There is a major city in the United States where the history of Italian emigration, very interesting and full of content, is undoubtedly embodied by a personality, universally recognized and appreciated. That city is Chicago, and the person who has been studying for a long time the Italian emigration and presence there, is Dominic Candeloro.
We meet him right after the publication of his latest work about these topics, and we thank him for his availability and his tireless commitment to represent the Italian spirit in Chicago.
Professor Candeloro, you are by far the one who knows more about the Italian emigration to Chicago and its area. Please tell us something more about that
Well, let me start with the end. In the end in Chicago about 7% of the population is Italian American. We're not among the top five ethnic groups in Chicago right now, and – compared to the east coast – we have not had a significant number of political figures elected in the local institutions: we never had a Major in Chicago or Governor or Secretary of State in Illinois with an Italian background, and indeed we've only had one State Treasurer of Italian heritage, Jerry Cosentino, in the 1980s.
I wrote a book called "Chicago's Italians. Immigrants, Ethnics, Americans", which has been published in Italian too, and it outlines that the early immigrants were mainly small hardworking businessmen who bought properties in the Loop (the center of the city), and as those properties considerably increased their values, this made them rich. They were basically business people from Genova, but then later in Chicago arrived emigrants from a great variety of Italian regions: for instance from Altopiano Asiago between Veneto and Trentino Alto Adige, Ponte Buggianese in Tuscany, San Benedetto del Tronto in Marche region (especially in Chicago Heights) ... of course there were many Sicilians, especially in the last migration after world war II.
The reputation of Italians in Chicago has of course been influenced by Al Capone, but this has been changing and getting further and further away from these days: anyway, we have tried and keep trying to fight these stereotypes. We produced a documentary called "And they came to Chicago", and then another called "5000 thousand miles from home", to explain the story of Italian emigration to this city and what these men and women gave to this country. A couple of years ago we did another book, called "Reconstructing Italians in Chicago": at Casa Italia we're trying to build up an archive of materials about that.
Also, very important has been the presence of the Scalabrinians fathers in Chicago, which had a great role in preserving not only the religion but also the "Italianità".
The proudest moment for the Italians in Chicago was the arrival of Italo Balbo, in july 15 1933. For the first time Italians were hailed on the front pages of the Chicago newspapers: the Italian genius was honored. Lots of them identified with Mussolini, both in Chicago and elsewhere in the US: and this of course made more difficult when the world war II arrived and Italy began an enemy to the United States. Especially the young Italians in Chicago felt the pressure of dropping their Italianism, including the language: many of them like happened in other part of the country, signed up and were drafted into world war II. This experience definitively americanized those who came home: the whole idea of maintaining the Italian language or possibly return to Italy just fell apart.
We probably became very homogenized in Chicago, except for that big emigration coming again from Italy after the war, that re-injected "Italianità" into the city and, together with the revolution of the communication technology, let possible a new Italianism in Chicago.
Still, I think that now the sense of the Italian American community is at risk. My grandchildren do not have Italian names, and unless we really work hard at it, they will definitively, naturally loose our sense of identity.
Are there any places of Chicago which are or were important for the Italian emigration?
There wasn't just one Little Italy in Chicago: there were a dozen of Italian neighborhood, and each of them had a church, usually a Scalabrinian church which back in the days were run by Italians, but now are run by Mexican fathers. There is a monument that was sent by Mussolini for the first anniversary of the Balbo flight, that is on the lakefront: it is a Roman column from Ostia Antica. Some people visited it, some people wanted to take it down, because they remember Balbo as an evil fascist: but some of us remember him as a hero, similar to the astronauts, that made a lot of Italians proud, and was maybe the least objectionable of the people in power during the fascism.
In the west side, the Taylor Street neighborhood, you can find remains of the Italian American presence: but the Hull House, for instance, is now a museum.
Talking about nowadays, at the beginning of december has opened a place that will for sure represent the Italian excellence and mark the territory: Eataly. It's a huge success, a lot of people over there. Many Italian Americans became middle class by opening their own small restaurants, maybe pizzerias, or other business related to the food: this is strongly related to the Italian culture, our cuisine, and in Chicago this is particularly true. For instance, the largest bakeries and grocery chains in Chicago are Italian.
Your most recent book is called "Italian Women in Chicago: Madonna Mia! QUI debbo vivere?" (Do you mean I have to live HERE?): you focus on Italian women and how they experienced the emigration to the US. It is very interesting ...
Yes, I've worked with Gloria Nardini – who will be in Italy to present the book in march 2014 at the Loyola University Campus in Rome – on this book. It is an anthology that focuses on the experience of some women in Chicago: it's surprising, there were so many women of accomplishment! In Chicago today women are at the top of corporations, they have achieved political important positions, even beyond what Italian American men have. The book also tells about the Italian women of Chicago that went to work, especially in the needle trade, and got involved in labor unionizing .
The book basically explains the hard experience of these women coming from Italy to Chicago. Think as yourself as a woman coming from an Italian village. No matter how poor you are, Italy is still a very beautiful country, it's the place where you are born, have lived, it's your home: and then think about coming in the hardest section of Chicago, in the 1880s and 1890s, with all the congestion, overcrowding, crime ... the newspaper daily discriminating Italians ... living in very poor conditions. It was a tremendous shock for all of them: a new culture, a new language, a new weather, a new society, and above all a very negative impact on their new life. Thus, the expression: "Do you mean I have to live here?"
There's one story that gives a message: it is about a woman who went to Hull House for some event, and there were fresh flowers for decorations, and she was very surprised, wondering if they would have come all the way from Italy. She just hadn't realized until then that there were flowers in the United States too.
You are also involved in Casa Italia Chicago, one of the main institutions that preserve the Italian culture in Chicago. You have several things going on ... what are the activities of Casa Italia?
Yes. The Scalabrinians fathers were doing very well in Chicago in the mid 1930s, with a lot of parishes, and decided to open a seminary, where they could train Italian American boys from Chicago to become priests. So the Sacred Heart Seminary was established in Stone Park: it's 17 acres big, like a city block, and today it has the original building plus two or three other buildings plus a large open area with a pavilion. It was and today is a fantastic physical resource: in the 1970s Scalabrinians moved the seminary out of our city, but held the property, and dedicated part of the space to an Italian cultural center (which is now a part of Casa Italia). In the 90s they definitively moved out from Chicago: at that point the Italian American community business leaders, led by Renato Turano (who is now a Senator elected in the Italian Parliament) and others, formed Casa Italia, which was meant to be a kind of Federation of Organizations and centralize the activities of the Italian Americans of this area in just one place, and they got enough money to sign for a long term lease of the property. The Joint Civic Committee of the Italian Americans moved there, and Fra Noi – the Italian American newspaper – did the same, joint afterwards by a number of other organizations.
About a year ago Casa Italia hired an Executive Director, Vito D'Ambrosio, who since then has been scheduling all sorts of events and activities: public conferences, celebrations, Italian language classes for students of any age, summer camps for children from age 4 to 13.
Casa Italia has a bright future ahead, and we do have a project I'm working on together with Loyola University, a link between the cultural stuff that we do and the academic stuff they do. President Michael Garanzini promised to match 500.000 dollars if the community could come up with the same amount, to an endowment that would create a permanent position at Loyola in Italian American studies. And so my goal is now to link the Casa Italia library and archive to an endowed professorship on Italian American studies at Loyola, and I'm spending a lot of time raising funds for this project. Actually, I think that this is the kind of project that should be done all over the country, especially in Catholic Institutions and Universities, to help maintain the heritage for the future.
About Loyola: just a few days ago you have organized a very successful conference at Loyola University of Chicago regarding Italian immigration and religion. The question you announced to be the drive of the conference is exactly the one we will ask you: what role did Catholicism play in the lives of the immigrants?
Well, the Italian emigration proceeded without priests for a long time. There was a serious risk that the Italians would lose their religion, or become protestant: so father Giovanni Battista Scalabrini established his order of Missionaries of St. Charles (also called Scalabrinians) at the end of the XIX century, and they did play a big role in Chicago, organizing each of the dozens churches they had. Then they founded the Holy Name Society, helping in several ways the poor and the children: never forgetting their "Italianità", and thus teaching Italian language, but also using American principles such as counting on volunteers, involving clubs and associations beyond families to make things happen. And so, while in an Italian atmosphere, the Italian immigrants were becoming American, at least in some ways.
At the same time, Catholicism was taking over Chicago: when the Italian first came, the majority of Chicago was protestant. But as being an Italian meant being catholic, and due to the massive Italian emigration, by the 30s the majority of the Chicagoans had become catholic. So religion and the catholic church did work both ways: it helped Italians to hold on their original catholic religion maintaining their "Italianità", but it also helped them understanding and then becoming a little bit Americans.
Plus, it wasn't so much church, but it was religion to be represented with the feasts. You would think that the feasts - with all the parades through the streets, with the statue, and people pinning money on it, and then fireworks and all those things - would be offensive to the protestant majority, maybe one of the things that Italians might drop for first: but then, absolutely no. On the contrary, they became one of the favorite things for Italian immigrants, who focused their activity and their identity on those "feste": and even if some of them aren't organized anymore, there still are plenty of them in Chicago and all through the country, big and small. They exist for religious reasons, ethnic reasons, even commercial reasons: a lot of people make a lot of money out of them, and it's all good.
Nonetheless, there was also a lot of conflict around the feasts. First of all, from Italy several left wing anarchists and socialist started to come to the US: and they were against the catholic religion. Then, sometimes there was competition for power and control between the church and the various Patron Saints organizations' leaders. But anyway, in Chicago even the emigration after world war II brought other Patron Saints traditions: so they keep on having dinner dances, feasts, processions: some of them are really modest, some are really crowded.
Which is the biggest religious feast in Chicago?
The are two biggest feasts in Chicago. The first one is for Santissima Maria Lauretana, the Patron Saint from Altavilla Milicia in the Palermo province: it is very big, there was a huge migration after the war from there, in addition of the pre-world war II migration, and that feast attracts thousands of people, around Labor Day.
The second one was invented after the war, at the beginning of the 70s: is the San Francesco di Paola (from Calabria) Feast, and is celebrated at Casa Italia campus. This one too attracts many thousands of people, also visitors from Calabria, pretty big name entertainers... it's a big deal. Other than that, on the Casa Italia campus in the summer every Sunday there's a different feast. Now, in this time of the year, the Casa Italia Campus hosts a Christmas Village that will have many events: a mass with Live Nativity, Christmas carols, bagpipes, a loto of fun for adults and children.
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