by Alex Valente
You’re finally at university. In the first couple of weeks, you meet up with new flatmates and friends to play a game. Someone suggests yet another drinking game. Someone else mentions wink murder. Then you go for one in which everyone plays to win over the other team without knowing who belongs to which: will you be the uninformed majority, a simple civilian, or are you the informed minority – a mafioso?
Or, perhaps, your group decides to start an activity together. Maybe it’s an unofficial running team. Maybe it’s a reading group. Maybe it’s something else entirely. But it doesn’t matter. You’re the team. You’re the squad. You’re the mafia. Because the Mafia is cool. I mean, we know it’s a bad thing, of course. But they looked cool doing it. There’s organisation, and loyalty. There’s no harm in just using the word. Right…?
The case of the movie The Godfather [Il Padrino in Italian – AV] speaks volumes. No one in any criminal organisation, in Sicily or in Campania, had ever used the term ‘padrino’, which actually is the product of a dubious etymology of the English term godfather. The term used to indicate the head of a family or affiliate has always been compare [‘partner, accomplice’ – AV]. After the film, however, United States-based families of Italian origin began using the word padrino, substituting the much less fashionable compare or compariello. Many young Italo-Americans with ties to Mafia organisations started emulating the dark shades, the pinstriped suits, the solemn words. Boss John Gotti actually attempted to become a living version of don Vito Corleone. Even Luciano Liggio, boss of Cosa Nostra, asked to be photographed as he jutted his jaw in the manner of the main character of The Godfather.
(Saviano, p. 272; my translation)
The passage, taken from Roberto Saviano’s groundbreaking book Gomorra (2006; available in English thanks to Virginia Jewiss as Gomorrah, published by Pan), goes on to describe the origins of Mario Puzo’s own character of don Vito Corleone. It shows the links that Italian organised crime and fiction, cinema in particular, have had since. From Al Capone, via Scarface, The Sopranos and Goodfellas, up to the more recent, real life Italian bosses changing their attitudes and aesthetics to emulate the new Hollywood models.
Saviano’s book, the research that went into its creation, the facts he unearthed and brought to everyone’s eyes – to the point that he was assigned an armed escort after its release and has yet to lose it – only shed some light on the activity of one of the major organisations active in Italy, the Camorra. The Mafia, the one glamourised by the media, is based on Cosa Nostra, who operate in Sicily. Then there’s the ‘Ndrangheta. The Sacra Corona Unita. The Basilischi. And that’s just the ‘indigenous’ Italian groups, without taking into account the Triads, the Yakuza, or the Russian Bratva.
Each with its own areas, each with its own names, each with its own centres of power. Each a disease, a co-author of the disease, corruption and filth that permeates a country that already has a hard time holding itself together honestly. Each adding to a growing list of victims and crimes, at least since the Unification of Italy in the 1800s.
Each being fought by volunteers, survivors, priests, communities, with help from the authorities, when they can and where possible, and when they’re not part of the problem, or directly affiliated with the organisations. When they’re not working as the mediators between families, groups and sections, and advising Parliament, Ministers and politicians. When they’re not being killed, assassinated, or massacred to be made an example of.
Examples that don’t always go the way bosses want, as was the case of Giuseppe ‘Peppino’ Impastato, killed in 1978 for speaking, through a self-funded autonomous radio station, against Cosa Nostra and his own uncle Gaetano Badalamenti (who didn’t receive a life sentence as the instigator until 2002). As was the case of Capaci, 23rd May 1992, when anti-mafia judge Giovanni Falcone was killed in his car on the road outside Palermo, in whose memory No Mafia Day is celebrated each year. As was the case of Don Giuseppe Diana, the Catholic priest, Scout leader and anti-Mafia activist killed by the Camorra in 1994, as he was heading to celebrate his first mass. Peppino Impastato, Falcone and Borsellino, Don Diana, the thousands more who have the courage to face a system of control, fear and power – they are the examples that Italian grassroots movements and associations, such as Libera, take as their source of strength, their anchor in the fight against organised crime. Roberto Saviano, and journalists like him, added the idea that you don’t have to die for your message to be heard.
(Video created by MTV Italy, in collaboration with Lucariello and Ezio Bosso, using clips of intercepted phone calls by the father of a Camorra boss, threatening Roberto Saviano and insulting his work.)
I am not trying here to say that no one should use the word mafia. I am not trying to prevent anyone from speaking it or saying it out loud. Silence has been and still is the biggest ally of the mafia; speaking up is what is most hard and most crucial in communities controlled and governed by criminal syndicates. Mafia is not a word that needs burying, hiding away, dealing with by someone else. The mafia, that multi-headed beast, is something that exists, daily and pervasively, and it is through our actions as individuals and communities that we can fight it.
What I am asking is for is that language associated with ‘mafia’ and its derivatives is not used to describe supportive communities or organisations. By doing so, we are feeding into a wider discourse of trivialisation – and worse, glamorisation – of organised crime, and it leaves an extremely bitter association aftertaste. We are reinforcing a system that thrives on its fame, on its reputation, on its image. A system that preys on people’s minds, before it takes everything else from them. A system that led a kid to write the following while in a juvenile prison:
Everyone I know is either dead or in prison. I want to be a boss. I want to own supermarkets, shops, factories, I want women. I want three cars, I want that when I walk into a shop they show me respect, I want warehouses across the world. And then I want to die. But die like a real man, one who really has power. I want to be killed.
(Saviano, p.127; my translation)