Wednesday, June 27, 2012

The Mafia for Americans

“Pizzo” refers to the protection money paid to the Mafia by businesses in Southern Italy, which is usually obtained by coercion and extortion. “Pizzo” is the Sicilian word for “beak” and it renders the image of a hungry bird pecking around to get every little bit of food that it can. AddioPizzo, by publishing its “Pizzo Free” list of businesses that have agreed not to pay the Pizzo and also to press charges against anyone who comes to them to ask for money, has created a network of support and information that empowers Sicilian business owners to fight back. 

Despite their efforts, the practice is still widespread (it is estimated that 80% of the businesses in Catania and Palermo pay the Pizzo), but little by little they hope to overcome the mentality of fear and silence that allows this phenomenon to remain entrenched in local society. Each term CET Italy staff members organize meetings with its Florence, Siena and Catania students to talk with the volunteers of AddioPizzo and help the them understand what the modern day Mafia in Sicily looks like. At the most recent meeting arranged for students of the CET Sicily program, a journalist and photographer from the local ‘La Sicilia’ newspaper were present, and on June 27th an article about the meeting was published in the paper. Below is the English translation of the story.
Our Article in the newspaper "La Sicilia"

An Anti-Mafia Crash Course: 10 American students meet with local youth engaged in the fight against racketeering and usury.

On June 29th, 2004, on small leaflets posted throughout the streets of the city center, Palermo read this message for the first time: “An entire population that pays the ‘pizzo’ is a population without dignity.” So began the adventure of AddioPizzo’s young volunteers, with this gesture carried out by 7 local citizens, little more than 30 years old, who decided to break down the wall of silence that gripped civil society, and to explain their motivations for doing so a few days later in an open letter to local and national newspapers. AddioPizzo is a movement that has taken on the role of spokesperson for the “cultural revolution” against the Mafia. In Catania the association was founded in 2006 and today has 10 active members who organize conferences and initiatives in schools and throughout the city. They have even obtained a center, which they share with the local branch of Libera, in Picanello, in an apartment that was sequestered from a Mafia criminal and donated to the groups for their activities.

“Sicily” as explained to American students. Terms like “Mafia,” “Racket” and “Pizzo.” Today’s classes included discussions on these topics at CET Catania - which organizes study programs in Sicily on behalf of American Universities – with the Resident Director Anna Di Biase, who has worked for CET in Florence and Siena and this summer is coordinating the programs in Catania, CET Professor Alessandra Nucifora, Prof. Alessandro Zannirato from The Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, who was born in Varese and has been teaching abroad for 8 years, and the volunteers of AddioPizzo.

The meeting began with an introductory video, which explained the current meaning of “Pizzo,” here and elsewhere in Sicily; from [Vincenzo] Conticello’s ‘Antica Focacceria’ in Palermo, to the story of Libero Grassi, the charges that have been made, the homicides, and the birth of the AddioPizzo movement on the spontaneous initiative of a few 30-somethings from Palermo who finally said “basta,” enough. The debate then began in earnest and it immediately became evident from their questions that the American students still have an understanding of the Mafia largely based on books and movies. Zannirato confirmed that: “there are two challenges we face: they have an understanding of the Mafia shaped by American movies - for them “Mafia” is an amusing term, but when I compared it to Al Qaeda during the introduction to the class, they weren’t laughing anymore. Then, their moral outlook is based on the concept of individual responsibility, as opposed to collective responsibility.” 

Ermanno Napolitano gave an explanation in English to the students, 10 of them in all, of what AddioPizzo is; he was joined by Valentina Trovato, Adriana Belpasso and the Vice President of the association Riccardo Maita. “We work to kick-start people’s awareness” Valentina explained, “and first of all to change the Mafia mentality.” This all occurs through scholastic projects, ethical consumerism and solidarity, in collaboration with other anti-racket associations, which physically accompany victims to press charges for threats made against them. AddioPizzo has officially been a part of the circuit of anti-racket associations in Catania for some time. As part of their activities they organize meetings and conferences and meet with students in schools. The students asked whom victims could turn to for help if they were threatened in the years before AddioPizzo existed: “there was the police” – Valentina clarified – “but in Palermo the anti-racket associations were founded after AddioPizzo, whereas in Catania things developed differently, here there are associations that have been actively present for 20 years.”

A mural by Addio Pizzo in Catania to commemorate Giovanni
Falcone and his wife. Both were murdered by the mafia in
Palermo in May 1992

A student asked what pushed them to become a part of AddioPizzo: “I didn’t think I could do anything as a free citizen” – said Adriana Belfiore “because I thought that these issues had to be handled by the institutions, but then I understood that I could do something too, and the AddioPizzo project seemed like the most well-established approach to making a change.” Riccardo Maita, the 21 year old Vice President, recalls that his first encounter with the association occurred when he was in high school, while working on project to draft a law proposal with his classmates: “from that moment on the association became a part of my life, to the point that I became Vice President.” The students asked if pressing charges against intimidators leads to retaliation. Riccardo responded, explaining that data from multiple anti-racket associations in Catania indicates that victims who press charges are subsequently left alone by the Mafia. At this, one student marveled “why do they keep paying the Pizzo? Why don’t they immediately cooperate with these groups that are offering to help them?” The answer was that it’s a question of mentality, that she needs to look at Sicilian history to understand when and how the Mafia took the place of the State in Sicily, how it practically has become the guarantor for a system of protection and easy money that for many people is extremely difficult to fight. 

At the end of the meeting Etta Berkland, 21, from the University of Minnesota, shared her newfound understanding of the phenomenon: “whenever I heard about the Mafia, “The Godfather” came to mind, but now I understand that it’s like a bad dream, that it has roots here and a presence in politics, businesses and much more. It’s worse than I thought and it hurts me to think that such a beautiful place could be associated with such a terrible phenomenon.”                           

Saturday, June 16, 2012

Benedettini and Catania's Beauty

Written by Taylor Wilkins, Student, CET Intensive Language and Culture Studies in Catania

What do you think of when you picture Europe's medieval era?  The feudal system, with poor villages that pay high prices for the protection of the king and his knights?  Widespread illiteracy?  A world in a general economic stand-still?  While many of these visions are partly true, the Middle Ages were certainly not as stagnant as one may believe. So often we forget how knowledge and education were valued and maintained by the monks and clerics in monasteries during this time.

 No place is a greater reminder of this than Catania's own Biblioteca dell'ex Monastero dei Benedettini, the university library where I have my internship.  The building used to be a Benedictine monastery, but is now, the university library for the foreign languages, literature, and communications departments.  The books are housed in rooms with stone walls, floors, and ceilings, almost like a castle. The interior of the building is just as beautiful as its exterior.

For my internship, I work at the front desk checking students in, handing them locker keys, and making sure they get the books they request.  This library system seems different from the norm in America.  First, patrons cannot check the books out of the library because many are so old.  Additionally, patrons fill out a written request for the book(s) they need, and the people at the front desk take these request forms to what is basically a dumbwaiter so that people upstairs can fetch the books and send them back downstairs. 
Since my work isn't overly demanding, I have plenty of time to try and talk with the other students working there.  These attempts at conversation are so interesting (and informative) that they make my internship my favorite part of my time here in Sicily thus far.

Saturday, June 9, 2012

The Sicilian Way

Written by Jake Cappuccino, Student, CET Intensive Language and Culture Studies in Catania           

Sicily moves slowly. Contrary to the frenetic, hectic, go-go-go American way, Sicilians take life in stride, one easy step at a time. Consequently, I find that I walk faster than almost everyone in Sicily. Yet, as of the five days that I have been in Sicily, my pace has slowed considerably as I subconsciously ingest the Sicilian way. The “pausa” or the mid-day break, exemplifies the sometimes vast differences between our cultures. In the afternoon, the city all but shuts down for a few hours; the Sicilians close up shop, return home, and do as they please for a few hours. Some nap, some eat, and some work, but many do not. Then, as if on command, the pause ends and the city restarts with the sounds of vrooming mopeds, honking cars, and Italians shouting. 

Sicily is, however, similar to America in some ways. No words can quite capture the hustle and bustle of la fiera, an outdoor market in which vendors sell goods of all kinds, the goods ranging from souvenirs, clothing, and trinkets, to fresh produce, fish, and meat. 

Some of the market items operate on a bargaining system where one can in fact haggle over the price. Sometimes, if you purchase a lot from a single vendor and are lucky, the vendor just might throw you an extra item. America does not have many outdoor markets quite like this, but the loud noises, funky smells, and fast pace certainly remind me of home.
Catania is different, but I find that I am falling in love with Sicily. From the night life, to the days on the beach, from the food, to the weather, it seems to this American that the Sicilian way never forgets life and its pleasures. After Catania, I know I’ll be more aware.

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

New City, New Friends

Few things can cure Jet Lag better than “Aperitivo” and newly made Sicilian friends in Catania. The newly arrived students got a feel for the Sicilian “Bedda Vita” when they were introduced to their language partners Tuesday night.

                                 The Group Outside at “Bar Razmataz”

The Americans found themselves fully immersed in Italian cuisine and language. The Sicilians also learned about American culture and life in the states. Each pair gave insight to their family's traditions and recipes. One student even asked, “How do you say cucumber in Italian?”

After indulging in freshly grilled Sicilian eggplant, green and black olives, lasagna and mini bruschettas, the crew left together to grab a more filling meal. The one and only Claudio De Leo, a language partner from Messina, suggested a quick bite from the close and vibrant Piazza Teatro Massimo, the main meeting spot for locals. The piazza wasn’t as full as it usually is on Wednesday, Friday and Saturday nights. However, the students connected well with the city and it won’t be long until they are experts on all things “Catanese.”

 Claudio (center) with his two new American friends, Ryan (left) and Chris (right)