How did the mafia change the architecture of Sicily?
When people usually think of the Italian mafia, they usually imagine violence and extortion. Most people would never walk the streets of the Sicilian capital, Palermo, and associate parks and public spaces with organized crime.
But Paloma Socorro, who will travel to Palermo in September under the American Fulbright Student Program to study how the Mafia has influenced the city’s architecture, says the city is currently transforming public spaces using billions of dollars in seized Mafia capital.
“At its core, it’s a story of resilience,” says Socorro, who will graduate from Northeastern with a political science degree this spring. “I will study how the city reclaims its history and rebuilds itself after enduring so much fear and violence. Hopefully, this will be an opportunity to shed some light on what worked and what didn’t work in the city.
Through the nine-month, all-expenses-paid Fulbright program, Socorro will work with a nonprofit organization dedicated to reversing the effects of the Mafia called the Falcone Foundation.
“I knew I wanted to do research in Italy because my grandmother is from there,” she says. Fortunately, the application process for this grant coincided with an Italian course Socorro was taking at the time and at the start of her main research project, which she decided to use as an opportunity to begin investigating the consequences of the mafia in Italy.
After reading a number of books on organized crime in Italy, Socorro had the idea to study how architecture was repurposed with salvaged funds. “My capstone class was monumental in giving me the space to explore this topic,” she says.
Socorro has been taking Italian lessons since high school, but now that she received this Fulbright award, she plans to brush up on her Italian to prepare for some of the tough conversations she expects to have in Palermo.
“A lot of the research I’m going to do will be based on interviews I do with people,” she says. “The Mafia is definitely a sensitive topic in Italy, especially in Palermo where there has been a lot of explicit violence.”
For example, Italian judge and prosecutor Giovanni Falcone, the foundation’s namesake, was murdered on the highway in Palermo in 1992 when the Mafia detonated an explosive in his car.
Today, the violence is less prevalent, says Socorro, and the Mafia’s influence has diminished somewhat, though their imprint on the city is still visible, culturally and in the urban geography.
Socorro says she is prepared for the research she will be doing in Italy because of some of the experiences she had at Northeastern, especially the two Dialogue of Civilizations it has done so in Ghana and Switzerland.
In Ghana, Socorro says she has conducted numerous interviews with students about the education system, skills she says she will need to compile oral histories about the mafia in Italy. In Switzerland, Socorro has done extensive research using the United Nations Library, a research experience she says will help her gather information for her next project abroad.
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