Friday, March 2, 2012

Brain Droppings: Il Siciliano

photo: The Sicilian country side near Segesta. F LoBuono

Of course, I am an American. I was born here, live here. And love being here. However, in my genes and, more importantly, in my soul, I am a Sicilian. Both sides of my family come from the island of Sicily. My father's family (the LoBuono/Ferrara's) comes from Lercare Friddi, a mid-sized village in the mountains about 30 km from Sicily's largest city, Palermo. My mother's family (the Vitanza/Celeste's) comes from San Salvatore di Fitalia, a small, charming little village in the mountains on the east coast, not far from Messina. I have actually been to San Salvatore di Fitalia, having spent a magical fiftieth birthday there in the presence of my American family (my wife, mother, sister, aunt, and uncle) AND my newly re-discovered Sicilian one.

Recently, AMC (American Movie Classics) was broadcasting The Godfather trilogy. The first two installments are considered classics of American cinema. The story of the rise and fall of a powerful Sicilian-American family is really a tale of power, greed, love, loyalty, loss, betrayal, and bravery that transcends a single culture. These are traits that are shared by ALL cultures. However, the soul of the movie is a Sicilian one. And it got me thinking: What does it REALLY mean to be Sicilian?

First, it's important that we understand of few things about Sicily's geography and history. Without exploring these first, we can never understand what makes Sicilians, well, Sicilian.

Sicily is the largest island in the Mediterranean and it's located virtually in the center of it. So, its location makes it strategically invaluable and, therefore, VERY desirable. Every ancient culture tramping around the Mediterranean couldn't help but trip over the damned place! So, forget the ancient village of Magiddo in Israel as the most conquered place on the planet - it's Sicily!! The Greeks, the Romans, the Carthaginian, the Phoenicians, the Moors, the Arabs, the Normans, the Spanish, the French, the Germans, and the Americans have all, at one time or another in history, conquered and ruled Sicily. It seems that just about everyone has ruled Sicily, except the Sicilians. This fact is often used to insult us. "You are weak". "You have no culture of your own", many would say. "Your women were raped and, so, you are all bastards", is another common insult. Because of its proximity to Africa, some will go so far as to use racial epithets with their insults. In fact, many mainland Italians don't really consider Sicily as part of Italy and that Sicilians are not REALLY Italians. And they are partially right. Because of that intense mixing of blood and cultures, the Sicilians generally look and act differently than most other Italians. We like to say that this does not make us weak but, quite to the contrary, it makes us incredibly strong! We have the blood, the wit, and the temperament of all of those races who were sturdy, bold, and adventurous enough to be there.

But there is more to it than just genetics. It is an attitude. We are survivors. We have taken everything that life can throw at a people; war, hunger, poverty, degradation, and hardship. It has made us tough and we have survived. No. We have done more than merely survived, we have THRIVED. Sicilians have maintained our own root culture through it all and still do. We are not ashamed to be called different. But you'd better not disrespect us or you will suffer the consequences! Because we have survived, because we have suffered, because it has made us tough, we feel an overwhelming need to be respected. Every Sicilian man desires to be un uomo di rispetto, or a man of respect. The term is an important one in Sicilian culture. It was used (and still is in an honorary sense) to describe a man who would have the respect and, therefore the authority, of the people within his village to make important decisions and resolve disputes. It was not an "elected" or appointed position. The constant power struggle to control the Island often left villages with voids in authority and decision making. Someone had to be in charge. A man who earned the respect of his neighbors was given that authority. This title and function eventually became perverted by organized crime (i.e. the Mafia) which, in and of itself, further plagued Sicily for years. But that's a discussion for another entry. The point is that Sicilians have had to fight for their respect against often overwhelming odds and it has made us resilient. It has also made as stubborn and, sometimes, paranoid and difficult. But that's also part of the Sicilian psyche - we are the whole package. And that fills me with a strong sense of pride.

I have to say that whenever I see The Godfather it also makes me intensely proud to be a Sicilian. No, I don't see Don Corleone (played by Marlon Brando) as a hero. He can't ultimately be seen as one. He murdered to achieve his goals. But it's not that simple. When seen in the light of a family drama and within time and context, it shines differently. He, and his extended "family", view him as some type of modern-day, feudal lord. Considering his and Sicily's history, that's not hard to imagine. He built an empire on guile, guts, and dogged determination. At one point, during the wedding scene of the Don's daughter, his son, Michael (played by Al Pacino) explains to his girlfriend, Kay, (Diane Keaton) that his father is no different than any powerful man who makes decisions that will affect many lives. And through it all, the Don does it with a sense of intergrity and misguided honesty. He will do whatever it takes to care of his family. He is not evil, per se. He is, rather, human - very human and in many ways, admirable. He is Sicilian and so am I.

When you travel to Sicily you will also feel the connection between the people and the land itself. The island is ruggedly beautiful, like its people. One of the things that you will notice immediately is that it is very mountainous. Small villages cling to the sides like Christmas tree ornaments precariously perched on the edge of a branch. Most have been there for centuries. They are constant, as are the people who live in them. And you realize that, because of the topography, for all the villages that you DO see, there are hundreds that you can't. This gives the island a sense of mystery. It leaves one wondering what lies beyond the next peak. You see some of what is offered, but also understand that there may be a lot more that is not so readily apparent. Again, this is a useful metaphor when trying to understand the Sicilian pysche. A Sicilian may show you something on the surface, but there are many layers that only exploration can uncover. Those willing to undertake that exploration will discover an island, and a people, steeped in tradition, honor, music, food, and joy as well as a broading, darker ethos.

Another way to connect with the Sicilian soul is through its folk music. You can hear it clearly in the Love Theme from The Godfather. It is a simple tune, yet, at the same time, it is very profound. It starts with a single horn playing a haunting melody. Eventually it becomes more layered as the horn is joined by other instruments like strings. But it never becomes "complex". It maintains a quiet dignity, very simple, yet, at the same time, very deep. It certainly speaks to me in a profound way and provides another glimpse into the soul of a Sicilian - mine.

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