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Is Sicily Anti-American?
by Roberto Paglia

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Are Sicilians anti-American?Or anti-Japanese, anti-British or anti anything? The simple answer to this question of interest to visitors is that overtly negative reactions toward foreigners are rather rare, though most of today's Sicilians are a good deal more xenophobic than their twelfth century forebears. Norman Sicily was the most cosmopolitan society of Europe and the Mediterranean. In subsequent centuries, religious and ethnic minorities were gradually amalgamated into a society increasingly European, Latin and Roman Catholic in its cultural makeup. In the process, the average Sicilian became increasingly isolated from her neighbours. That's why few Sicilians are familiar with Greek cuisine unless they've been to Greece or to places like London or New York. Ironic, considering Sicily's Greek heritage --both ancient and medieval. Getting back to the present, the complex answer to our question depends on a few things.

Nowadays, eastern Sicily seems a little more sophisticated socially than western Sicily. The stronger Mafia presence in Palermo, and even in places like Caltanissetta and Agrigento, used to be blamed for slower economic development of the west. But it just so happens that Catania is a more commercial city than Palermo, the former royal capital and today the regional capital. With world famous resorts like Taormina and Siracusa nearby, Catania has a stronger presence of Europeans, Americans and Japanese, and its economy is not hurt by the existence of the United States Naval Air Station at Sigonella nearby. Palermo has a larger immigrant community made up primarily of Africans and Indians. To suggest that these new immigrants do not experience a degree of discrimination and exploitation at the hands of the Palermitans would be a gross misrepresentation. Opportunities in Palermo, or even Milan, are limited compared to those in New York or Toronto.

In "recent" history, Sicily was occupied by the British around 1800, when King Ferdinando I of the Two Sicilies established himself at Palermo, his kingdom's "secondary" capital, during the French occupation of Naples. But His Majesty refused to authorise construction of an Anglican church in Palermo. In 1943, following the Americans' destructive bombardments, the British occupied Sicily again, this time with an Allied force composed largely of Americans. This time, an Anglican church awaited them in Palermo's Via Roma, and General George Patton commemorated fallen Americans there after removing the edifice from Fascist administration. Though many lost their homes, most Sicilians conveniently ignored the fact of the bombings and deaths, welcoming the Allies as liberators. In 1945 the Americans "suggested" to the acting head of state, Prince Umberto of Savoy, that establishing Sicilian autonomy would be a good idea, and the regional assembly was founded, completely contrary to the principle of Italian unity the House of Savoy advocated in 1860, when Garibaldi conquered Sicily with tacit British approval. Few Sicilians under the age of fifty know that their island's political autonomy is owed to the Allied Military Government.

Today, if you visit Sicily as a traveler, most of the Sicilians you meet will be polite and courteous, especially if their business success depends on customer service and many of the customers are foreigners. If, however, you lived in Sicily as a resident, you could expect some occasional negativity from people who view you as a threat. Typically, a young American man may be viewed by young Sicilian males as somebody who could take their jobs or girlfriends. In "philosophical" terms, there are two opposing Sicilian attitudes that influence reactions. People who have not traveled widely, do not speak English, and have been influenced by leftist (Communist) teachers' rants against Americans, are generally negative. As unemployment is high in Sicily, envy may be part of the mix. On the other side are the minority of Sicilians who have travelled a little, speak at least some English and have had occasional contact with foreigners. Fortunately, there is a growing number of young people, with the senior stratum now in their late twenties, who, having spent time in the United Kingdom or the United States, are more sophisticated, better educated and less clannish than the vast majority of Sicilians.

The socio-economic element is overwhelming. Italians employed in the public sector or in industries largely controlled by the government (telecoms, utilities, banks) are often more leftist, while entrepreneurs and other business people are typically more conservative, and therefore more sympathetic to the economic and commercial principles that have shaped American society. Silvio Berlusconi, the current prime minister, is one of the most pro-American Italian statesmen of all time, and he's also a successful businessman. Italian society is essentially socialist, but there exists a strong --and heavily taxed-- free market economy within that structure. Per capita, there are more private sector jobs in the North (Veneto, Lombardy, Piedmont) than in the South, and this, too, influences attitudes. On an official level, even Sicily's most leftist politicians are rarely anti-American in an offensive way, though they may criticise certain aspects of American law. The death penalty is a favourite topic, almost an obsession.

With the United States, there are strong political overtones at work, and the average Sicilian doesn't always distinguish well between Americans and Brits. Things have changed since 1943. Today, there is no clear connection between American foreign policy, often criticised by Italian leftists, and the daily life of the average Sicilian. If most Italians lack respect for our own nation's leaders and institutions, it's hardly surprising that we would be cynical about those of other countries. However, the phenomenon of anti-Americanism, or more general xenophobia, should not be overstated. Whatever their perceptions, Sicilians are rarely intentionally rude to foreigners visiting our island, which, incidentally, is a reasonably safe place with a generally low level of street crime.

Is Sicily anti-American? It all depends on who you talk to.

About the Author: Palermo native Roberto Paglia has written about social issues and education for several Italian, British and American newspapers. His last article for Best of Sicily dealt with study conditions at the University of Palermo. We thank him for contributing articles that no other periodical would dare publish!

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© 2003 Roberto Paglia