Mafia and the Representation of the Italian Identity in the USA

An exploratory essay by Gaia Di Bernardini

Photograph by Letizia Battaglia, a portrayal of Sicily denouncing the activities of the Mafia

“Mass media represents the Mafia as a sort of universal Evil, the “octopus” that controls all criminal activities . . . but care must be taken against stereotypes that always see the octopus’ tentacles everywhere”

Umberto Santino, “Mafia and Mafia-type organizations in Italy” (2015)


There is no recipe for the construction of a nation’s identity; however, there are commonalities that can be addressed and analysed in order to better understand how cultural identity is formed. In particular, the issue of stereotypes. The analysis of stereotypes is essential as they may heavily contribute to the construction of a nation or a people’s cultural identity. The prevalence and importance of stereotypes is particularly highlighted when referring to the constriction of Italian cultural identity. What does one with no cultural ties to Italy think when Italian culture is mentioned? Most likely, the responses will be centred around the Mafia, Mussolini, and more rudimentary topics such as food and art. These stereotypes, both positive and negative, may lay the foundations for the creation of what is now considered to the rest of the world to be the “Italian cultural identity”. As said by Umberto Santini, the term “Mafia” is now used in reference to any organised crime group, though it started as a term used to define a phenomenon exclusive to Sicily (Santino, 2015). It is particularly interesting to examine two “versions” that exist of the Mafia: the Sicilian Mafia, and the Italian-American Mafia. The contrast between these two is seldom understood when stereotypes of the Mafia arise, most likely as these stereotypes have been predominantly shaped by American popular culture. The causes of misinterpretation surrounding the Italian cultural identity may be attributed to the portrayal of said identity through media such as films. Several characteristics of the “Mafia”, as originated in Italy, have made it an archetype for similar organizations. In his work “Mafia and Mafia-type organizations in Italy”, Umberto Santini very clearly defines the stereotype that exists around the Mafia. Santini is of the opinion that the media portrays the media as an “octopus”, the stereotype associated to this being that the tentacles of the octopus are “everywhere”. Santini says, however, that “in reality, the Sicilian Mafia can be considered a ‘winning model’ of Organized Crime due to its complexity and long-standing role in society” (Santini, 2015).  

History of the Sicilian Mafia: an exploration of historiographical perspectives

In order to understand the true origins of the Sicilian Mafia, it is necessary to understand the concept of the conflicts that originated at the moment of unification, and that had a strong impact on the formation of the Mafia. Though varying perspectives exist on the causes and forms of division that existed and continue to exist in Italy, one thing is clear: Italy is a divided nation. 

Figure 1: Map depicting the geographic division of Italy (The Economist, 2015)
Figure 2: six graphs depicting the economic divide between the North and the South of Italy from 2007-2014 (The Economist, 2015; Istat, 2015)

Through my research, I have found that there are varying ways to define the divide between the North and South of Italy. As shown in figure 1, Italy is divided into a North (everything above Rome), and a South. This divide in the country has various different socioeconomic implications when it comes to how the country of Italy functions, and it a division that combined with the struggle of unification lead to the formation of the Mafia. Still today, there exists a socioeconomic division between the North and the South of Italy. This division is best represented in figure 2, which exemplifies that a very large contributing factor to the North and South divide that exists in Italy is the disparity in wealth. According to an article written in The Economist, Italy as a nation is made up of two economies, this is how apparent the wealth divide is. This can be shown by analysing economic growth in the years 2001-2013. During this period, the economy in the northern and central regions of Italy grew by 2%, whereas the economy of the South atrophied by 13% in this same time period (The Economist, 2015).

Figure 3: An image to represent the Portella della Dinestra Massacre (Unknown Source)

The Mafia was formed on the basis of the division and lack of unification in Italy and transitioned from an organization formed to protect from one of organized crime, but what is the Sicilian Mafia and why did it originate? The Mafia organization originated in the Western part of Sicily, and is now found throughout Sicily, with other Mafia-like organizations such as the ‘Ndrangheta in Calabria and the Camorra in Campania spread across the nation. From the 16th to the 19th century, there existed what is referred to as pre-Mafia, which arose from the transition from feudalism to capitalism. During the Agrarian phase, which went from before the unification of Italy until the 1950s, the Mafiosi were seen as a representation of the middle class. The Mafiosi strived to settle the quarrel that existed between the peasants (the community) and the State, and this was often done using brute force. An example of such methods was when 12 peasants were murdered by bandits under the control of the Mafia and landowners; this occurred in 1947 during the massacre at Portella della Ginestra (depicted in figure 3). In this case, both the Mafia and the landowners were aiming to stop the agrarian reform movement (Santino, 2015).

There are various different historiographical interpretations that can be discussed that shed various lights on what the characteristics of the Sicilian Mafia are.

Pino Arlacchi, a well-known Italian sociologist, wrote in his book La Mafia imprenditrice (Mafia Business) that “Social research into the question of the Mafia has probably now reached the point where we can say that the Mafia, as the term is commonly understood, does not exist” (Arlacchi, 1983). When Arlacchi wrote his work in the 1980s, he broke the traditional historiography of the Mafia as he introduced the concept of a “Mafia imprenditrice”. Up to this point, historians and sociologists saw the Mafia as an objectively traditional and rural entity, while Arlacchi pointed out the transition of the Mafia to one that made an urbanized move out of the countryside. Essentially, Arlacchi says these words in order to note the shift from the traditional, rural Mafia in the early 80s to an urbanized, entrepreneurial Mafia in the years that followed.

Another essential approach to interpreting the Sicilian Mafia is the one taken by scholars such as Oriana Bandiera and Umberto Santino; these scholars study the Sicilian Mafia and its origins in the socio-economic root. Santino’s interpretation on the history of the Mafia is clearly outlined in his work “Mafia and Mafia-type organizations in Italy”. In the opening on his section regarding the history of the Mafia, Santino shares that when the Mafia is spoken about, often there is mention of an “old Mafia” and a “new Mafia”, piggybacking off of Arlacchi’s idea of a transition from a traditional rural Mafia to an entrepreneurial Mafia. However, rather than using this criterion which highlights substituting “old ways” for modern methods, Santino suggests “we use other criteria, which emphasize continuity and transformation” (Santino, 2015). Santino argues this as he believes that rather than leaving the old behind and moving forwards with the new, the historical evolution of the Mafia can instead be seen as a bridge between the old ways and the new ways coexisting side by side.

Bandiera created a model in order to study the reform on land that followed the abolishment of feudalism. As the division of land increases, Bandiera tests for the demand for Mafia prediction using a menu-auction model. The conclusions Bandiera draws from this analysis are that as division increases, the competition in the demand of protection increases, thus increasing the rents for suppliers. In her paper, Bandiera draws out the following conclusions:

“The conditions that promoted the rise of the Mafia in Western Sicily can be summarized as follows:

1. Inability of the State to guarantee effective protection of persons and property.

2. Land reform, hence more landlords in need of protection.

3. Landlords absenteeism coupled with no fixed settlement on land.

4. Poor peasants who often resorted banditry.

5. Large supply of unemployed agents accustomed to the use of violence.”

Oriana Bandiera, “Land Reform, the Market for Protection, and the Origins of the Sicilian Mafia: Theory and Evidence” (2000)

Letizia Paoli, in her paper “Italian Organised Crime: Mafia Associations and Criminal Enterprises”, makes the point that in the United States the Mafia is regarded “as the prototype of organised crime” (Paoli, 2004). She, however, also makes the point that in Italy itself, this is not the case. Until the mid-1980s in Italy, the association between the Mafia and organised time was up in the air and mostly denied in society. Paoli states that in between the 1960s and 1980s, the Mafia was a “form of power and behaviour” (Paoli, 2004).

Origins and characteristics of the Italian-American Mafia

At first, the connections that existed between the Sicilian Mafia and the Italian-American Mafia were weak at best. The formation of these connections and this elasticity of the concept of the Mafia that caused it to transition from an exclusive Sicilian entity to one related to Italian-Americans as well, was somewhat due to the immigration that occurred in the United States at the end of the 19th century. This connection, however, was solidified after World War II when drug trafficking united Sicily to the United States (though important to note that the two groups remained independent) (Santino, 2015). The Mafia began with The Black Hand, and developed into the Italian-American Mafia that is a Mafia made up of gangsters and racketeers in the 1930s. Criminals sometimes would use violence against law enforcement that battled schemes of the Black Hand, such victims of this violence included David Hennessey who will be discussed in detail in the coming section (D’Amato, 1908).

It is thought that New Orleans was the location of the first Mafia-related incident in the United States. This involved the killing of a New Orleans Police Superintendent named David Hennessey who was murdered on October 15th, 1890. This is a significant murder as the mayor of New Orleans blamed the event on “Sicilian gangsters”, and 19 of these individuals were placed on trial. In March of 1891, outraged New Orleanians organized and carried out the lynching of 11 of the 19 defendants on trial for the murder of David Hennessey; nine of these were shot, two were hanged, and the eight that remained managed to escape (National Italian-American Foundation, n.d.). An editorial for the New York Times dated March 16th, 1891 is pictured in figure 4, referring to the Italian immigrants as “demons loose in New Orleans”.

Figure 4: Editorial for the New York Times regarding the killing of David Hennessey

In this same editorial, those lynched were referred to as “sneaking and cowardly Sicilians, the descendants of bandits and assassins.” (New York Times, 1891). A further example of the sentiment of the American population towards Italian immigrants in the late 19th century can be seen in figure 5.

Political cartoon from the newspaper, “The Mascot” published on September 7th, 1888 in New Orleans

Here we see a political cartoon from the newspaper, “The Mascot” which was published on September 7th, 1888 in New Orleans. In this cartoon, there are five different panels. The first panel is titled “a nuisance to pedestrians”, and implies that these Italian immigrants take up space for people who were there before them; the second panel is titled “their sleeping apartments” and represents the overcrowding due to the mass influx of Italian immigrants in the US; the third panel is titled “afternoon’s pleasant diversions” and is an ironic panel depicting severe unrest, representing barbaric activity; the fourth panel is titled “the way to dispose of them” which represents a way to get rid of the Italian immigrants, depicting a crate full of immigrants being dropped into the ocean; the fifth and final panel represents “the way to arrest them” which essentially builds on panel 3 representing barbaric immigrants that need to be “dealt” with or, in other words, executed.

In researching topics regarding the origins of the Mafia and general explanations or definitions, we immediately see references to popular culture and stereotyped ideals. Many forums and unofficial blogs reference the movie The Godfather (Il Padrino), as well as scattered and disoriented examples of kidnappings and illegal activities that have allegedly had ties to the Mafia over the years. Italian-American researcher Giovanni Schiavo says in his response to Luigi Barzini in The New York review, “He (Barzini) confuses the Mafia with the mythical Mafia as a criminal organization” (Schiavo, 1969). Here we see one researcher’s opinion on the seemingly common misconceptions made by Americans regarding the true meaning and nature behind the Mafia. Giovanni Schiavo was prompted to respond this way as he believed that the Mafia that Barzini was referring to was that of racketeering or gangsterism, which are traits of the Italian-American Mafia, not the Sicilian one. At its core, Schiavo believes that Barzini has formed an ill-representation of Sicilians; he says in his response to Barzini, “…I wonder with what sorts of Sicilians [Barzini] has associated. I could assure him that the people my family used to associate with in Palermo were not the kind described by him.” Schiavo believes that the idea Barzini has of the Mafia is one that was imported from America, and that it applies to criminals in all forms regardless of their national origins (New York Review, 1969).

The Italian-American Mafia rose to power during the Prohibition era in the 1920s, following the success of gangs in Italian-American neighbourhoods that were characterised as such by the high volumes of Sicilian Immigrants. The American “Cosa Nostra” Mafia group derived from the Sicilian Mafia but is completely independent as an organized group. The main similarity that lies at the core of the Sicilian and Italian-American Mafias is the code of Omertà, or the code of silence and honour. However, the two groups are different in a vast number of ways. Firstly, the Italian-American Mafia first originated in the East Coast of the US (specifically New York), as this is where the highest prevalence of Sicilian immigrants could be found at the time. The key difference between the two Mafias is that the Italian-American Mafia is one of gangsters and racketeers. This, along with the emergence of the Mafia during the Prohibition period, is what made it so that the popularity of the term “Mafia” with regards to all forms of Italian organised crime grow, giving way for the presence of the “Mafia” in American popular culture.  

The Portrayal of a Stereotypical Mafia in American Pop Culture

To paint a picture of the manner in which the representation of the Mafia affected the creation of the stereotypical “Italian identity”, it is beneficial to take a look at how Italian-Americans are different from other immigrants. This is discussed in great detail by Vincent Cannato in his article for HUMANITIES, “What Sets Italian-Americans Off from Other Immigrants?”. An important part of Cannato’s article is his mention of “The Godfather paradox”. The presence of Mafia stereotypes in this well-known production will be further discussed in the next section, in short, the paradox is one that has reinforced the negative stereotypes that surround Italian-Americans and provides a justification and legitimization for organized crime (Cannato, 2015). Before discussing the involvement of The Godfather in the formation of stereotypical images of the Mafia, presented below is a video entitled “Ex-Mob Boss Rates 13 Mafia Movie Scenes | How Real Is It?”. It was interesting to view what the mainstream recent media is reporting on movies of the 90s such as The Godfather, and I believe this serves as a classic example of the portrayal of an Italian-American, especially as the man the video is centred around is an ex-mob boss for the Colombo crime family in New York.

Ex-Mob Boss Rates 13 Mafia Movie Scenes | How Real Is It?

We now concentrate in on the portrayal of the Mafia in films, namely The Godfather, to demonstrate how the Mafia transitioned from a meridional feudalism which lasted from the middle ages to 1832, to a reflection of Italy’s internal divide and struggle for unification, to an internal economic situation that all lead to the creation of the Italian Mafia, and how this all transitioned into creating a stereotype for Italians in America. The concept of a different Mafia, a Mafia of gangsters, that defines the Italian-American Mafia established itself as a stereotype that reflects back on Italians as a whole and has somewhat contributed to the definition of the “Italian cultural identity”. Throughout the movie, the Mafia is portrayed as a dangerous “family business”, often referred to as people on the wrong side of the tracks that you would not want to get involved with. Many scholars are of the opinion that The Godfather created more harm than it did good to the Italian-American community (Messina, 2004). In a study conducted by the Commission of Social Justice, it was found that 74% of the people surveyed believed that most Italian-Americans had some sort of affiliation to the Mafia (Messina, 2004). In her paper, “Portrayals of Italian-Americans in U.S.-Produced films”, Kristina Piersanti reflects that after the year 1990, there were not many films that portrayed the stereotype of the Mafia. This, in her opinion, was not necessarily a good thing. She states that as one stereotype fades and is replaced by a new one, a fresh image of Italian-Americans forms, but not one that is necessarily better than the one before (Piersanti, 2019). Furthermore, she uses a quote from a paper written by Jonathan J. Cavallero and George Plasketes to support this, “If the Italian was not seen as a gangster or a knife-wielding, moustachioed foreigner who had taken away American jobs from the earlier immigrants, then he was depicted as a restless, roving creature…very slow to take to American ways…” (Cavallero and Plasketes, 2010).

“If the Italian was not seen as a gangster or a knife-wielding, moustachioed foreigner who had taken away American jobs from the earlier immigrants, then he was depicted as a restless, roving creature…very slow to take to American ways…”

(Cavallero and Plasketes, 2010).

The results of Piersanti’s study concluded that over the last few deceases the stereotype of the Italian-American identity has grown into a negative one, which agrees with the ideas shared in the essay “Anti-Italianism” presented by The City University of New York. In this essay, it is discussed that Anti-Italianism uses stereotypes associated with the Mafia to draw conclusions about the Italian population, conclusions that have often been drawn as a result of the portrayal of Italian-Americans in American popular culture, not even of Italians themselves (The City University of New York, n.d.). To contrast the perspective offered by Piersanti in her essay, I will present the findings of Stefano Maranzana in his work, “Italian-Americans and the Mythology of Crime: “The Godfather” paradox”. In this essay, he shares the opinion that The Godfather has not “truly damaged the image of Italians in America” (Maranzana, 2018). Maranzana states that The Order Sons of Italy in America (OSIA) “charges The Godfather, with being the ‘principal agent responsible’ for promulgating a discriminatory ethic stereotype that all Italians are criminals” (Maranzana, 2018). In response to this, Maranzana argues that it is extreme and too far-fetched to blame a movie trilogy for the stereotype of an entire nation, instead he argues that the stereotype image of the Mafioso was transformed into a positive image for the public rather than a negative one. Maranzana recalls from the movie that the characters of Puzo and Coppola provide a more authentic portrayal of an Italian-American as the characters are of pure Italian origins. Maranzana argues that the negative stereotype of the Italian Mafia was created in the late 1800s by the Hollywood Industry and the Federal Bureau of Narcotics; he recalls that American newspapers reported crimes by the Black Hand and movie production was quick to pick this up and adopt it as a media stereotype (Maranzana, 2018). Overall, Maranzana tries to conclude that although the negative Mafioso stereotypes related to the Italian identity were perpetrated by The Godfather, this did not in fact damage the lives of Italian-Americans. He states that this negative image was in fact more detrimental towards Italians than towards Italian-Americans, and that “paradoxically, the stereotype of the Italian as-a-gangster has helped Italian-Americans to break out of the margins”.

Concluding Remarks

The difference between the two Mafias discussed and the presence of this skewed vision of the organised groups in American popular culture such as the film discussed, The Godfather, goes to show how easy it is to condition a stereotype that still prevails today. Due in part to the overgeneralised portrayal of “The Mafia” in the media, Italians have since been stereotyped as violent, gangsters, and “street ruffians” (The City University of New York, n.d.). As defined in the CUNY essay, “Anti-Italianism”, “This stereotype ranges from portraying Italians as working-class thugs, to violent ‘guappo’ immigrants, to Mafiosi.”

“This stereotype ranges from portraying Italians as working-class thugs, to violent ‘guappo’ immigrants, to Mafiosi.”

(The City University of New York, n.d.)


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