The Prickly Pears of Sicily

Photo: Enrique Krauze


In a scene from “The Godfather,” Michael Corleone walks with his Sicilian girlfriend through the arid countryside of his hometown. He is followed by bodyguards — one of whom will later betray him — and a popular entourage. Everything will end in tragedy. An unexpected plant presence witnesses the scene. Mafia and nature twinned.

In that filmic landscape, like the Mexican, volcanic, telluric and “not exempt from a certain aristocratic sterility” (Mexican poet and diplomat Alfonso Reyes), growing happily among the ruins of ancient temples — Greek, Hellenic, Roman and Mexican nopales (prickly pear cactuses) flourish in Sicily.

I don’t know if the inhabitants of Sicily have discovered all its culinary and medicinal virtues, but they recognize that the ubiquitous prickly pears are not native fruits, but a remote invention that, like chocolate — which in the baroque city of Modica is prepared with the original 16th century recipe — came from America, and, more precisely, from Mexico.

Centuries of Spanish domination left cultural traces of obvious similarity in both territories. German naturalist Alexander von Humboldt wrote that the capital of New Spain was the “City of Palaces.” He could say the same of Palermo, whose baroque churches are so reminiscent of the Mexican ones. There are altars to the Virgin of Guadalupe in it and our Iturbide Palace was inspired by the Royal Palace of Palermo. Wandering through the streets of those cities — chaotic, neglected, noisy — looking up and suddenly discovering a balcony, a gate, a grand staircase or the secret patio of an old viceregal palace are natural experiences for a Mexican and Sicilian flâneur.

“Mexico will never be consoled for not having been a monarchy,” Nobel laurate Octavio Paz once told me, in a low and resigned tone. Nor was Sicily resigned, perhaps because the Spanish state and its ramifications — the viceroyalties of Sicily and New Spain — was a much more complex creation than the caricature made of it as an organic, rigid and absolute whole. Highly bureaucratized and unproductive, it was nevertheless endowed with intermediate institutions, social agreements and legal counterweights that explain its legitimacy and survival. However, it is true that in the times of the Habsburgs and Bourbons, patrimonialism, the sale of public office and nepotism were customs that were then seen as natural, but that both in Mexico and in Sicily would ballast the transition to a modern state of law.

“Let everything change so that everything stays the same,” said Tancredi, the impetuous nephew of Don Fabrizio, Prince of Salina, protagonist of the marvelous novel “The Leopard.” He was referring to the new order that was supposed to come with Italian unity after Giuseppe Garibaldi’s victory. To his misfortune and that of the Sicilians, that new state based in northern Italy relegated Sicily. Instead of constitutional equality and the fruits of progress, the Sicilians suffered from the beginning tax exactions, forced conscription and bad governments that increased their insularity and their rancor toward a state that, far from embracing them, abandoned them. The result was not long in coming: Riots broke out, banditry spread and the mafia appeared.

That was not the case of Mexico. Although our nation proclaimed itself as such half a century before the Italian one, the state began to strengthen progressively in the times of the liberals, from Benito Juárez to Porfirio Díaz. This consolidation was interrupted during the Revolution but, transformed in its social foundations, it continued its course from 1929, with a hegemonic presidentialism of the National Revolutionary Party (PNR) and its subsequent vicissitudes. Despite certain democratic aspects (the non-presidential re-election, above all), its political architecture corresponded more to a traditional monarchical profile than to a modern one. In Mexico, Tancredi’s phrase made sense. Here, yes, “everything changed so that everything would remain the same.” With one fundamental element: From the liberals who boldly confronted banditry and local revolts until recently, the atate has never abandoned the legitimate monopoly of force within its entire territory. In Mexico, there were no unredeemed islands.

The mafia, that is, the secret society of crime, the parallel states that impose the illegitimate exercise of force, was born in Sicily because the state withdrew. In Mexico, the Porfirian and revolutionary state had mafia traits, but it did not withdraw, that is, until 2018. The result has not been long in coming: Banditry is spreading and the mafia is prospering.

Sicilian history has reached Mexico. Let us hope that it doesn’t end in the same way.

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