Feature Articles

February 2012
Sicilians and Mafia Sentiment

      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 mafia doesn't exist. It's not as if you go to a place, knock, and ask, "Is the mafia in?" It does not have a director general. It is a state of mind." (Marcello Dell'Utri, 2010)

     "For a long time we have confused mafia with the mafioso mentality, the mafia as an illegal organization and the mafia as simply a mode of being. What a mistake! One can very well have a mafioso mentality without being a criminal!" (Giovanni Falcone, antimafia magistrate, 1991)

     "Just like a gentleman, the mafioso has no need for baptism or of investiture; he is recognized by his manner and actions. What is the behavior that distinguishes the mafioso? In the minds of many, the mafioso presents himself as a type of guappo napoletano, a person who wears his cap in thuggish style. He is just the opposite. In Sicily, such behavior is rare and would be seen as bizarre and subject to derision. True mafiosi would sneer at him and call him birrittuna [impertinent]. The true mafioso, the authentic mafioso, is always humble, speaks and listens with a modest and ostensive air and chooses his words carefully. If he is insulted in the presence of many people [loss of face] he does not react but afterward kills." (Michele Angelo Vaccaro, La Mafia, 1899)

     In the latter 1800s, when the word "mafia" was introduced to indicate a new species of criminality, there was much mystery and confusion about how this phenomenon could be defined or portrayed. To many Italians, especially in the north, the native suspicions of long standing that their southern island cousins were of low character seemed to be borne out. "Mafia sentiment." "The spirit of the mafia." What are we to make of these concepts? Were they a product of cultural backwardness or a new twist on Sicilian traditional perfidy, a cabal?

     There were two facts to consider, two social phenomena that could be separately analyzed yet were strictly connected. "The spirit of the mafia," was part of a viable subculture in Sicilian society, one containing values of pride, arrogance and uniqueness, a harking back to the days of knights and chivalry, resulting in strict norms of conduct and a narrow worldview.

     "Mafia sentiment" was the manifestation of "spirit" in the form of a confraternity, a meeting of minds that produced a complex of small associations with various goals that contained negative attitudes toward official authority, attitudes that could sometimes result in criminal behavior. Especially, the strong belief that turning to the justice system for redress of one kind or another was useless or a sign of a weakness of character. He who did so had no honor and possessed no dignity. Offenses to family values, "loss of face" through insult, violence, theft, extortion, and the like, were not the business of the state. Resolution was to be personalized and came under the rule of vendetta. Only the individual who had been victimized, the injured party, could issue the proper remedy. In such a culture the extended family unit is the chief point of moral reference and more important than the state.

     It was in the countryside, among people of the soil, that the spirit of the mafia was most apparent. City dwellers and strangers (tourists) would rarely encounter mafia sentiment. They knew neither the signs nor the aspects. Such persons were respected or ignored; in any event the outsider could never penetrate the silence surrounding village life. This analysis suggests that mafia sentiment had its roots in rural Sicily and in particular western Sicily.

     Mafia culture was never limited to mafiosi. There were those outside of mafia cultural influence who understood and were more or less aware and accepting of that way of thinking and acting. Some approved of and abetted mafia motives. They too respected such truisms as, "Keeping your friends close and you enemies closer." For them the spirit of the mafia was far from being contemptible; given the conditions of village life, the mafia spirit had a rationale for being. Mafia norms were not seen as essentially antisocial.

     Mafia sentiment was not unique to Sicily. It was also found in many parts of the world wherever social justice is incapable of eradicating the system of the private action of vendetta. In fact, the mafia spirit, although much attenuated in its present day form, existed in central Italy as well as in the north. The norm can be of Sicilian origin if one accepts that mafiosita? made greater inroads in Sicily society, and as a result became more disciplined and organized.

     In many parts of central Italy, the inhabitants also believed in personal vendetta as well as the companionate omerta? silence. Even in northern cities, like Turin, in the lower classes a similar code of honor was in full vigor. As well, one would find in the better social classes of Europe a more adulterated form of mafia sentiment and spirit. For certain personal offenses, reparation was not sought through the criminal justice system but by dueling. Quarrels in Italy were often resolved in blood. Revenge is a universal.

     The question of the origins of the spirit of the mafia in Sicily is an intriguing one. It is necessary first of all to determine where true mafiosita? commenced and where it finished. To start with the personal resolution of conflict, the vendetta, the answer is that mafia sentiment covered the majority of the island. However, if you use more defining criteria that considers as mafioso those who hold rigidly to the spirit of the mafia, and have committed offenses or were capable of doing so, than the Sicilians who, as the northern Italians would say, were truly affiliati alla mafia (mafia affiliates) were a scarce minority.

     Looking at the various Sicilian social strata, in the villages and the cities, it is fair to conclude that in general mafiosita? was more diffuse and stronger in the countryside and less so among urban populations. As an incomplete generalization, the peasant classes were more susceptible to internalizing mafia-like sentiments. Immune were the lower classes that were employed in non-farming work such as sailors and fishermen, who were equally among the dispossessed. In addition, some elements of the middle classes and certain land-owning families of means were tainted by mafiosita?. As well, there were clergymen and the learned that had their reasons. Mafiosita? was a form of rebellion against the prevailing order.

     Italian writers of the 1800s portrayed characters with an aria di braveria (an air of scoundrels), even among reserved men, or they exuded un certo profumo di mafia (a certain rank odor of mafia). Such who bore the stamp of mafia were to be found in Sicily as well in the regions of Piedmont, Veneto and Lombardy. They occupied formal and informal elevated statuses in their respective communities. In Sicily, they took an active role in positions of influence, cultivating friendships in many class levels, holding court, doing favors, expecting loyalty in return. The relationships between these men of the alta mafia (high mafia) and those of the mafia bassa (low mafia) were essential in the mafia concept and mutually beneficial.

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