Sicily, the 49th state of America?
Roula Khalaf, Editor of the FT, selects her favourite stories in this weekly newsletter.
This summer marked the 80th anniversary of the Allied Forces landing in Sicily. Known as Operation Husky, it was a major campaign of the second world war, led by the US Army. After the war, Sicily remained a strategic military point. It was home to one of the main Mediterranean US Navy bases — Sigonella — which had more than 4,000 soldiers. Out of this grew an ecosystem of bars, clubs and garages where the common currency was the dollar. A cultural seed was sown that continues to flourish today.
That much is history, but less well-known is a tale that links the successful wartime invasion to the Sicilian-American mafia and a subsequent bid to have Sicily declared the 49th state of America. Allegedly, Lucky Luciano (a Sicilian-born gangster who was at that point in jail in New York State) secretly provided the US military with contacts of local mafia bosses. One of the names gaining notoriety in Sicily was bandit Salvatore Giuliano, whom Life magazine had named “Sicily’s Robin Hood”.
Giuliano, whose parents were Sicilians who had emigrated back to the island from America in 1922, had a dream of achieving independence from Italy (Garibaldi’s seizing of Sicily in 1860 was but the latest in a long history of violent takeovers). In 1947, four years after the Americans arrived, Giuliano wrote a letter to the then US President Truman (rumoured to have been hand-delivered by Michael Stern, the American journalist who interviewed him for True magazine) asking him to consider annexing Sicily to the US. The request was rejected: Alaska became the US’s 49th state.
The tale is something many Sicilians know and joke about. As a photographer and writer who was born and raised in Sicily, I started asking myself questions as the anniversary of Operation Husky approached: what would have happened if Salvatore Giuliano’s wish had become a reality? How different would modern-day Sicily be? How have Sicilians cultivated the American aesthetic?
My photography project represents an introspective wander into this fantasy shared by many Sicilians, blurring fiction and reality, exploring how the island might have adapted to this dream. It is a visual journey that asks the question, what if Sicily, not Alaska, had become the 49th state of America? I have fashioned an illusionary reality, based on true stories, on how the Americana sentiment affected Sicily, while also touching upon some biographical elements of my life.
The four-year project has been a real pleasure — driving around with my camera as my sole companion gave me a sense of liberation and discovery. The landscapes and the people I encountered would give anyone the illusion they were in Arizona or Nevada. Most of the people I met have a genuine passion for their own American dream; their houses and environments sometimes reflect it in every detail — such as the Patti family, who have built a business teaching American horse-reining to locals. Or Emanuela, founder of a country-dance school, who made the American flag the main decorative theme in her flat, and dreams of being “on a Texas ranch, playing guitar around a fire, watching the sunset”. Or Paolo, who customises motorbikes in the garage he set up with his father, and has filled his walls with American memorabilia.
When I asked the people photographed whether they would actually prefer to have been part of America, many had reservations. Some agreed there would be economic benefits and access to more markets. But would this mean a faded culture?
This photographic project is a flight of fancy, a legend based on facts: the American dream held by the Sicilian people, which after all these years is very much alive.
A selection of images from Sicily Not Alaska are currently on show at the Gibellina PhotoRoad Open Air Festival, Sicily, until 30 September. Prints are available from €1,500. For enquiries, please get in touch with Caterina Mestrovich (email@example.com). A book of the project will be published later this year