I’ve written, re-written, erased, and almost clicked “publish” on this post more times than I can count. This topic doesn’t seem to fit with my usual career, style, and travel posts. I felt the need to be 100% authentic and we’ll shortly return to our usual programming.
I don’t know – it’s something that makes me angry. Not the type of anger you see in an action movie with fists flying. But the kind of anger that brings tears to your eyes and you smile through it as you don’t know how to respond. It’s a tired anger. On a good day, I forget that it’s a problem, and on a bad day, I realize it needs to be discussed. The other day, “the straw broke the camel’s back” as the saying goes. It was one comment too many. One joke too old. And the problem is, no one is standing up for against it. I’m Sicilian, and no, I am NOT in the mafia. Let me clarify, my family is also NOT in the mafia.
Would you feel comfortable walking up to a woman in a hijab and asking her if she’s a terrorist? Or would you feel okay with hearing someone speaking Spanish on the street and then asking them if they’re part of a drug cartel? I would hope that the answer would be “definitely not” because those stereotypes don’t apply to everyone – and they’re typically created based on a radical few that somehow start to define an entire group.
The media – TV shows and movies – have a way of romanticizing certain crimes (think: The Netflix Series Narcos or The Godfather) and villainizing others (have you heard the opening music to Disney’s Aladdin? Go back and listen). I get it. It’s interesting. It makes for great entertainment. The problem arises when we subconsciously forget that when groups are being villainized or romanticized, we blur fiction with reality.
You might be wondering how any of these problems have absolutely anything to do with me. If you were to walk past me on the street you probably just think, “there’s another white girl.” Or you might not think anything at all because I easily blend into a sea of white skin and brown hair. If I opened my mouth, you would hear an accent-less English voice and just assume “American.” So, like you might be thinking, what does any of this have to do with me?
Often when people meet me, they ask “What is your heritage?” When they learn that I’m Italian, the conversation typically goes like, “You’re Italian?! I LOVE Italy. Where in Italy are you from?” Knowing what is about to come next, I usually smile and say “Sicilian.” 9 times out of 10, I hear “Do you have any Mafia connections? Is it like the Godfather? We need to make sure we get on your good side.” Because 9 times out of 10 the people asking are complete strangers, I laugh, they laugh and life goes on. And as I walk away, my face falls and deep down it feels like a complete hit to my heritage. My theory is that because my accent says California girl, people assume that I’m removed a few degrees enough where it can be a joke.
I am not the type of person that gets easily offended. I can deflect insults left and right. But these insults have been going on for years. And it took years for me to realize what was actually happening.
My earliest memory of this mafia connection was in 6th grade in Latin class. My Latin professor called me “Miss Mafia” when he discovered I was Sicilian. I was too young to really consider what he was saying and thought it was funny. Looking back now, that was not okay. I’ll admit that for the longest time, The Godfather was one of my favorite movies. While an amazing cinematic creation, that movie has basically single-handedly massacred an entire culture.
Here’s the reality of who I am and where I have come from. My grandparents grew up in a town of less than 10,000 people outside of the capital of Palermo during World War II. My grandfather was one of 10 children, and growing up he often told me about how many times there wasn’t enough food to go around. They would go to sleep hungry. My grandmother remembers leaving town in the darkness one night to go hide in the olive groves because there were rumors of potential bombings.
Fast forward to when they eventually immigrated to Canada with nothing. The rumors of all Sicilians being mafia meant that my grandfather was rejected from job after job because Sicilians supposedly would steal and cheat. Despite being white, he reminds me that he was subjected to a discrimination he couldn’t hide with his thick accent and heritage that he couldn’t change. Eventually, my grandfather started one of the first pizzerias in Toronto, Ontario and went on to have a chain of 13 restaurants. My grandmother started by working in a factory sewing undergarments and subjected to that same prejudice due to her background. They worked tirelessly to provide for their family.
This story isn’t so different from that of so many other immigrants that came to America to seek opportunity. When you look at me, on the surface you’ll see a white girl with a BMW that went to private school for most of her life. But I am so unbelievably proud of where I come from, and it is something that I think about every single day. I am also unbelievably grateful and aware of all the opportunities that I’ve been offered due to the hard work of my family.
But when you ask me if “I have mafia connections,” you’re discrediting all the years of hard honest work and suffering that my family has overcome. When you ask if “I have mafia connections,” you’re asking me if my family has killed, broken the law, taken from innocent people, and engaged in what I would consider targeted terrorist activity, to get to where I am. And it hurts.
It hurts that an island that dates back to 12,000 BC, that has a unique language, where the art of comedy was born, home of Luigi Pirandello and other Noble Laureates, and of course, where Cannoli were invented; is discredited by summing it up with “the mafia.”
It hurts that I don’t feel comfortable telling strangers, “hey that’s offensive. It’s ignorant. It’s untrue.” The reality is that in general, when we make jokes we need to consider where that joke comes from. Just like there are drug cartels in Mexico, there is Mafia in Sicily. I’m not arguing that the Sicilian Mafia doesn’t exist. As my Mexican friends have told me, it exists but they don’t let it define their rich culture. Mafia in Sicily exists, but it is a small part of the island and not something that really affects you unless you’re involved.
It hurts that some of the most progressive people I know have made these comments without even considering what they might be saying. If we’re all working towards equality and respect for each other’s cultures, why do we allow some cultures to have a “sensitivity” precedent over others?
Lastly, I want to comment that if you’re reading this and have asked me this question before, this isn’t being written to make you feel guilty, or to garner an apology. I know that you weren’t trying to be hurtful. And maybe had I said something before, you would know that it hurt. This is being written because I have been silent long enough. This is being written to educate you and ask you to think about how your comments and questions can affect others.
For many people, including me, my Sicilian culture is one of my strongest identities. When you joke about someone’s culture, whether it be to ask something as small as to ask an Irish person if their entire diet consists of potatoes, or as big as asking a Colombian if they run a cocaine ring – remember that it may be funny to you, but to someone else it may be a direct attack on their ancestry.
I’ll leave you with that, and don’t worry, a horse’s head won’t end up on your front porch :p (jk)