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Feature Articles


April 2013
The Sicilian Character

      By Mike La Sorte, Professor Emeritus


Mike La Sorte is a professor emeritus (SUNY) and writes extensively on a variety of subjects.

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“The idea of the vendetta because of an offense against a person is a concept that is accepted without discussion among the people. For he who is dishonored or wronged there is no alternative but to seek redress. ‘He who offends writes in sand while the injured party writes in marble,’ so goes a Tuscan proverb—signifying that he who does forgets, but he who receives remembers. Sooner or later the books must be balanced. There is little doubt that the victim will enjoy his victory on his own terms and in his own time. To avenge oneself is everything. The principle is in the very nature of the Sicilian mentality as well as that of other peoples. For the mafia, in the worst meaning of vendetta, to be maltreated is a moral offense. The resulting pain is more intense and the wound incurable. If justice is not rendered through the courts, vendetta will soon follow. Your vineyard, your crops will be destroyed; your farm animals will be scattered to the fields and woods. The victim knows the perpetrator, but proof is lacking. If the offense is one of blood, there can only be a blood solution, for blood can only be washed away with more blood. Sangu lava sangu.” (Giuseppe Pitre’, Usi  e costume, credenze e pregiudizi del popolo siciliano, 1889)

“An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth.” (Exodus 21-24)

“For a long time we have confused mafia and mafiosa mentality, mafia as an illegal organization and mafia  simply a mode of being. What an error! You can have a mafioso mentality without being a criminal.” (Giovanni Falcone, 1991)

Non c’e’ nulla di male a essere mafiosi!” (“There is nothing wrong with being mafiosi.”) (Gioacchino Nania, San Giuseppe e la mafia, 2000)

     There was a traditional Italian saying that can be applied to the mafioso mentality: “E’ gente che non gli posan mosche sul naso. Sapersi defender da se’, non tollera arroganza o prepotenza.”  Meaning, they are people that were not accustomed to and would not abide a troublesome fly on the nose. That is, any irritant. They knew how to sustain themselves and did not tolerate arrogance or bullying.

      In 1901, an Italian politician from Rome visited a small village in Sicily. He was greeted by the village mayor with these words: “We salute you in the name of eight thousand citizens, three thousand of whom are in America, while the other five thousand are about to follow them.” The mayor’s bitter remarks reflected the reality of the typical Sicilian whose endless reality had been one of misery and depredation, thus the eagerness to immigrant to the Americas. The unification of Italy in the early 1860s had brought little relief to the island. To the contrary, the Italian government in Rome had imposed burdensome taxation to the benefit of the Italian north, only to continue the “colossal and inhuman exploitation” of the people.

      Sicilian society was bereft of roads, schools, at the mercy of functionaries and magistrates, both ignorant and venal, and a ferocious police system that did not hesitate to engage in arbitrary torture, rendering impossible the lives of honest citizens while leaving the dishonest license to engage in destructive behavior. Injustice was the burden of the lower classes. Faulty governing and daily corruption forced the population to develop and to exercise their own local remedies. They looked inward to family and clan. This narrow-minded and paltry focus on the extended family and native village to the exclusion of a broader perspective impeded the development of a love and devotion for La patria, the nation. This belief system was incorporated into the Italian concept of campanilismo. (Your world extends only to the limits of the sound of the village bell.) This view placed the contadini-- people of the soil, largely landless and unschooled, with little knowledge beyond the confines of the village and its fields--in a provincial, tightly circumscribed culture. This resulted in distrust, stubbornness deep in the Psyche, a reactionary response of change of any kind. Italy, as some put it, was a matrigna, a stepmother, with the full implication of an uncaring mother, a wicked person, who did not see to your needs.

      The state had no jurisdiction to interfere in private affairs. The Sicilian would ask, What do outsiders have to do with me? In regard to my personal business I can do for myself! The state cannot deliver justice for me, it simply stands in the way. My remedy for injury to turn to my fellow villagers or to seek retribution as I please. The state’s agendas are not mine.

      Whatever attention was paid by the state was perceived as the application of the law to the detriment of the citizen. The law did not guarantee personal rights or appropriate redress to harm done to persons or possessions. Why pay fealty to a larger power when its function was to exploit the weak to the benefit of the chosen few? The dispossessed were not subjects as much as subjugated. In the peasant worldview, life was composed of tragedy and suffering. If one resists there was unhappiness. If one cedes, pain was the outcome.

      Over the centuries Sicilian political history has been one of dysfunction, and all too often rapacious governance: the five percent lording it over the ninety-five percent. The latter were at the mercy of the rule of law that did not favor them, which was despotic rather than uplifting. But it was more than the law: the general culture and the island’s socioeconomic structures were archaic, one might say medieval.  The domination of Sicily over the centuries by foreign rulers produced a deep cynicism in the Sicilian character regarding everything beyond the sound of that village bell. Fate would bring what it would bring; destiny was out of your hands. The governors were the enemy and the state was not owed your allegiance. (Mandatory military service was seen as a form of enslavement.) The legal system was no more than a rationale for oppression, an onerous yoke on the shoulders of the peasantry. Such societal conditions were not unique to Sicily. Yet they touch on the genesis of a certain kind of belief system that would take the name mafiosita’, a provincialism with enduring cultural roots. 


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