History of Italians in Chicago

Apr 07, 2015 1524

by Prof. Raffaele Di Zenzo


Italy is known as a nation of poets, navigators, artists and saints. In addition to the great names of Marco Polo, Christopher Columbus, Americo Vespucci, Giovanni Caboto, Giovanni da Verrazzano, we need to add the name of Enrico Tonti, who arrived by canoe at the mouth of the Chicago River in 1678, with Jacques de La Salle and the Jesuit Father Louis Marquette.


Enrico Tonti heard the word "Checagou" as spoken by the Iroquois Indians of the area to indicate the "wild onions" growing along the banks of the Chicago River. This word eventually became the name of the future metropolis on the shores of Lake Michigan. However, the municipal motto of the city of Chicago is not "Wild Onions," but "Urbs in Horto" (Latin for "City in a Garden''), given to the little village of Chicago incorporated on March 4, 1804, as a vision for the growing metropolis on the shores of Lake Michigan. Chicago Public Schools has an elementary school named in his honor.


The big wave of Italian immigration to the Chicago area began in the 1880's when a newly united Italy was going through growing pains of all kinds. Among the thousands of immigrants there was a little nun, Frances Xavier Cabrini. She was sent to America by Leo XIII, the great Pope of the famous Encyclical "Rerum Novarum" (Latin for "New Events"), in which he presented, for the first time, the concept of living wages, the sanctity of work, respect for the workers and their families, safe working conditions. The Encyclical was written especially against the Social Darwinism, so pervasive at that time.


In order to assist the immigrants, Mother Cabrini built 67 schools, orphanages, and hospitals throughout North and South America. In Chicago she built Columbus and Cabrini Hospitals. There is a little anecdote about the purchase of the lot for Columbus Hospital. She was not yet familiar with the American measurements of yards and feet. She suspected that the measurements were not right. The real estate agent was going to shortchange her of about 10 yards on each side of the lot. Before closing, she went back to the lot and, using strings, measured the size of the two rectangular sides. Her measurements were correct to the millimeter. Mother Cabrini died in Chicago on December 22, 1917. She was canonized as the first American Saint on July 7, 1946, and proclaimed the "Patron Saint of all Immigrants."


The Italians came to Chicago for the abundance of jobs in construction, transportation, rail roads, and the stock yards. They worked as barbers, tailors, grocers, bakers... Domenico Di Matteo built the food chain Dominick's (now Mariano's); Renato Turano built Turano Bakery, which makes the buns for McDonald's. The physicist Nobel Prize recipient Enrico Fermi came to the University of Chicago to teach nuclear physics. FermiLab, located near the Western Suburb of Batavia, is named in his honor.


The heart of the Italian community is the Italian Cultural Center in Stone Park. At the Center there are Italian classes for children and adults; cultural and social activities, showing of movies, such as "Sotto il Cielo di Roma (Under the Roman Sky), presentation of books, such as "It Happened in Italy, Untold Stories of how Italy Defied the Horrors of the Holocaust." There are also competitions in grapecrushing, done by feet, as it was done in small Italian villages... The Center also publishes "FRA NOI" (Among us), a monthly magazine as the voice of the Italian Community of Chicago and the umbilical cord with Italy.


From a marsh land by Lake Michigan, the small village of Chicago has grown into a huge industrial metropolis, where the Italian Community contributes in symbiosis with all other immigrants in the glorious progress of the United States of America.

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