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The Story of Italian Immigration
Last updated May 17, 2004

 

    The Story of Italian Immigration

    "Isola della Lacrime" (island of tears) was what the Italians coming to America termed Ellis Island. At the turn of the 20th century, between 1876 to 1924, over four and a half million Italians arrived in the United States, out of a population of only approximately 14 million in Italy. Unable to earn a livelihood in their home country, they became migratory laborers. Figures show that, for the period leading up to 1900, an estimated 78 percent of Italian immigrants were men in their teens and twenties, who planned to work, save money and eventually return home to Italy. Ultimately, 20 to 30 percent of these Italian immigrants returned to Italy permanently.

    Italian immigrants established hundreds of mutual aid societies, based mainly on kinship and place of birth. As large numbers of Italians began to settle in America they began to establish enclaves where they felt they would be safe from the prejudice and fears of the largely Irish and German communities that surrounded them. These communities are often referred to as Little Italy's and would be a mix of small business, bakeries, taverns and men and women selling breads and fruits from push-carts. Many of these communities would publish their own Italian-language newspapers, which contained news from Italy, promoted Italian culture and provided an outlet for frustrated new immigrants who could not yet fully understand English. L'Eco d'Italia in New York, L'Italia in Chicago and L'Eco della Colonia in Los Angeles were some of the main papers that were published.

    A vast majority of Italian immigrants were Catholics, but as they arrived in America they were dismayed to discover that the Catholic Church in America was dominated by an Irish hierarchy. This led to further tensions between the Italians and the Irish, Portuguese and Polish, many of whom found the Italian devotion to the Virgin Mary and the Holy Saints as distasteful. It was only in 1893, when the Pope became aware of the situation, that progress was made through the establishment of the San Raffaele Society, otherwise known as the Italian Immigration Society. The Society helped strengthen families and unite the Italian community by giving its members places to worship freely, educate their children and take care of the poor. A positive addition in both social and religious life, the Society was headed by the Reverend Father Gaspare Moretto for over 30 years, and it played a large part in easing the religious tensions between the Italians and other Catholics in America.

    Various other aid societies began coming to the forefront. The Sons of Italy was founded in New York around 1905, and by 1921 its membership had reached 125,000. Societa Italiana di Mutua Beneficenza in San Francisco, the Italian Welfare League in New York, and the Societa di Mututo Soccorso in Chicago soon followed. Through these organizations, Italian-Americans presented programs which attempted to acknowledge the cultural traditions of their "patria," or fatherland, yet glorified their achievements here in America. In addition, these larger organizations promoted a strong defense against intolerance and character assassination directed towards them by the often anti-immigration American media.

    "La Familiga" (the family) was at the core of Italian immigrant life, and often seen as the root of survival. As the immigrants settled in America, however, certain traditions pertaining to the family began to change. The condition of life in America was not conducive to the patriarchal culture of Italy and the language barriers served to give the children unprecedented control over the decisions of the families. Although the following generation maintained certain ways of life from Italy, they incorporated American values into their Italian culture by marrying out of their communities and moving away from the Little Italy communities.

    As war spread and World War II began to take shape, Italian immigrants, alongside those from Germany and Japan, were singled out for persecution. Many were arrested and detained after the implementation of the Alien Registration Act, which required all non-citizens to register. Italians that had settled on the coast of California were ordered to move inland even as another 1 million Italian immigrants went to fight for the Allies in the war.

    Yet, as the war ended, young Italian soldiers returned to America to find that things had changed, and for the better. The introduction of the G.I. Bill provided servicemen and women the opportunity to attend college, buy a home, or receive some kind of vocational training. As the G.I. Bill did for many, this enabled a significant portion of the Italian community to move out of blue collar jobs and into white collar work. Many began opening their own business and enterprises.

    Today, the descendants of those early Italian immigrants number nearly 16 million, according to the U.S. census of 2000; although through intermarriage, the number of people in the United States with at least one Italian grandparent is estimated to be about 26 million. The U.S. Census Bureau also reports that Italian Americans are the nation's fifth largest ethnic group, with two-thirds in white-collar positions in business, medicine, law, education and other professions.

    Italian Americans have made significant contributions to the culture and entrepreneurial spirit of America. From the songs of Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin to Costantino Burmidi's frescos in the Capitol dome and the vaudeville acts of Jimmy Durante; the Italian American spirit lives through these and many others who gave, and still give, a deeper dimension to the culture of America. The story of the Italian Americans is sometimes tragic, sometimes inspirational, but always compelling and colorful. It is evident in the prominence of Columbus Day parades, which mark the culmination of acceptance when all of America celebrates an immigrant holiday. With so many Americans claiming Italian ancestry, it is a testament to the value of the intangible riches that these immigrants brought with them so long ago.


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