Penn Global Seminar offers a look at Italy’s Palermo in Empires, Migrations, and Mafia

As part of the spring course Domenic Vitiello of the Weitzman School of Design and School of Arts & Sciences led students on a trip exploring Sicily’s capital and its eras of colonization, imperial rule, Mafia, and migration.

Students listen to Professor Domenic Vitiello in front of a fountain in a courtyard inside the Antonio Salinas Regional Archaeological Museum in Palermo. 
Students listen to Professor Domenic Vitiello (center, red shirt) at the Antonio Salinas Regional Archaeological Museum in Palermo. (Image: Courtesy of Penn Global)

Palermo, now the fifth largest city in Italy, was founded by Phoenician traders more than 2,700 years ago and over time has been one of the most “conquered” cities in the world. Carthaginians, Romans, Goths, Arabs, Normans, Germans, French, Spanish, briefly the British and Americans, and since 1860, Italy, have all taken turns ruling what is now the capital of Sicily.

Palermo has also been the center of the Sicilian mafia since the mid-19th century and at the same time is an extremely diverse city. Since the 21st century, it has been seen as a sanctuary city, with people from Africa, Asia, Eastern Europe, and Latin America living mostly in the city’s historic center.

For Domenic Vitiello, associate professor of city planning in the Stuart Weitzman School of Design and urban studies in the School of Arts & Sciences, the city is an ideal place for him to introduce students to his research interests of sanctuary cities, anti-Mafia work, and immigration. This semester’s Penn Global Seminar course Palermo: Empires, Migrations, and Mafia, did just that, with students exploring Palermo across its many eras of colonization, imperial rule, and migration. The on-campus portion of the course laid the groundwork for the class’s 10-day trip to Palermo over Spring Break.

Students in front of Palermo's Teatro Massimo, the third-largest opera house in Europe. 
The class poses in front of Palermo’s Teatro Massimo, the third-largest opera house in Europe. (Image: Courtesy of Penn Global)

“The class focuses on one city, which in many ways disorients students about what race, ethnicity, identity, and multiculturalism mean, because compared to northern parts of Europe or to the United States, Palermo’s histories and understandings of those topics are very different,” Vitiello says.

Traveling to Sicily is key to understanding the connections, he says. “It’s a class that I don’t think I would teach in any way similarly if it weren’t a travel class.”

The topics of the course might seem disconnected for the uninitiated, but Vitiello says the history of the Mafia is not only important for understanding the contemporary political economy and society of Sicily, but also for understanding the experiences of migrants there today.

In a way, Vitiello was born to do this work: His father was a Temple University professor of Italian who worked with anti-Mafia groups in Sicily. “I grew up spending summers following my father around western Sicily, where he worked in anti-Mafia movements there from the late 1970s through the mid 1990s,” he says.

From campus to Palermo

The students spent the Penn campus portion of the class learning about ancient and medieval histories of the region before moving on to Mafia and anti-Mafia work and immigration patterns. 

Their itinerary in Palermo included history museums and ancient sites, like the Antonio Salinas Regional Archaeological Museum and a tour of Spanish Inquisition prison cells. The trip also involved looking into present-day Palermo, including a lunch with former mayor of Palermo Leoluca Orlando, whose administration created the city’s sanctuary policies and programs.

Students stand in front of a mural of anti-mafia workers in Palermo, Italy.
The class visted a mural depicting anti-mafia heroes behind the Teatro Massimo in Palermo on the “No Mafia” tour by Valeria Vitrano of AddioPizzo Travel. (Image: Courtesy of Penn Global)

They took a guided tour of Chinese, South Asian, North and West African neighborhoods in the city center. Students then split up into five groups and connected with a mediator who served as a guide to their particular migrant community. The group spent two days exploring the Chinese, Ghanan, Moroccan, Ukrainian, and Filipino communities in depth. They looked at migrant neighborhoods, shops, organizations, and more with mediators to work on a photo essay and community study.

Finally, they traveled to Corleone, a historically mafia village which gained notoriety after “The Godfather” film and is now home to an anti-Mafia museum.

“Around the world, different societies, both historically and today, have quite different histories and experiences of race, ethnicity, intercultural interaction. Getting outside of one’s usual framework of understanding these things about our societies can be not just eye-opening—and refreshing sometimes and terribly problematic other times—but also helps us think in broader and more creative ways about the ways we live with one another and relate to one another,” Vitiello says. “Palermo is an exceptional place to explore that.”

An interest in migration stories

Collin Lovelace, a third-year psychology major from Shrewsbury, Massachusetts, has Italian heritage and after studying the language, was looking to travel to Italy. Seeing the Palermo course on the Penn Global Seminars website, it seemed like a great fit, especially due to his interest in migration stories.

A highlight for Lovelace was lunch at Moltivolti, which means “many faces,” a restaurant run by different migrant communities that also functions as a community center. It’s where the class dined with former Palermo mayor Orlando. “To speak with and eat with the former mayor of Palermo, somebody who was pivotal in Palermo’s positioning as a pro-migrant city, was a standout moment. I sat right across from him and had a conversation with him on these issues,” Lovelace says.

Former Mayor Palermo Leoluca Orlando talks to Penn students over lunch in Palermo.
Former Palermo mayor Leoluca Orlando (second from left) discusses sanctuary policies with students including third-year Collin Lovelace (third from right). (Image: Courtesy of Penn Global)

He was also struck by the anti-Mafia work and visit to Corleone, hearing the story of how people in Sicily have had to work to collectively to overcome the control that the Mafia has had on businesses and on vulnerable people. And also accounts of how despite the violence of the past, it’s now safe enough for a college class to take part in such a tour connected to anti-Mafia work.

“Learning about how the people of Sicily, including migrants, have resisted Mafia control and exploitation was a very moving and reflective portion of the trip that helped me connect it to other social justice issues in America,” Lovelace says. “Palermo is such a diverse city with so many wonderful communities, and the cultural experience I had there was so rich and robust. It showcased how powerfully migrants contribute to the communities that they adopt, and that their stories must be heard.”

A deep sense of history

Amelia Hemphill, now a graduate who took the class as a fourth-year urban studies major from Philadelphia, had previously taken Vitiello’s urban food chain course and says she knew she’d love to take another class with him. She’d also taken a Sicilian film class in Cinema Studies called Sicily on Page and Screen taught by Julia Heim that sparked an interest in Sicily, calling it “the No. 1 place I’ve always wanted to travel to.”

“When I saw there was a course that covered those interests, I knew it was the perfect class for me,” Hemphill says.

Her favorite part of the trip was spending a few days doing a deep dive in the Filipino migrant community in Palermo. “We learned so much, asked whatever questions we wanted, and seeing everything for ourselves we were able to gather a lot of personal stories and accounts that you can’t get from just reading about it in a classroom,” she says. “We were able to drive our own learning and our own goals.”

Being an urban studies major, Hemphill says a lot of her classes use Philadelphia as a case study, which is helpful, but looking at Palermo took it to another level.

“I think looking at these topics in a European city where the history goes back so much deeper and there are so many layers of culture in a place like Sicily, it was really interesting to see how identity and history all kind of plays into a city dynamic, back to ancient times,” she says. 

“I’ve been so lucky at Penn to take cool courses where you get to do really cool things, and this was one of them,” she says. “Everyone in the class became close friends with similar interests and we’re all ready to leave for Palermo tomorrow if the opportunity arises.”

A ‘more compassionate global citizen’

Amelia Hemphill and Oscar Vasquez pose under an ornate gilded archway in the Palatine Chapel in the Royal Palace in Palermo.
Amelia Hemphill and Oscar Vasquez (left to right) inside the Palatine Chapel in Palermo’s Royal Palace. (Image: Courtesy of Penn Global)

Oscar Vasquez, a graduate who was a fourth-year in the College from Chicago majoring in communications when he took the class, participated in the Global Research and Internship Program last summer, working for a leading wine company in Porto, Portugal. It was such a transformative experience, he wanted to go abroad again, this time to study.

“That’s when I found the Penn Global Seminar and it was a perfect avenue to still get that experience,” he says.

The class topics dovetailed with his interests in multicultural relations, as well as mafia media portrayals in popular culture, having just finished “The Sopranos” and “The Godfather.” Vasquez has studied both Spanish and Portuguese and was interested in Italian, and his fascination with Sicily in particular was piqued after watching “The White Lotus” HBO series.

One moment that struck Vasquez during the trip was experiencing his first visit to a mosque. “We have fellow students in our class who are devout Muslims and so it was really cool just stepping into that space with them and learning about pillars of Islam to get some exposure to the culture and the religion,” says Vasquez. “One of our classmates said how grateful she was to share a piece of her faith with all of us in the class, and I thought that was so beautiful.”

Vazquez says his time spent with the migrant community from Ghana was particularly rewarding. “I’m interested in exploring global Blackness and migration in the Black diaspora. It was really amazing to see the entrepreneurial spirit there and to hear of their successes, and their challenges while living in Palermo,” he says.

Palermo showed him the possibilities that arise when communities “lean across the aisle and acknowledge people’s differences but still have camaraderie and mutual cultural exchange,” he says. That openness trickled down to how people in Palermo treated the class during the trip, says Vasquez.

“We weren’t ostracized or hated because we were Americans, and we were such a racially and ethnically and religiously diverse class,” he says. “The locals and the people who migrated there recently, everybody wanted to know more about us and wanted to share more about themselves. And I could feel that energy while there, that people were very quick to have a conversation and learn more about each other and share each other’s customs.” 

Three students pose in front of arches at the cloister of San Giovanni degli Eremiti, a historic monastery in Palermo.
Amaal Abdi, Sey Agbotey, and Rene Chen pose at the cloister of San Giovanni degli Eremiti, a historic monastery that is part of Palermo’s UNESCO World Heritage collection of Arab-Norman monuments.  (Image: Courtesy of Penn Global)

The three students say they urge fellow Quakers to take advantage of the Penn Global Seminars. 

“Exposure to all of this cultural exchange has made me a much more compassionate global citizen,” Vasquez says. “It’s so valuable to step out of not only the Penn bubble, but the American bubble, and just see that there are so many different ways to live a life … You have to get to know the people and the humanity of another place.”