Debunking the mafia myth

Organized crime expert teams up with Queen’s professor to create new course

Donato Santeramo (left) and Antonio Nicaso (right) have been discussing a collaboration since they met at a conference in 1990.
Donato Santeramo (left) and Antonio Nicaso (right) have been discussing a collaboration since they met at a conference in 1990.

World-renowned expert in organized crime Antonio Nicaso has paired up with the head of Queen’s Languages, Literatures and Cultures department, Donato Santeramo, to bring a new course on mafia culture to Queen’s.

Nicaso was born in Calabria, Italy, where the fear of the Italian mafia was prevalent in day-to-day life. He said the perception of the mafia in Canada and the United States doesn’t reflect the reality of the ruthless crime organizations.

“[In North America] they really don’t have a clue what the mafia is all about. They think that the mafia is the mafia that is portrayed in The Godfather, in Goodfellas” Nicaso said.

“[We want] to help people understand that the mafia of movies and television series is not the real one.”

The pair met at a conference in 1990. Since then, they’ve been discussing the possibilities of combining their expertise to analyze the semiotics — signs, symbols and significance of those symbols — of organized crime groups such as the mafia.

The course, called LLCU 214: Mafia Culture and the Power of Symbols, Rituals and Myth, seeks to deconstruct myths propagated by the film, television and media industries, which Nicaso says glamorize the mafia as an organization based on honour and family values.

“We complement each other, because we analyze this problem from two different perspectives,” Nicaso said.
According to Nicaso, the course intends to help students understand that the versions of the mafia portrayed in popular media aren’t true representations. Students are shown films based on criminal organizations and asked to analyze the myths created by such media.
“The idea is to make people aware that everyone, with our silence and our indifference, are helping the mafia and criminal organizations to raise their status,” he said. 
The study of organized crime has been Nicaso’s life work. He decided at a young age to stand up to the criminals that ruled his country rather than joining them, he said.
“When I was six, the mafia killed the father of my schoolmate,” he said.
“That was the moment when I really decided that the idea to learn more about the mafia and share the knowledge, to create a sense of awareness about the mafia, was the driving force over my life.”
Today, Nicaso has over 26 published works to his name, both in English and Italian, on the subject of international criminal organizations. He lives in Toronto, but has taught a number of summer postgraduate courses on the topic of organized crime at Middlebury College in Oakland, California.
Nicaso — already a bestselling author, award-winning journalist and an internationally acclaimed expert on organized crime — also acts as a consultant to governments and law-enforcement agencies around the world.
He holds positions on various boards and committees aimed at combatting crime and violence, including co-director at U of T’s Centre of Forensic Semiotics and a seat on The Advisory Board of the Nathanson Centre on Transnational Human Rights, Crime and Security at York University and The International Advisory Council of the Italian Niccolo Machiavelli Institute of Strategic Studies in Rome, Italy. 
The class has been a success, according to the two professors, with roughly 250 students enrolled in the course.
“We decided to see first of all if there was any interest and we were overwhelmed … we had to change rooms several times because the class just kept on growing,” Santeramo said. 
Interest in the course has encouraged Santeramo and Nicaso to work towards producing a publication together, he said. 
Santeramo added that the pair hope to further explore why popular culture continues to be fascinated with the mafia and other international criminal organizations, such as drug cartels in Mexico.
— With files from Jacob Rosen

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