“La Storia” 5 Centuries of the Italian American Experience
By Jerre Mangione & Ben Morreale
Italy Before and After the Unification
Less than a decade after Italy had been “united” the emigration of Italian began accelerating at a
phenomenal rate. During the next 50 years the exodus was to grow into one of the greatest
migrations in world history, reducing Italy’s population by 1/3.
By 1930, more than 4.5 million Italians had entered the US. Their number would have doubled
except for two restricting factors: the 1924 American immigration laws, which pointedly
discriminated against would-be immigrants from Eastern and Southern European nations;
and the recently established Fascist regime, which prohibited all but a few from living Italy
for another country.
The movement for Italian unity had a marked conditions on the mass exodus in the South. Well
into the 20th century southerners still identified with their towns, villages, regions more than they
did with Italy while the northern men of power had little knowledge or interest of what it meant to
be a Christian in southern Italy.
The miseria of southern Italians were still in the grip of Bourbon rule but were inspired by
Columbus, myths fueled by travelers whose stories became increasingly vivid & elaborate. Their
travel was restricted to places within the kingdom and even required a passport. There was a
chronic dearth of roads; of 1848 villages, 1621 had no roads. Those in power found it to their
advantage to keep communication between villages & provinces to a minimum. In every possible
way the southern masses were insulated from the developments outside the boundaries of their
circumscribed world that might inspire them to disturb the status quo.
Following the demise of the Roman Empire, Italy was overrun by a succession of foreign invaders:
Lombards, Byzantine, Greeks, Arabs, Normans, Catholic Germans, French & Spaniards all
established permanent settlements which turned Italy into the world’s first melting pot.
The end of feudalism in 1806 legally freed the peasant from the tyranny of his feudal lord but did
little to improve his general welfare. The ancestral proverbs and legends encapsulated the
only kind of teaching a peasant would be likely to receive and would incorporate all the wisdom
presumably required to cope with the world outside his family.
The absence of a significant middle class was caused by the general lack of medium-sized
properties; these were either large estates (latifundi) or small landholdings, often not large enough
to yield a livelihood for a single family. Absentee ownership further exacerbated the situation
and had a profound damaging effect on agriculture productivity. By 1900, 65 percent of all the
acreage in Italy was the property of land barons whose estates varied in size from 3000 to 18,000
acres. Until the fever of emigration virtually evacuated entire villages, the peasantry had only 2
routes of escape from the rigid, self-confirmed atmosphere in the rural districts of the
“Mezzogiorno” (southern Italy). One was the priesthood, which offered a free education, social
prestige, and the possibility of moving beyond the village. A 2nd, more popular route was
“The Southern Exodus”. Four men were responsible for the “Risorgimento”: King Victor
Emmanuel II, Giuseppe Mazzini, Count Benso di Cavour, and Giuseppe Garibaldi. Mazzini
a philosopher convinced the people that the unification of Italy was nothing less than a
religious mission ordained by God. While appealing to their souls, he attacked the Catholic
Church for its materialistic application of Christianity. Garibaldi was inclined to blame the
Church for the passive attitude of the poor during the campaign for unification. He wrote, “this
stalwart and laborious class belongs to the priests who make it their business to keep it in
ignorance.” But the peasant’s passivity was their inability to feel any connection with the concept o
of Italy after so many centuries of foreign rule.
The Turin government and the Landed Gentry worked closely with the police and underworld
(The Mafia) & frequently gained full control of local governments which practiced nepotism,
punished their enemies, obtained exemptions from taxation & military conscription for
themselves & their supporters. They ignored edicts from Turin that were contrary to their
interest. Local authorities, who were known to circumvent the law by the expedient of not
building public schools needed for compliance and the funds appropriated for constructing the
schools were used for their own unauthorized purposes.
Mules which were essential to the lowly farm worker were subject to taxation; but cows,
nearly always the property of affluent landowners, were not!
The Sicilian who were the most numerous of the Italian American immigrants
was regarded as the least enterprising southerner by his masters. An increasing numbers
of Italians were gathering at the port in Genoa and it was said that “do not delude yourselves
into thinking that these people are leaving in search of riches. They are leaving in tears, cursing
the government and the “signori”. In the 1870’s the “flow” started from the mountaintop
villages, an internal migration with a logic all its own. “Emigration fever” became so intense
that in numerous areas, areas remained uncultivated for lack of available workers.
At a Chamber of Deputies meeting in Venice the emigration problem was attributed to artificially
“by agents of overseas nations, steamship & recruiting agents, and luring Italians to foreign shores
with false pretenses”. The man selling the idea of America may have been an agent of a
navigation company drumming up transoceanic ticket sales, or the recruiting agent of a “padrone”
in the business of supplying unskilled laborers for American landowners or managers of mines,
railroads, or factories. There were several kinds of padrone. Those who served as employment
agents provided occasional work for individual emigrants who, in a foreign environment and
unable to speak English, became totally dependent on them for jobs & guidance. Other padrone
were interested only in supplying American employers with large groups of workers. In such
instances, the padrone sometimes loaned the emigrant passage money at high interest rates
with the understanding that he would be repaid out of future earning; the padrone also collected a
fee from American employers for each immigrant worker he was able to supply.
The Italian ruling government around the 1870-1880 ultimately concluded that the only useful
function Southern Italians could serve was to provide cheap labor for the industrialization of the
North and soldiers of the nation’s military forces.
During the hot dry season, peasants fortunate enough to have wells which yielded more water than
they could consume strapped barrels of it to the back of their donkeys and sold it in bottles to
neighboring villages that had no water. An inferior grade of water was also peddled, which was
not drinkable but was used for washing purposes. This was the water that became chiefly
responsible for the spread of trachoma among the southern poor, the eye disease that was to
prevent thousands of would be immigrants from being admitted to the U.S.
During the 19th century Italy became notorious as the most malarial area in all of Europe. The
disease increased after unification when deforestation was accelerated to attain additional land
for farming and to provide lumber for Italy’s expanding shipbuilding industry.
The Sicilians were among the last of the southern Italians to migrate to America in large numbers.
Once they began leaving their numbers swelled until they constituted more than ¼ of all the
Italian American immigrants.
Here in America for those who mined, the carusi (young boys) were contracted
by their parents to picconiere (the pickman). The parent were paid with foodstuffs such as flour &
grain, not money. The carusi were required to work off the advance of doing about 50 trips up &
down the shaft each day.
In NYC the starting point for most enclaves were formed of the people from the same region
or village. They clustered together for comfort, for security from animosity of those who
came from other countries before them, and for the sociability of being with those who spoke
their language, ate their foods, and understood the humor and insecurities. Wherever they
congregated, Italians were both admired and despised for the frugality, as well as for their
need to earn money. Parents often yanked their children out of school as soon as they were
old enough to work. The Italians were second only to blacks in low income. NY’s dept.
of Public Works in 1890 was Italian. “We can’t get along without the Italians. We want
someone to do the dirty work: the Irish aren’t doing it any longer.” The dirty work entailed
a variety of unskilled jobs such as sewer laying, subway construction, street grading,
general construction and street cleaning. The most desirable of these jobs placed the
worker on the city payroll, providing a steady job and a minimum of danger.
The vibrant character of the immigrant was belied by the miserable housing conditions
endured by thousands who lived in the congested Italian enclave of Manhattan long after
the tenements they occupied had been declared health hazards.
The resentments, prejudices, and accusations that separated northerners and southeners
in Italy continued to prevail in the New World. To a northerner, southerners were a
distinctly inferior lot who were largely illiterate, incapable of speaking proper Italian,
and who were generally peasant-like. Their presence was an embarrassment that might
prejudice the American establishment against all Italians. In turn, the southern
immigrants disparaged the northerners’ aloofness, but among themselves envied their
ease in communicating with Americans, earning their livelihood with jobs that did not
require manual labor, and being able to keep their children in school. Seldom did the 2
groups meet on a social basis.
World War I proved a blessing in some ways for Italian immigrants. Workers until then
had to be content with low paying jobs now found themselves beneficiaries of “an acute
labor famine”, caused in part by the sudden decrease in immigration and the drafting
of Americans for military service. For the first time, industry’s needs overrode ethnic
prejudices and factory gates that now swung open to receive them.
Of the 4.5 million Italians who arrived in the U. S. between 1880 and 1924, fewer than
half remained. In Rochester, NY, newspapers featured accounts of (real or imagined) stiletto-carrying Italians. Townspeople did everything possible to encourage Italians to leave. Storekeepers
refused to serve them; landlords would not rent to them. In some cases, Italians threatened
to tear down the store unless they were permitted to buy the food they needed. The police
informed the mayor who after consulting with the town’s political leaders, ordered the
discriminating landlords to accept the Italians as their tenants. Some Italians inspired by the
prospect of owning a home with a “yarda” in which to grow vegetables and flowers, moved
into neighborhoods where real estate values had begun plummeting as soon as the first
Jewish, Italian, and Polish immigrant families moved in.
In order to stop the flow of immigration, some in the American press alleged that hundreds
of Italian criminals had entered the U. S. as a result of Italy’s careless system for issuing
passports, suggesting that the criminals were leading “mafiosi” and members of the
“cammorra”. Certainly kidnapping, blackmail and extortion were committed against
the early Italian immigrants. But what made it different from that of native criminals
was the use of the foreign hands, “mano nero”, black hand.
“Mano nero” in NYC consisted of individuals and small groups of criminals who used the
imprint of coal-blackened hand to spread the fear that facilitated their criminal activity.
By 1915 the tide of immigrants was waning, reducing the number of potential victims.
But what really put an end to the Black Handers was the advent of the Prohibition era,
during which criminals of all national origins were to find a new source of easy money.
Every day was a feast day to some patron saint during which streets rang with shouts in
every Italian dialect. Outsiders critized the festivals. Next in popularity to the “feste”
was the wedding ritual. The success of this event (the cost of which usually went well
beyond the means of the couple and their families) was judged by the number of
carriages, the size of the crowd, and the repasts served. An invitation to the wedding
invariably included the entire family, even infants.
In 1910 the average male immigrant declared only $17 as he entered the country at Ellis
Island. Unless he signed on as a contract laborer, there was little chance of working as
a farmhand. The money he had would take him to the nearest Italian enclave, almost
always in a city. Not surprisingly, a third of all arriving Italians got no further than NYC.
The movement to bring immigrants to the American South originally was led by
plantation owners and industrialists, who hoped to put an end to the black monopoly on
unskilled labor. Louisiana was the most aggressive state, even going so far as to
advertise its employment opportunities at Ellis Island. In 1907, when Congress was
debating a bill that would require a literacy test for future immigrants, Louisiana
plantation owners used their influence to block its passage. Owners had come to rely
heavily on Italians to work their cotton and sugarcane fields. Despite living conditions,
workers were encourage to send for their wives, partly because owners needed more help
but also to keep the workers rooted. In 1898, the sugarcane districts of Louisiana were
contaminated with yellow fever. New Orleans, where the epidemic was said to have started
in a district of the city known as Little Palermo, was hardest hit. The epidemic was
Blamed on the Sicilians, who were accused of having brought the disease from Sicily. In
fact, contaminated water had caused the outbreak. The baseless charge was one more
expression of the anti-Italian bigotry mounting through the South.
Italians generally faired better in the West where populations consisted largely of
newcomers who tended to be more accepting of foreigners. A glaring exception was the
treatment of Italian immigrants in Colorado, to which they came along with Slovaks,
Poles and Russians to work in the mining camps. There, the workers came to believe that
only by forming a union could they defend themselves against the abuses of the mine owners.
For most of the Italians it was their first experience with organized labor.
One young boy who arrived in Arizona with his Italian immigrant parents was 6 year old
Fiorello H. La Guardia. What disturbed him, even as a child, was that if a worker was
injured, he lost his job. “If he was killed, no one was notified, because there was no
record of his name, address or family. He was just a number. As construction moved on,
it left in its wake the injured, the jobless, the stranded victims. “This struck me as all
wrong, and I thought about it a great deal”. As a congressman he joined other legislators
in having “these antiquated rules of law” replaced by employers’ liability and workmen’s
compensation laws for injury.
Utah began attracting Italians as early as 1855 when, as converts to the Mormon faith,
former Waldensians settle in Salt Lake City. In Nevada the sudden influx in the 1900’s
alarmed native workers. Capitalizing on these fears the newspaper charged that the “mission”
of the immigrant was to reduce the wages of Americans to the point where they could not subsist,
adding that “No community can prosper on this cheap class of labor.”
This same angry refrain was heard everywhere Italians and other new immigrants were
employed. This hostility led to the passage of highly restrictive immigration legislation
in the early twenties. Among the strongest supporters of the legislation were the nation’s
most powerful unions, despite the fact that by then their membership included a considerable
number of the new immigrants.
For California, next to the Japanese, who were associated with the “yellow peril” and
forbidden to own property, the Italians were considered the least desirable local foreign group.
Italians were seen as the “Dark People” and the press published unverified accounts of “Black
Hand” criminality that left the impression of universal criminality among Italian immigrants.
If the gold-lined street of California turned out to be a myth, Amadeo Pietro Giannini did his
best to make it a reality in San Francisco. He was the future founder and chairman of the
Bank of America. Born of immigrant parents from Genoa in 1870, he began his career as a
fruit peddler. He opened the Bank of Italy in 1904 with capital from his stepfather and a few
friends. He solicited deposits and loans door to door for farmers, laborers, and small-time
During the great San Francisco earthquake of 1906, he harnessed 2 horses to a wagon and rushed
to his bank, through the burning streets filled with looters and drunks, to rescue $2 million
in gold and securities. His was the only bank open for business, now housed in a temporary
waterfront shed. In 1919 he innovated the branch banking system; in 1928 he formed the
Transamerica Corporation, a holding company for all his financial enterprises; by 1930 it had
become the Bank of America. By 1945 the bank was the world’s largest private bank. Giannini
never lost his concern for the small man, lending money to fruit growers, small merchants, and
laborers on their signature alone. He was the first to finance filmmakers. He died in 1949.
In New Orleans the mass arrival of foreigners provoked a growth of racism in America.
Bigotry was an affront and humiliation to the immigrant and abstract negative views often
translated into physical violence. Jews did not fare better. Most of the community in New
Orleans in the 1890’s was made up of Sicilians, farmers from Corleone and the Palermo area,
fisherman from Trapani who lived in the “Little Palermo” enclave of the French Quarter.
Some who found work as stevedores fought with the Irish and blacks who had until then
controlled the waterfront jobs. The “dagos” did not fare well in the newspapers.
This wave of Italian bigotry was unfairly attributed by the police of most murders being
committed by Sicilians. In 1887 a coroner’s report recorded that 2 French citizens had been
murdered. The names reported to the mayor were changed to Italian names. If a murder went
unsolved in New Orleans, it was attributed to “unknown Sicilians.”
When Chief Hennessy was killed in New Orleans 2 editorials regarding the 11 Italian “assassins”
justified the lynchings on the grounds that the Sicilians were “sneaking and cowardly…the
decendants of bandits and assassins, who have transported to this country the lawless passions,
the cut-throat practices and oath-bound societies of their native country, who are to us a pest
without mitigation.” In Congress and throughout the country the movement to curtail immigration
from Italy and from other “non Aryan” nations gathered fresh impetus, with Senator Henry Cabot
Lodge expounding that the southern Italians were an undesirable breed. When President Harrison
denounced the lynchings as an “offense against law and humanity”, there was talk of impeaching
him. Lynchings of Italians in the South occurred sporadically for the next 20 years. Louisana was
a state where Italian children were not permitted to attend white schools.
From the beginning, Europeans in America became aware of their changing
identity and character through their relationship and experiences in the new environment,
especially their relationship to the Native Americans who became known as the “savage Indians”.
The early European settler felt his very identity threatened by the new way of life he encountered.
He became aware of his own great anxiety at being assimilated into the “savage Indian’s” way of
life. This conflict and anxiety set the pattern for future generations of immigrants.
In 1909, Ellwood P. Cubberly, a NY educator, expressed the prevailing view of immigrants and
assimilation: “These Southern & Eastern Europeans are of a very different type from the Northern
Europeans who precede them. Illiterate, docile, lacking in self-reliance and initiative, and not
possessing the Anglo-Teutonic conceptions of law, order & government, their coming has corrupted
our civic life…OurTask is to break up these groups of settlements, to assimilate and amalgamate
these people as part of our American race, and to implant in their children as far as can be done,
the Anglo-Saxon conception of righteousness, law and order and popular government, and to
awaken in them a preseverance for our democratic institutions and/or those things in our national
life which we as a people hold to be of abiding worth.
This crusade was paralleled by an effort both in the media and in Congress, to restrict immigration
from Eastern and Southern Europe mainly on the grounds that the nation was in danger of being
outnumbered and influenced by “the inferior races” of Europe. Others were convinced that the
survival of American democracy depended on preserving the English racial heritage. There were
defenders of Italians but not enough of them to reduce the hostility of their accusers.
Ingrained in the southern Italian’s peasant soul by centuries of poverty and oppression were strong
elements of fatalism which some of them referred to as “destinu”. Children brought home from
school their teachers talk of freedom, free enterprise, and free will, constantly stressing the
individual’s capacity to change and improve his or her situation.
Many of the immigrants of that era were held in contempt or not appreciated. The schools were
largely responsible for emphasizing the differences between the immigrants and their new
country. Thousands of children received their American names at school e.g. Salvatore, Sam.
Assimilation took place largely in the streets where the image of Italians was more often that of
bootblacks, barbers, rag pickers, and other common laborers. The young wanted to disassociate
themselves from these images projected onto their parents. To the inevitable conflict of any
father and son was added the explosive conflict of cultures between the Italian immigrant father
and son, often as the son stormed out of the house with, “I’m not taking orders from no dumb
‘Guinea’!” In many cases the choice of America over the father’s world produced great tension,
which contributed to stress, mental illness and criminality.
While they came with an inkling that America afforded some opportunity for improving their
lot, for the vast majority of immigrants their expectations seldom went beyond the ambition
of steady employment or of establishing a small business and perhaps owning a house with
some ground for a vegetable garden. Most were by nature deeply suspicious of foreigners
and their motives, an attitude rooted in the “Mezzogiorno’s” long history of exploitative invaders
Among them many changes life in the New World brought, changes in the
family affected the immigrant most deeply. Children were expected to contribute to the
family’s support as soon as they were strong enough to do manual labor. The father ruled the
family as long as he remained in good health and was the chief breadwinner. In old age the
eldest son superseded him. Outwardly the father’s decisions were accepted as law, even among
his married children. To criticize one’s father was considered a sacrilege. If the husband lacked
the qualities that made for benevolent despotism, it was often the wife who assumed command
of the family while publicly wearing the mask of submissiveness. Life for the peasant woman
was not easy. In Italy they had been governed by the Napoleonic Code, which gave women few
rights and many responsibilities.
CRIME AND PREJUDICE.
The early immigrant used the word “camorriste” to describe the
criminal element: men who intimidated, lived at the edge of the law, and victimized their own
people. Crime of all sorts existed in America long before the great wave of immigrants from
Eastern Europe or Southern Italy.
William Marcy Tweed was a big man; big-fisted, broad-shouldered, his presence was imposing
and intimidating. He came from a good Scottish Protestant family. He was a man who provided
for all of his family and relatives. As a young man he frequented the rough-and-tumble firehouses
which became the power base for his political energy. As chairman of Tammany Hall he became
the power behind the elected officials. Corruption and extortion within the city were divided
into seven rings, headed by the powerful Tweed Ring. Those early immigrants were aware of the
ties between criminals and politicians. The violence in American life to which young immigrants
were introduced in the early decades of the 20th century began with ethnic gang violence. The
1920’s saw the growth period for older crime organizations. Criminal activity was not only a quick
way up the economic ladder, but also a quick way of becoming an American. There was less
ethnic prejudice among criminals than among many employers at the time.
Thomas Dewey career, which almost led to the White House, began when he captured the public’s
attention as a “gangbuster”. He had lobbied and succeeded in having the state legislature pass a
law that made it legal “to try a man against who there was little evidence, and convict him by
joining his trial of his associates against who there was much evidence.” Dewey arrested a string
of prostitutes, madams, pimps who “swore” that Lucky Luciano was the ringmaster of
prostitution in NY. Many of them had criminal records but Dewey’s methods were questionable.
Read page 255-256.
Joseph Bonanno regarded as a superstar “Mafioso” used extortion as a method already used by
large corporations to control prices through monopolies. The image of mafia families was
repopularized by Senator Kefauver in the early 1950’s. J. Edgar Hoover had insisted that the
“mafia” did not exist, but he changed his mind when it became apparent that the FBI and other
law enforcement agencies could with little or no explanation receive large appropriations for
investigating a criminal organization whose secrecy had yet to be unlocked.
Once politicians became aware that the mafia was a politically lucrative issue, it gained public
attention; all crime could now be blamed on a foreign conspiracy, and investigating organized
crime opened up routes to the highest offices. The Kefauver investigation produced the first
charts of names constituting a web of “mafia”. This committee had investigated powers
and could accept hearsay evidence that would not be permitted in a court of law. “Mafia” as
defined by the committee “there is a sinister criminal organization with ties other nations”,
thus the direct descendant of a criminal organization of the same name originating in the
Island of Sicily.
The damage done to the Italian American image may have disturbed the children of the
immigrants but the older generation accustomed to the prejudice they had lived with over
a long period remained focused on the struggle to earn a living free of the exploitation they
had be subject to before the advent of labor unions.
BEFORE THE LABOR UNIONS.
In 1885, in an effort to protect foreign workers from
unscrupulous hiring agents, Congress enacted the contract labor laws that made it illegal
to recruit immigrants before they reached the U.S. But the laws could easily be circumvented,
and the practice of recruiting workers abroad continued well into the next century. Agents
representing American industries regularly went to Italy to entice workers with false promises
of steady jobs, good pay, and good housing.
Some men after long journeys found themselves dumped in a lonely valley, abandoned, minus
the money they had paid for supposed jobs. Employment agencies worked in collusion with
employers, who after a few weeks would fire the workers in order to hire a new crew and so
share in the agencies’ new “fees”. Those who were abandoned and fleeced may have been
the fortunate ones. Many men who were taken to real jobs never forgot the experience.
Boston was the main point of entry for many Italians who settled in New England. The
textile industry, woolens in particular, grew with the industrialization of America. The rivers
of New England were harnessed to power mills that sprouted in e.g. Lawrence, Massachusetts,
all of which furnished cloth for the needle trades of New York. The American Woolen Co.
had launched recruiting campaigns around the turn of the century in the towns and villages
of Europe, circulating posters depicting images of happy workers in picket-fenced houses,
men and women reading books while holding bags of gold.
The conditions the immigrants found instead promoted a sense of deception. The entire family
husband, wife and children, were obliged to work a 56 hour week in order to survive. Wages
were $9 a week for men, less for women and children doing the same work. Understandably
the radical Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) had a large following among immigrant
For many in America in 1911 socialism was looked upon as one road to social justice. Among
the Italian immigrants were a large number of Socialists fleeing the repressive measures of
Crispi in Italy who had some influence with their compatriots. This certainly was true in
Lawrence MA in 1912 when Italians played no small part in the first major strike to be
organized and carried out by the immigrant textile workers themselves.
The strike was precipitated by the action of the Massachusetts legislature which depicting
deplorable working conditions in the mills, passed a law reducing the work week for women
and for children in the mills from 56 to 54 hours. The owners, who opposed even this modest
improvement in working conditions responded by cutting the salaries of women & children
by 32 cents at a time when bread was 10 cents a loaf. Within days of the first walkout 20,000
workers were out in the streets. The looms of the mills came to a halt. The owners were
determined to keep the mills running since this was their busy season. Nearly a 1000 militia
and police were in the city armed with artillery and guns. The presence of troops angered
the strikers and many clashes followed.
In January 1912, Bill Haywood arrived. Big Bill had come to help immigrants who were
scorned and it made them feel in a curious way, American. Emotions ran high. Haywood
said to them, “you are men and women who clothe the world. You are important to society..
…you all came to America with the expectation of improving your condition. You expected
to find the land of the free. But you found that we of America were but economic slaves as
you were in your homeland. I come to extend to you the hand of brotherhood with no thought
of nationality.” He devised a plan to send the children to workers’ families around the country,
thus relieving the strained food supplies of the strikers. The sight of the haggard, half-starved
children appearing on the front pages of newspapers touched the hearts of many Americans.
The owners, aware of the bad publicity, persuaded the mayor to stop the children from
leaving. This brought a confrontation at the railroad station, where the police beat mothers
senseless and clubbed children as well as the women who had come to take them away.
The sight so disturbed people that Congress called for an investigation of the events. The
hearings swayed public opinion in favor of the strikers, and the mill owners, behind in orders,
now made offers of 5% increase in wages. After negotiation sessions, a settlement was
announced: an average of 15% increase, time and ¼ for overtime, and no reprisals for any
of the strikers.
In Italy, socialism had come to mean social justice even for those who were not Socialists.
“Many diverse strands had come together in Italian socialism: the simple enthusiasm for social
justice of Garibaldi, the republicanism of Mazzini, the anarchism of Bakunin, the Marxism
of Antonio Labriolo…..the peasants were potentially the most rebellious element in Italian
society. Republicanism and anarchism were strongest in Emilia, and Italian Marxism was to
center in Milan. But the most revolutionary part of the kingdom was Sicily. Socialism was
already something to be feared and suppressed.”
The Bolshevik Revolution in 1917, together with America’s entry into WWI, unnerved many
Americans. The “Reds” were Socialists, Communists, anarchists, and anyone who opposed
the war. Nicola Sacco was a quiet man with few interests apart from his family and anarchism
and freedom. Anarchism for Sacco and his friends was a core belief that gave life meaning.
Countryless, tradeless, if they were asked who they were, they could answer “Anarchists”….
men who believed in human dignity, freedom, and justice. Anarchism made the Italians feel
superior to the materialism who scorned them as ignorant and docile. It was essential to their
mental and spiritual survival. Bartolomeo Vanzetti helped build railroad around Springfield,
- By April 1920, on the eve of his arrest for robbery and murder, Vanzetti was peddling
fish in the streets of Plymouth. Without family, his only entertainment seemed to be socializing
with anarchist friends. Arnarchists were being arrested in the middle of the night without due
process of law. On May 5, 1920, Sacco & Vanzetti were arrested at gunpoint while attempting to
disburse and hide their anarchist literature. They were charged with the murder of Frederick
- Parmenter, a shoe factory paymaster and Alessandro Berardelli, a guard, during a robbery
in South Braintree in April 1920. They were tried, found guilty, and sentenced to death. After
7 years on Death Row both were executed in 1927.
This above case was a crossroads for the Italian immigrants and their children. Significantly
it was during this period that some of the young and ambitious turned their energies to crime
rather than politics or honest work as a way out of the ghetto. The trial pitted two immigrant
workers against all those of power and authority who felt threatened by the labor violence of
the preceding years. That these two foreigners were as intellectually and socially aware as the
most educated Americans was another source of fear and resentment.
The judge’s prejudices and character were attested to and summed up by testimony presented
in the appeal to Governor Alvan T. Fuller by William Thompson who made a motion for a
new trial. The case was tried before a prejudiced judge, with an aggressive prosecutor who
played to all the prevailing antipathies of the time, and before a jury chosen from a population
that largely shared the judge’s viewpoint. When Sacco & Vanzetti were executed, there was
good reason to believe that the case was just as much a lynching as that of the more than 30
Italians lynched in the nation.
In the fall of 1918, the union began negotiating for an 8 hour day; the owners consented but
cut wages accordingly. The unions played a large role in bringing the immigrants into
American life. Unions providing interaction with non-Italians, as well as helpful educational
programs through self-published Italian newspapers and regular radio broadcasts.
MUSIC & THEATER.
No Italian political leader cold arouse the immigrant’s visceral
attachment to their homeland as fiercely as a celebrated opera singer. Italian American
theatre prospered through the 1920s as barriers between immigrants of different regions
gradually dissolved. Immigrants who could seldom afford to attend the opera settled for the
“Opera dei Puppi”. As in Sicily and Naples, puppet shows were the cheapest and most popular
entertainment on the lower east side in NY.
The rise of Mussolini began almost immediately after WWI, when the chief concern
of Italians was pending legislation that would drastically restrict immigration from Easter
and Southern European nations. In 1917 Congress passed a bill restricting immigration over
Wilson’s veto and it became the law of the land.
Seven years later, Congress passed the Immigration Act of 1924, which all but slammed the
“golden door” and made it clearer than ever that non-Anglo-Saxon peoples like Italians were
not wanted. This was the time when Adolf Hitler’s “Mein Kampf”, with its emphasis on
the supremacy of the Aryan race, was attracting disciples. In the conviction that the
American people were basically Anglo-Saxon both racially and culturally, and should be
protected from the threat of being submerged by “a flood of racially inferior” humans, Congress
made certain that the new law favored immigrants from Great Britain and other Northern
European nations. “New immigrants”….Slavs, Russians, Poles, Greeks, and Italians….were
drastically curtailed. Great Britain was allowed an annual immigration quota of 65,000 people,
whereas the annual quota from Italy , which for years between the turn of the century and 1914
had sent in excess of 200,000, and now set as less than 6,000.
Facism arose out of the northern and central regions of Emilia, Tuscany and the Po Valley. It
was the regions north of Rome that benefitted from Mussolini’s grandiose public works projects.
The southern population was left to suffer high unemployment under Fascist law that prohibited
emigration. The Facists had devised a system of fighting mafia and “camorra” in the South.
Whenever a crime was committed, the local Fascists would pick up anti-Facsist or anyone against
whom they held a grudge, accuse him of the crime, and before a special tribunal, quickly
sentenced him. The method gave the world the impression that fascism effectively fought the
Mafia, while in truth real crime went unpunished and injustice flourished. Thousands of
Italian immigrants, with no real understanding if fascism were swayed by nostalgia, pride, and
a newfound nationalism. The battle between supporters and opponents of fascism in America
began in the Italian-language papers.
The inner conflict Italians experienced in becoming Italian Americans, and eventually Americans,
was evident in the changing character and image of the immigrants, as perceived by themselves,
and by the world around them. This conflict was evident also in the changing roles of women
in and out of the family, as well as in the effects of the 2 World Wars.
The great mass of the immigrants brought with them a cautious suspicion from their country…
a total lack of confidence in the institution of the state and the Church. That mistrust was based
on the papacy’s opposition to the unification of Italy as well as its support of Mussolini. The
problem was exacerbated by the dominance of Irish Catholicism which bore little resemblance
to the Catholicism practiced in the Mezzogiorno. Irish priests could not approve of a people
who so glorified the Virgin Mary and staged gaudy religious festivals that smacked more of
paganism than piety. Rather than provide the immigrants with Italian priests, the bishop sent
Irish priest to Rome for training. The Irish had attained power in the Catholic Church that they
had little desire to share with the Italian & all immigrants. As far as they were concerned, the
Italians who had sided with Garibaldi, an enemy of the papacy, were sinfully anticlerical.
Yet for all their anticlerical attitudes, the southern Italians were a deeply religious people.
Overriding all other criticism of the Italian clergy was the belief that the village priest sided with
the gentry. The initial failure of the American Catholic Church to reach out to the Italian
immigrant gave rise to the general impression that this Church was even more indifferent to
their needs than the Church in Italy had been. In contract to the formal Irish service the Italian
Mass was one of intimate and joyous celebration. There was also a difference in how Italian
and Irish viewed sin. For the Irish a mortal sin that remained unconfessed placed one’s soul
in jeopardy. The Italians in contract viewed God as an all-understanding, compassionate,
Italians rarely received the welcome with open arms although it was the policy of the Church.
Hostility was strong in neighborhoods where Italians replaced Irish & Germans. Few pastors
were equipped to deal with a poor congregation that did not speak or understand English.
Part of the Italian problem derived from the Church’s failure to recognize that far from being
an anarchistic people, the great majority of them were of the conservative southern peasantry.
It was this conservatism that caused them to resist changing their traditions.
CHANGING IMAGES OF ITALIAN IMMIGRANTS.
For the first time the woman of the house
was expected to contribute to the financial as well as physical well-being of her family. Women
who worked at home huddled near gas burners or wood-burning stoves. Little wonder then
if many of the women in the congested, cold, fetid tenements of New York, forgot the poverty of
Italy and remembered the sunshine, the scenery and fresh air. An inability to speak English
also isolated these women. If they went to work, it was often for an Italian boss or in places
where the workers spoke Italian. Many women did piece work at home that enabled them to
enlist the help of the rest of the family. Putting safety pins onto cards earned 8-10 cents per 100
cards, this too earned 50 cents for a day’s work. Often the women and children worked
throughout the day and well into the night. The average wage of a working woman came to
$1.04 a week.
Italian women, who had to conform to the strictures of the old society while living in the new,
paid the price of seeing their daughters move away. The clash of cultures created a gulf between
the 1st and 2nd generations. Many women rushed into marriages resulting in alienation and
resigned unhappiness. Yet women remained in such marriages out of fear of the community’s
reaction for their children and for economic reasons.
The Italians in America have been through eras in which their ultimate loyalty has been put to
the test, and their choice has left no doubt as to their true feeling. The sentiments of the
Italian Americans should now be known to all especially fighting in the 2 World Wars.
The rest of the book talks about organized crime and cultural anger and names those people
involved giving a brief life story, along with using the same format for Italian writers, the sport’s
world, Hollywood & show business, post war politics and business & continuing with writers
Italian Americans have made great economic strides since 1910, when they were the lowest paid
workers, making an average weekly wage of $10.50, while American workers average $14.37
Except for blacks who averaged $10.66. Yet even this was a great improvement for those who
came almost penniless and from towns & villages where they earned far less. The 3rd and 4th
generations have caught up. The changes have been spectacular especially in the realm of
education, where the Mezzogiorno ethos would have seemed to doom Italians to inferiority for
Italian Americans are marrying later and divorcing more. Inter marriage has increased, as has
the absence of marriage, e.g. living together. Intermarriage between the children of Italians
and Irish has virtually ended the old hostility between the two groups.
For the children of immigrants, the greatest challenges have been the unresolved problems of
Identity resulting from being Italian at home and American elsewhere, the inability of parents
to provide their offspring with any more education than that required by law, and a general
sense of inferiority provoked in part by anti-Italian prejudice resulting from the media’s
exploitative love affair with “the Mafia” and its various synonums. Phychologically, at least,
the immigrants were better off than their children. They had no identity problems, nor were
they afflicted with feelings of inferiority, no more than they had experienced in their native
land dealing with the gentry.
By 1990 the immigrants were scattered throughout the U.S.. The old areas, the Atlantic seaboard
Chicago, New Orleans, San Francisco, still held about 56% of the population. Arizona,
Southern California, Florida and the Northwest have seen an increase of Italian Americans,
but these new areas have not become Italian neighborhoods.
With the passage of the immigration act of 1965, which permitted relatives of U.S. citizens to enter
the country, there was a new flow of immigration from Italy. Between 1965 & 1973 the number
of immigrants waivered at around 25,000 a year. By 1974 there was a steady decline when less
than 5,000 entered. The 1980’s saw the greatest number of immigrants since WWII. The decline
can be attributed to Italy’s economic prosperity, which by the mid-70’s provided opportunities
and jobs at home. During the 1980s Italy was attracting immigrants from Central Europe and
North and Central Africa. By 1990 Italy had an immigration problem of its own, and the
government contemplated using the armed forces to prevent clandestine immigration that was
taxing its social services, creating unemployment problems and causing racial tensions.
The great Italian migration to the New World begun in 1880 has come to an end, not because
of U.S. legislation but of its own volition. With the absence of Italian born people to maintain
the Italian language and customs, the Old World aspects of the culture by the 1990’s are
fading and the survival of that culture in the U.S. is less likely. Time, new experiences, and a
new environment are changing the offspring of the early immigrants.