Dating back to almost antiquity a unique “sect” had formed in the City of Palermo, while similar sects simultaneously gathered across the entire Island of Sicily, especially in its northwestern territories. It spread almost like a wildfire and quickly gathered strength in numbers and influence to the point that soon they became woven into the very fabric of Sicilian society.
It all started as a much-needed defensive mechanism to protect against hordes of foreign rulers and army after army who had invaded the Island and subjugated the Sicilian people for centuries. After suffering many generations of abuse, torture and murdering of its people, suffering slavery, the raping of their women and young children, thefts and confiscation of their assets, homes, and property, and the theft of their crops and basic foods for survival, slowly but surely a small grouping of Sicilian men decided to band together and do something to stop these atrocities against humanity.
Looking back on history, these men, these first Sicilians, can be viewed as the genesis of what was to become the most powerful secret organization the world has ever known. From this small band of men who referred to themselves as “Uomini di Rispetto”, which translated to English means “Men of Respect” would come phenomena unlike anything that had ever been seen before in the world, or after for that matter.
When first starting out they were true “Men of Respect”. Those gallant few who had the balls and brains and rose up to challenge the French foreign army and take back what was rightfully theirs and their peoples, the Island of Sicily, from the hands of these callous marauders. They would soon invigorate the entire Sicilian populous to band together to liberate their land from a foreign army who saw them as nothing more than peasants and dirt under their French army boots.
They moved surreptitiously at first under the cloak of darkness, benefitting from the night. They operated as partisans who armed themselves and made surgical strikes against the opposition, slicing the throats of French soldiers on patrol in the streets of Palermo and in other towns and “paese” districts in Trapani, Agrigento, and the other regions.
With their continued success, there soon was a groundswell among more men in other towns and villages who received word about the success of their fellow amici that were taking back control of their homeland from their French oppressors. This “movement” grew and grew, to the point that soon those who would dominate were dominated, those who would kill were killed. In short order Sicily was liberated back into the hands of its native people…the rest is history.
Today in looking back on these rich and amazing events of its history, the Mafia or Cosa Nostra as its sometimes called, is woven so intricately into Italian and Sicilian society that one could argue that the Mafia is in every Italian’s DNA, whether they realize it or not. Whether they want to admit it or not. Not that all Italians are criminals or in the Mafia. In fact, very far from it. The overwhelming majority of Italians are upstanding and honest citizens, who contribute greatly to their country and to society in general. We are one of the “original” civilizations of the entire world, and our past, present, and future contributions to mankind are legendary.
By saying that it’s in our DNA, I meant only that as Italians we have a sort of “mafioso” mentality which is absorbed almost from birth into the base Italian mindset. Especially in Southern Italy and the Island of Sicily. This “DNA” or mindset promotes trust of family first and foremost, after blood family we only trust our closest “amici” or friends, our inherent distrust of the State or official authority, in general, looms large (which of course was born of our oppression by foreign governments and our own Italian government as well). We have a distinct sense of one’s “self” and a self-reliance for survival and the well-being of our blood family, and of what belongs to “us”.
This unique sense of morality and “rules to live by” also extends to protecting ourselves from outside forces. If and when wronged, we have rarely reached out to public officials or the police for justice or “to make it right”. In fact, up until a few decades ago most Italians (depending upon the severity of the situation at hand) often took matters into their own hands to settle disputes or mete out justice as they saw fit. From a young daughter being physically abused by a boyfriend, to a vendor verbally abusing your wife at the market who maybe cursed her out or ogled her with a sexual undertone, to someone robbing your business or cheating you in some manner.
Italian men, who are well known for their “machismo” or “manliness”, most often took matters into their own hands. That often meant tracking down the offender and physically beating him with either fists, bats, or worse depending upon how grave the offense committed was. The reader can liken it to the infamous word “vendetta”, which is a very Italianate word describing revenging a “wrong” or slight committed against one’s self or family… In fact to the contrary, for an Italian man NOT to stand up for himself or meet a challenge against him or his family brood is actually a rarity and considered a shameful act in most Italian families. For it is his duty as the patriarch and protector of his family that he is required by unwritten law to defend his honor, that of his loved ones, and family surname.
So although the vast majority of Italians are indeed a law-abiding people, also inherent in them is this sense of “self-justice” and a “self-sufficiency” that only depends upon other family and close friends for help and support. Whether that help is in the form of finances, consultation, physical defense, building a business, making outside contacts, etc. Rarely did an Italian trust a local government official or a policeman to come to his aide or defense when needed…Why would he? And who could blame him?
For centuries, he saw his father, mother, grandparents, extended family, and friends subjected to a coolness and callousness when they asked for help from the authorities or Italian State. None was forthcoming. They would either survive and thrive or succumb to their plight and perish by their own hand. Because there was NO outside help forthcoming, ever. Parents taught this important life lesson to their children, and their children’s children. These are lessons and a mentality that has been handed down for centuries already. And whether they live in Italy, the United States, Canada, Australia, or any other country, Italian people worldwide have held these tenets and mindset “close to the breast, and deep in their heart.”
In the year 2020 things are slowly changing…but very slowly. Old habits and customs die hard. And when habits are hundreds of years old, they are as I say almost embedded within the very DNA of the Italian populous itself.
As citizens of the United States, current generations of Italians born and bred in the United States have become much more trustworthy of their government. Although there certainly have been many well-documented cases over the years of serious corruption at various levels of our judiciary, of bribery and a “pay for play” in local, state, and federal government, by and large our country actively roots out this corruption when and wherever its found. If you pick up your telephone and call the local police precinct for help because you’ve been robbed, burglarized, or assaulted, they are usually at your doorstep before you can even hang up the phone.
Likewise, when you cast your vote for your favorite candidate for public office, you do so with the confidence of knowing that your vote counts…not that the government seat that is up for election has already been “preordained” for a particular individual to fill at the highest levels of a corrupt government, and your vote essentially counts for nothing.
The United States government has earned the trust of most Italian people. Because of it the worldwide, spiderweb-like network of Cosa Nostra no longer holds the same importance, reverence, and appeal as it once did at its genesis, or even throughout its early history and fledgling development in North America where many Italian people either sought out its help, protected it, or at the very least tolerated it because it was part of larger Italian life, and was just always “there” as a given entity….
Arguably, whatever they once were or were not, whether they were the savior and protector of their people, or an Octopus strangling the very life and breath out of their people, today this organization known as “our thing” has drastically changed. It is no longer the entity it once was except in name only. It is almost unrecognizable from its origins and original format. Its original lofty goals are very different as well from those of today. And those goals have been different for quite some time now. It is no longer “Our Thing”, if it ever was to begin with…
I think it is also important for young Italian men to understand the vital points I make here. It is helpful for them to understand the true origins of how the Mafia started, its original purpose, and where and what it is today. As well as where we, the Italian people, find ourselves today.
What I would like to see is that all Italian children truly embrace the “good” Mafia for lack of a better term. The one that adheres to the larger goals of what we as Italians have always held near and dear to us as a people. In truth, the basic inherit traits Italian people were always well known for;
- A tremendous love of the immediate family, as well as our extended family (grandparents, cousins, aunts, uncles, etc). We have reverence for our elders and greatly respect their knowledge and life experiences.
- We pull together with our loved ones and support them emotionally, as well as financially, etc. We “network” to help one another to better climb the ladder of life.
- We respect religion, whichever one that may be (although like 99% of Italians are of the Roman Catholic faith). Because religion helps to keep you grounded and gives a person focus in life.
- Staying true to the old-time Italian traditions such as religious feast days, our love affair with food and cooking, our high morals and principles for family and honor, our knack for business and industry, Sunday dinner with the family, Holidays spent together, etc. These are the things that have enriched our lives and made them better. The things that give us our strength and build our character.
The things I named above are among the many other positive attributes that are often identified with the Mafia. But in truth, the Mafia actually adopted these very same traits as their own from our larger Italian culture. Cosa Nostra in many ways corrupted those virtuous traits so as to more closely control young Italian men who assimilated and identified with these traits from their childhoods.
It felt like a natural “fit” for them, making it easier to make the transition from their family to the “Family”. It became a brotherhood of like-minded men who all contributed to the same cause. And it worked like a charm for several hundred years….it still works, but not in the same way. And there is little that is positive about today’s Mafia. Especially with the character (or lack thereof) and internal makeup of those currently drawn to “The Life”
…Until next time, “The Other Guy”