Kathy: April 28, 2006

On Wednesday morning we went to market day in Montedoro. There we saw many old friends who greeted us warmly. This greeting involves taking my hand and holding it and then using it to pull me closer for the customary two kisses - one on each cheek. This greeted is for both men and women, and even included the town constable, Lillo. So we returnedhome with our arms full of food items, and carrying at least 8 kisses on each cheek. The same thing the next day when I went out of my door early to buy some fresh basil from a vendor. The neighbor across the street whom I had visited the night before greeted me with the customary kiss. I was still half awake and had already been kissed by a neighbor! I thought about all these kisses and about a research study that had been conducted comparing babies of single moms in the U.S. who are isolated from community and babies in Italy. They sited the constant kissing of the babies in Italy as one factors in their well-being. I am thinking that the same can be said for the adults. Who doesn't need a kiss every now and then.

On Monday we completed a two week tour of Sicily with a group of 13 people from the Rochester area. We led the group as part of Peter's business, Nature Discoveries ( What a joy to share this beautiful place with a group of curious interested people. Our friend, Daniela Divita, was our local guide, and we had a joking full-of-Sicilian-life bus driver, Maurizio, from Catania. We became a team and community together with the group as we navigated the varied and wondrous places on our itinerary. There were many highlights and funny moments, frustrations and life-changing experiences. Too many to tell here. However, there were a few that are worth noting now. One from our arrival and one from our departure.

We arrived absolutely exhausted after a too-long journey of almost 24 hours because of layovers and delayed flights. The hotel we had in Catania was in the heart of the city, on a narrow side street which closed to traffic in the midday so that people can walk passagiata unencumbered by cars on Via Etnea - the main street. Our bus driver took us to the closest drop off point - which was the top of a set of about 20 old lava stoned steps. People drowsily stepped off the bus - half in a daze from lack of sleep. Although it was midday it seemed like the middle of the night to us - with only one thought in mind - find a bed quick! In the meantime the bus driver ran down the 20+ steps to inform the hotel of our arrival and the problem of transporting all the luggage down the steps. Porters and managers of the hotel ascended the stairs one by one to add their opinion to the brewing discussion on what to do about the luggage. The discussion grew louder in volume with each person's arrival and there was much gesturing and affirming and negating going on as we all stood around acting like we had just landed on Mars. I was worried about what the group thought - seeing what appeared to be confusion and conflict and not knowing what is going on. One young man in our group picked up his luggage and started to descend the stairs -which prompted immediate consternation by one of the porters. I insisted that he drop his luggage so that the porter would stop his loud complaint. Taking this clue, I led the group empty-handed down the steps and into the hotel - leaving the luggage to the skilled Sicilian problem-solvers. After everyone was snugly settled with luggage into their rooms - Peter, Daniela and I could only laugh at what had just transpired. As we processed it later with our now more rested group we shared how typical that experience had been. That we had learned from many such encounters in the past that when a group of Sicilians are working out a problem they are each not shy about sharing their opinion - in the most powerful and assertive way they know. When you get a group all doing that it can look pretty intense and intimidating. We have witnessed the good outcome in many of these situations and trusted that it would work out - as it did. Every available man including Peter and the bus driver carted the luggage down the steps and into the hotel after rejecting all other options. It worked.

The night before the group departed we had a farewell dinner. One of our group members, Dick, took me aside to share how he had been changed by the experiences he had in Caltanisetta and Montedoro. During our time in both of these towns we visited their respective Mining Museums, dedicated to the science and history of an era of sulfur mining in Sicily, an oppressive time of severe poverty and exploitation. Dick had shared how he now understood exploitation and how mad it made him. In Caltanisetta, Michele Curcuruto, our friend and the author of a book about the history of mining in this region, ended his presentation to the group with a reading (more like a dramatic performance) of a poem by a carusi, a small boy who worked in the mines. On hearing the poem, Dick had shared that he was almost moved to tears. Later in Montedoro, Pietro and Davide Petix told more of the story at the museum here which included the hard fact that many of these boys were actually sold by their families to the mining company. "Why were they sold?" the group asked. The response, "people were poor and starving." Dick looked me in the eye before leaving and said, I can only imagine how bad it must have been that people were forced to sell their children. Yes, I thought, while others got rich, and I couldn't help but think about my grandparents. Grandpa Attaldo's family was listed as miners on his birth certificate. Could he have faced the same fate? Was he a carusi? I will try to get a translation of the carusi poem and post it on this site.

May 11, 2006 (the15th anniversary of my mother's death)

After my first visit to Sicily in '89, I returned wondering about many things in my life. One of them was that when people ever asked me what my ethnicity was I automatically responded “Italian”. However, I always knew I was Sicilian - it was something that I was very conscious of and yet seldom shared with others. As a student and teacher of all things that have to do with identity, I was curious about why I only chose the Italian response. At this same time, through my travels I was also building a connection to Sicily and so I began to try out a different response to the questions about my identity. This little experiment told me more than I was asking for. It unveiled the limits of other's perceptions about us. It also revealed a strong unhealed hurt that started long before me. Almost every single time I said “Sicilian” instead of “Italian” I would receive a response that had something to do with the mafia. And of course it prompted an emotional response in me. Frankly, I felt hurt and even a bit confused. I was swimming in all things glorious about the island and here were all these reactions based on a Hollywood version of who I was. I wanted to scream, “how can you be so ignorant of my people and the wonderful gifts we gave to this country, how could you let media interpret for you a whole group of people so that you can conveniently lump us into a box that makes life simple for you, how can you not know my reality growing up surrounded by hard working men and women who lived in simple homes and told stories of poverty and destitution, how can you now look at me and assume that you have a right to define me and my history for me.” As an interculturalist, I couldn't afford to say all of this. Instead I challenged myself to think of a response that would let the person into my world so that they could benefit from another perspective. I know that I don't have the media to amplify my message, but that by informing each person I met - maybe it would spread and at least the next time the person would have more to say to someone who dares to say “I am Sicilian.”

So for many years with good reason, I ignored the mafia question. Now as I unearth my history, paths of inquiry often lead me to this “mafia” wall much like the little vicoli in the small towns that wind around, up and down and end in a courtyard or impassable stone structure some with religious shrines in them. I couldn't ignore it anymore, I had to acknowledge my personal rebellion - refusing to watch all the Godfather films, the Sopranos, the parade of movies, books and TV shows that made some people rich much like the mafia. It is true it exists, and so do many other parts of who we are as Sicilian. I think my strong reaction has to do with feeling like it has been the “only” thing that many people have known about us. It is the imbalance that has made me so angry and at times a bit crazy whenever I heard the word.

So now I can deal with it and have been consuming every book that I can find where the author has done his/her homework and studied not the sensational parts of this system of survival, but also all of its social dynamics with costs and benefits. I remained open to understanding especially because the people whom we have met in Sicily, themselves bring it up as we pursue a line of questioning with them. It is a thread woven so tight into the fabric of the culture that to ignore it would prevent me from seeing the whole cloth. I wanted to see it all and the more I learned the more the thread would become invisible. I study cultures and social dynamics and yet this one was sometimes showing itself and sometimes disappearing so that it either made the cloth incomplete or an intricate pattern seem too simple. “So what about the unfinished bridge outside of town?” we ask. The response in gesture or words, “mafia”. So why is there a lack of supplies for the schools? The response, “mafia.” So what about this grand hotel owned by a priest? The response, “mafia.” So who wrote the letter that has been circulating in town ridiculing the mayor? The response, “mafia.” So what about the death of a cousin's father? The response, “mafia.”

The day before we left Sicily, a friend took me to the place where this relative was killed. In this land of extreme contradictions, I stood on a small hill at this scene of death and destruction overlooking the most serene, beautiful valley surrounded by rolling hills with fields of yellow chrysthanemums and bright red poppies. All I can think to say while standing there imaging the past and the scene is - C'e una contradicione - such horror in the midst of such beauty. I walked into what remains of his little gypsum stone house and stood where the body had been left. I wanted to cry for this young man with three small children. I wanted to be able to talk about it with these now adult children - who have so many fears and patterns of protection that it is hard for me to get close to them. I wanted to break through their walls of hurt. I remembered how one of them was our informal guide on my first visit with my mother and sisters and how whenever we left the house she had to be with us often insisting on holding our arm. After a few days of this, my need for independence made me feel frustrated and angry with her for being so protective. I had no idea of the kind of trauma she carried.

My friend shared that no person has ever been tried for this murder. That the people who did it still live in the town and that although someone was arrested at the time, everyone was too afraid to testify and so it ended. Other people recently shared stories of their families' living in fear under threats and intimidation because they couldn't pay off a debt that had an exorbitant interest. A system this corrupt terrorizes and feeds off fear. Fear for your life and the life of even your children. There is some speculation that this cousin may have also been mafia and in my friend's words, “he talked too much so they killed him.” The code of honor that we hear about requires absolute silence. In my mind I ask how can we call anything having to do with this group of killers “honor”? As I read the history, I begin to understand. Sicily, like few other places in the world lived continuously under control and domination by outside groups. There were no periods of self-governing - lasting well into the mid-1900's. If we ignore of minimize this fact it would be easy to then think that a phenomena like the mafia must be due to some deficit in the make up of the people that allows them to be able to treat each other in this inhumane way. However, authors who study the phenomena don't ignore the history, and reject this idea of “deficit group characteristics.” They unfold the story of the mafia inside of a well-honed long-standing context of inequality, starvation, exploitation, powerlessness and desperation. A history where people were right to mistrust their government and had to use their creativity to create their own system of justice. A history that even the U.S. has played a role in - using the mafia when it benefited our government like after WWII. A history where even into the 60's there were strict oppressor and oppressed roles of landowners and servants. That is why there are no simple answers, it is a complex story that Hollywood couldn't possibly tackle outside of a romantic version that fascinates and intrigues men who have also felt a sense of powerless and are attracted to the courage of this system of survival.

So it did help my people to survive, but not thrive. That for me is the difference in what I choose in my culture to respect and replicate for future generations. The two kisses on greeting, the warm and welcoming hospitality, the ability to mourn fully with all of ones emotions, the preparation and savoring of food and drinking of wine with gusto and joy, the ability to look into another's soul… these are the things I will pass on for they are what I and others who have taken the time to know us outside of a media interpretation know will sustain us as humans. I will respect the survival strategies like the mafia within its cultural and social history and like my Sicilian friends work to bring it now to an end. Its time is over. It is a new day, with a well-educated generation of Sicilians, who is empowered and want to control their destinies free of fear and domination from an outside oppressor or from the oppressors within. Thank goodness for new generations who can proudly declare “I am Sicilian.”