!!!
Really? I found the reputation of Corleone had that effect on Sicilians, not just Sicilian Americans. Bernardo Provenzano was arrested there in 2006 after being in hiding for 40 years, and Gaetano Riina was arrested in July 2011. The Corleonesi faction was pretty damn vicious, even the Palermitani faction was scared of them.
Corleone actually celebrated the 20th anniversary of the arrest of Toto Riina this year:
The town sincerely seems to be trying to turn a new leaf in its history; with the arrests of the major bosses, maybe this can happen.
As we’ve had such different impressions, I decided to ask my husband about this.
He said it used to be the way you describe. If someone mentioned they were from Corleone, the greengrocer would be extra attentive to make sure he didn’t give them any squishy fruits, that type of thing. But he said it’s has changed now.
How recently were you in Sicily?
Did you hear about the “I heart Corleone” T shirts? (The heart is meant to be that heart symbol)
The Mayor of Corleone got lots of them produced for selling as souvenirs in 2006, as part of Corleone’s image makeover. The Riina family tried to sue the town council for using their name and public reputation for commercial gain without copyright permission!!!!!!!! Can you imagine that?
Then word went around that the person on the town council who had designed the T shirts in the first place was in the Mafia and had planned the whole mone-ymaking ruse from the start!
Come to think of it, next time someone tells me they’re from Corleone, I wil make sure to be SUPER polite ot them!!!
I was last in Sicily in November 2006 (and it makes me sad to think it was that long ago) so I am actually heartened to hear that Corleone’s reputation has improved so much! It looks like after the arrests of Provenzano and Gaetano Riina, the town leaders went to work. Hopefully the power of the Mafia there has been broken.
Where I live now in the US, there seemed to have been some locals with “old country” connections. We always noticed this one pizza place that had a rotating cast of non-English-speaking line cooks and delivery guys – who drove very expensive sports cars. Like, one of them had a Lamborghini Countach. This was back in the late 1980s, however, and there were a lot of federal investigations and arrests that took place in the ’90s. And the pizza place was sold and new owners came in, and the expensive cars disappeared. Funny, that!
I agree that sounds highly suspicious, and quite scary!! I’m glad to hear the Lamborghini drivers have gone now.
Have you seen the Italian movie “My Name is Tanino”?
It’s about a Sicilian boy who naively goes off to America in pursuit of an American girl who had a holiday fling with him… which he innocently took to be true love. He is “grabbed” at the airport in America by a vast horde of relatives and contacts. He doesn’t even know if they are really related to him or not, but they are very welcoming to him, appear very Mafia-like and they always seem to track him down and take him home again every time he runs away! They are mainly waiters who drive Lamborghinis etc.
I won’t give you any spoilers, but it’s a hilarious movie about America, and a certain type of Italian-Americans, viewed from the Sicilian point of view. It really shows you the vast cultural differenes in a most entertaining way.
It’s best enjoyed if you speak both languages because there are scenes of major linguistic misunderstandings that you can appreciate all the more if you follow both conversations.
We were in Corleone last summer to go see the anti Mafia museum. Sadly, we missed it by 15 minutes but I want to go back there this summer. And I’m right with you there on speaking your truth. Change only happens through truth.
That’s so true. Nothing gets resolved or mended if you cannot admit the whole extent and nature of the problem first!
The word Mafia was scrawled on a wall that bordered the church walkway. It was next to a small apt. building. Also, I was told that the immigrant women that wait beneath beach umbrellas on the side of the rural roadways for customers are controlled by the Mafia. I unknowingly almost stopped at one, thinking they were selling refreshments 🙂
Ah yes, it’s not refreshments they’re selling!
And unfortunately yes, they are usually “imported” by the Mafia, who have some collaboration with various African criminal organistions. I read a magazine article by a Nigerian woman recently teling how she was tricked into this. She was told she could get a job in Italy working as a greengrocer’s assistant and, naively not knowing that an arrangement like this is imposssible, she paid all the money she had and found out that the real job on offer when she arrived was prostitution. She had no money to get back home and instead chose to run away and live homeless as a beggar for a while till she was helped by a social organisation of Italian volunteers that help people in this plight.
I met a man selling necklaces on the beach last year from Bangladesh who had had a similar experience. He had been a Doctor in Bangladesh, had been conned out of everything, and was just desperate to save up enough money to get back home. Yet he was living hand to mouth so I don’t know if he could ever make it.
During the Libyan crisis the Mafia made a fortune by charging the refugees about 500 Euros for a crossing to Sicily (the going rate for this crossing is about 100 euros) and then packing them into boats that were not seaworthy, during storms that made the crossing impossible, knowing they would all sink before they got to Sicily. So many Africans went to watery graves, deliberately sacrificed by the Mafia. Those who made it were utterly ripped off financially.
I love your posts! My father was born and raised in Palermo, and I go back every time i save up my pennies. The Mafia exists and taints everything it touches on that [my!] beautiful island. Thank you for speaking so boldly and kindly about Padre Puglisi. There must be many more people who continue to speak up for what is right, and more importantly, denounce what is wrong. Be safe, and stai attenta!
Hi it’s Rosaria in Florida except that I’m in Michigan now until the snow flies. When I signed up here I wasn’t allowed to keep my former log in name. The avatar is an old photo of me and hence the choice of Bedda Fu for my screen name.
Thanks for another fascinating and thoughtful piece. Since every aspect of Sicilian life seems chalked with complexity and intrigue, I trust that you will never want for subject matter. So it is that I don’t know whether to comment on the Beatification of Father Puglisi, run on about the mafia and/or Mafia, or lament the prejudices have been brought to bear upon me because of my Sicilian heritage.
Good for you for speaking candidly and courageously about the mafia/Mafia. If nothing else, it is WORDS and COURGAGE that will eventually render the mafia sub-culture and its organizations powerless. Your last sentence was most poignant, ” It’s all around us, but nobody says a word.” That thought reminded me that the elementary rule of Sicilian society is indeed silence for which there are innumerable proverbs and sayings like Bell’arti parrari pica (It is an art to speak little) or Chiddu e’ lu bonu chi vidi e taci (He is a good man who sees and keeps silent). Why even my own mother used to warn me that my big mouth would land me in jail. I suppose this ethic has had survival value for a people who have suffered at the hands of umpteen rulers over the centuries but no more for it’s high time to get the elephant out of the room. You also wrote an interesting take on the mafioso ritual “ Bacciamo le mani a Vossia “ . I always thought of it as having its antecedents in the feudal latifundia and never made the ecclesiastical connection. Brilliant. Appreciate your insight . As for the disparagement of Corleone, the attitude is equally carried by every American and we have Mario Puzo to thank for that. Then there’s the oblique irony that there are other more infamous towns than Corleone and that the film The Godfather was shot no where near Corleone but in southeastern Sicily.
It’s nice – and interesting – to hear from you as always!
I agree you were pretty in that photo, but I bet you still are! 😛
I know wat you mean about the prejudices you mention as a result of your Sicilian heritage. I’ve seen my husbandand brother in law experience this. I’m always amazed how crass and ignorant people are. Just plain stupid actually.
I didn’t know there were so many proverbs about keeping silent in Sicilian. Thank you for sharing those. They do give real insight into this tendency to keep quiet, that the Sicilians do clearly still struggle with. And I definitely think you’re right that it was learned through century after century of being invaded and ruled by foreigners, leading to a culture of completely distrusting the authorities.
I learned about the Mafia parodying religious rituals recently. I believe the full extent of it has been a fairly new discovery for the police themselves, as they have learned through bugging homes that the joining rituals have considerable religious echoes in them. They did discover a good few years ago that new recruits stay in a residential training camp for a few weeks and are told ‘the Mafia is your religion now’, as part of the brainwashing programme. It’s a clever way of making sure morality doesn’t suddenly give people doubts, and probably taps into some very deep emotions Sicilians develop going through first communion and other religious education at a very young and impressionable age. It’s very emotive, and hijacking it successfully in people’s minds must be very powerful.
I’ve been away and am just now catching up on your insightful, often delightful, posts. This one is of the insightful variety, if course. My mom was born in 1916, in the USA , of Sicilian parents who had left behind Palermo a few years before. My grandfather died in the flu epidemic in 1918 and my destitute, grieving grandmother was moved by relatives, with her three surviving children, from a small midwestern town to an Italian neighborhood in Chicago, which turned out to have the same mafia problems as Palermo! (Al Capone era) My mother grew up dodging bullets and stepping over the occasional dead body. The local Catholic church & school and especially its wonderful pastor did their best to keep the kids safe, and largely succeeded. Everyone loved “Pappy Louie” (Father Louis Giambastiani) and I was privileged to meet him when I was a little girl myself, as God granted him a very long life. Any overt mafia activity has died away in Chicago, as did Al Capone, who is buried a couple hundred feet from my mom in an old Italian Catholic cemetery. I wish Sicily an enlightened environment so all can thrive.
Nice to hear from you again!
I had no idea Chicago had been like that too, and also with a brave priest who helped the kids. What a tough life your grandmother must have had, moving from Sicily and ending up somewhere with just the same problems, yet in a foreign country.
It’s great that both cities have improved so much. I just hope Palermo can go all the way and finally rid itself of this tumor.
we need to stop talking and start doing something to stop this craziness, its time to get into something new… to be able to bring up our children in a safe place… I cannot imagine that even the mafia people would not want that some day.
Well I was going to close my laptop and get some sleep but then I saw the mafia category. After retiring I began working on my second masters degree and this time in something that was fun for me : Urban Studies/planning — I focused on early Sicilian immigration in US cities. I knew very little about my grandfather’s extended family including in laws. When I asked my mother about the info I had discovered she became defensive and would not talk about it — she was about 75 at this time and some of these things happened late in the 19th century and early 20th century. She had 8 siblings and I never heard any of these aunts and uncles talk about some of the things I had found including names, circumstances, arrests etc. But as a kid, I remember there were sometimes whispers and an air of seriousness when someone would be harshly interrupted from saying something which seemed mysterious, if not rude, to me. As you wrote, she too said the word Mafia and Black Hand was never to be mentioned except in very private areas and all the family had to be silent about ever mentioning these entities or even talking about family business (legitimate business) –and then the word “omerta” was mentioned which I believe means silence or quiet. I assume to say anything about your business would/could leave the door open to protection money pay offs etc. –so it was best not to say anything good, bad or so and so. The police could not help much because the code of silence –omerta– was embedded in the culture. These early immigrants to the US had a difficult time — they saw opportunity in the new world and made it work for them but had to thread lightly and cautiously because the old world was still with them. Frankly I was scared of my Sicilian grandfather because unlike my other grandfather (an engaging Irishman) he was always serious. Now I realize how challenging life was for him because he was Sicilian and how much better off his 21 grandchildren are because of the sacrifices he made.
Thank you for sharing your family story, and I agree, I bet your grandfather had all kinds of painful memories he was happy his grandchildren would never come to know. So perhaps, if you’ve got away from all that, silence may be the best policy… whereas it’s so essential to talk if it’s going on around you and needs to be stopped.
Sometimes I feel frustrated with the culture of omertà but when I reflect objectively, it has opened up so much in just one generation that the Sicilians really do have good reason to be optimistic about the future.
Hello I enjoyed your mafia articles on your blog im very interested in mafia cases in sicily. Have you ever known any one in the organized crime it sounds pretty scary what your husband went thorough i couldnt live in a place like that it is beautiful someday i will visit and can you explain to me diana marie story im trying to understand it ?😃
It’s really changed beyond all recognition these days – like you, I’m sure I could not live here if were still the same as it was when my husband was a child.
Diana Marie? I don’t know anything about that I’m afraid!
As for knowing anyone in the Mafia, yes I have, but only very superficially. Several of my neighbours were arrested last summer for example. We had been warned about them and therefore made sure to keep things civil and as distant as possible – “Good morning” and no more than that – which is the safe thing to do.
Hello again thankyou for your response when i refered to Diane Marie i was refering to the comment about her family it is right befour your answer can you explain that was she saying her mom was upset ?
Oh I see!
Well, quite a lot of good and honest people in Sicily do have a relative or two in the Mafia – who they try to keep away from.
Sometimes they talk about it and sometimes they don’t.
One of my neighbours who was arrested last year, as I mentioned in a previous comment, we were warned that he was dangerous and should be avoided by one of his cousins, who is one of the nicest and most honest people in all Sicily.
In the movies it is usually represented as if it is all “Mafia Families”, but in reality it’s often not like that.
Oh ok i see now i understand to me it seems dangerous to live next to the mafia but they possibly dont harm us if we dont do anything i was reading about the black hand pretty scary sorry to keep talking about this but i enjoy this blog!😃
Don’t feel bad wanting to talk about it! The more we talk about it, the more it will be better understood instead of portrayed as something cool like in the movies! If we talk about how it really is we can start figuring out how to stop it…
My parents were from Messina. I was born in NYC. I have lived two years in Italy (Fienze) my Italy was the Romantic tourist who’s eyes were filled with the geopgrahy, the art,it’s illustrious history. I finally left Italy when I realized I was a. American and could never become
An Italian . The differences in culture were to great for me to endure . Your story saddens me . Your first hand account startles me. I know Sicily as a tourist I love being there. My God I just am trying to understand why you are there? You must love your husband greatly. He is blessed to have you at his side. I can’t wait to read you book. I will pray for you
I came here the same as you, seeing the beauty and the history and not realising how seriously badly run the country is and how deep the corruption runs.
Having bought a house here and had a baby I have spent years feeling trapped, not knowing how to get out – do I look for a job in England first? Or a house? it seems like a massive staircase I haev to climb in one single leap. I do wake up most mornings asking myself My God why am I here?
I think this has been enough to make me take that giant leap and just get myself out of here one way or another.