Stefano Luconi (Professor of North American History - Universities of Padua, Naples and Florence)

Quando gli immigrati (in America) eravamo noi

Apr 12, 2013 9130 ITA ENG

The history of Italian immigration in the US is the theme of several interviews in this book. A social phenomenon connoting the presence of Italian citizens in the US in the past, present, and future, finding out more about it helps not only to understand Italian Americans, but also ourselves, the Italians living on this side of the ocean.

We discuss this with one of the most important experts in the field, author of many publications, Prof. Stefano Luconi, professor of History of the US of America at the University of Padova and History of North America at the Universities of Florence and “L’Orientale” in Naples.

Prof. Luconi, can you describe how the ethnic identity of Italian-Americans took shape over the years?

If we talk specifically about the period of the mass migration between the late 1870s and the early 1920s, the Italians arrive in the US with a parochial sense of belonging. They do not think of themselves as Italian but rather identify with their own native region if not even their village of origin. This can be easily seen from the by-laws of many mutual-aid societies they establish in these years. Most of these organizations have a narrowly-defined geographical base. They open their doors only to immigrants from specific areas in Italy and bar from membership people who are born elsewhere unless they have married somebody from that district.

This self-perception begins to be reshaped circa World War I: as Italy declares war on Austria and Germany, the nationalism promoted by the Italian Consulates grows significantly. Moreover, in 1917 the US enters the war at our country’s side, which help Italians identify with their native country out of ethnic pride. The heavy discriminations of American society towards them diminish. The Fascist regime will later build its consensus in the Little Italies on these early manifestations of nationalism. This does not mean that Italian Americans shared the Fascist ideology because they can hardly understand concepts such as corporativism. Rather, many immigrants and their children side with Mussolini’s regime out of ethnic pride, basking in the glory of the alleged achievement of their native country under the Duce’s rule. In particular, the descendants of a nation which is now considered a great power even by the US feel safer and more respected. However, do not forget that the interwar years also witnessed the rise of anti-Fascist groups in the Italian-American communities

The failure of the host society to realize regional differences also plays a role in the construction of the Italian-American identity. As for discrimination and prejudice, the Americans and other national minorities make no distinction between someone from Veneto and someone from Abruzzo – they are all equally Italian. This initial fragmentation naturally weakens the weight and influence of the Italian communities, that only really exist as such in the eyes of the outsiders. Inside they are so disorganized, that the Little Italies are in fact extremely heterogeneous and fragmented into sub-communities that are divided along their members’ regional or provincial origin. This is a consequence of “chain migration”: the “pioneer” immigrants call their relatives and friends, close and less close, over to America. Once these arrive, they settle near their predecessors, constituting aggregations of individuals who effectively come from the same place. Each Little Italy thus contains within itself a Little Palermo, a Little Cinisi and so on. There is a paradigmatic example: in 1927, the Republican Party decides to slate an Italian for Judge of the Court of Common Pleas in Philadelphia, in order to lure Italian voters. The choice falls on Eugene Alessandroni, from Abruzzo. Alessandroni’s propaganda, however, does not urge voters to elect the first Italian judge in this city. Rather, it calls for the election of the first judge from Abruzzo, and, as a result, the votes he gains are mainly those of fellow immigrants from this region, but not from other Italian areas.

There is also a further step in the transformation of the immigrants’ sense of belonging after World War II. Those who initially identified with Abruzzo or Veneto, and then discovered they were Italian, find out that they are white and of European origin. And this is already the second or third generations of immigrants. With the emergence of the African American Civil Rights Movement – which gains momentum in the first half of the 1960s – Italian immigrants and their progeny tend to join forces with other ethnic minorities (Irish, Polish, Greeks), from whom they have up to now distanced themselves, finding a common ground in the struggle to curb African Americans’ alleged encroachments.  

I am not speaking so much about the matter of civil and political rights: Italian Americans have no objection to fully recognizing the equality of the African-American minority. The problem is that of so-called “reverse discrimination”, which is supposedly represented by affirmative action, namely a quota system that guarantees preferential treatment of African Americans in employment and access to higher education, while damaging indirectly those who are not African American, including Italian immigrants. This leads to a new racial awareness on the part of the Italian Americans and all other white European ethnic groups. 

At the end of the 1960s there is a revival of the Italian roots – in particular amongst the third and fourth generations, whose members feel distant from the poor origins of their ancestors. These are by now perfectly assimilated into American culture in terms of their fundamental choices. In the marginal decisions in everyday life – for example food habits and clothing style, the selection of a car or a holiday destination– the Italian roots are proudly rediscovered.

One of the most important and controversial aspects of Italian immigration in the US is related to religion and the celebration of festivals and rites…

Precisely. Religion is an example of the legacy of the parochialism I mentioned earlier. The celebration of saints and processions are usually the replica of the same patron saints’ ceremonies back home. This still happens today: just think of the annual Giglio Feast held in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, which is basically the exact same as the one in Nola. Transatlantic ties are created that soon transcend the religious aspect in itself to strengthen more generally the ties between the communities – which take the form of twin cities and fundraisings in times of need, when the communities back in Italy are suffering as a result of an earthquake, flood, or other natural calamities.

This approach to religion, however, also has a negative side. Both the Protestants and other Catholic minorities in America see the experience of religion as the cult of the saints and their related manifestations as a form of paganism. In particular, the Irish are displeased with the Italian version of Catholicism. Italian immigrants thus end up being marginalized in the parishes. This is partly due to the strong rivalry originating in the hegemonic ambitions of the Irish, who controlled the hierarchy of the American Catholic Church long before the arrival of the Italians and have no intention of sharing their power with the newcomers. For these reasons, Italian immigrants often set up national parishes to escape the discriminations they suffer in those already existing, where sometimes they are relegated to the last benches in religious functions if not even in the cellars.

What was the role of women in a migration system initially made up mostly of men?

Women always play an important role. It is true that the initial flows are made up mostly of men alone who go to the US, and many of them intend this migration as temporary: the so-called “birds of passage”. But the immigration strategies are family-wide: families decide together who goes and who stays, and for how long. The women who stay behind manage the remittances sent by their men. When they too begin to arrive in America, they make a great contribution to the family, as well as raising and educating their children: they manage the board and accommodation of other immigrants. Furthermore, although their men are against the idea that women get work in factories because they fear gender promiscuity, they often carry out more informal (home-based) kinds of jobs that are indispensable to the family budget, in particular in the clothing industry. Some women, moreover, get involved in the labor movement.

How did the Italians feel about their right to vote, and what were their electoral choices in America?

At the end of the 19th century, immigrants have an attitude of profound disaffection towards voting. The reasons for this are two-fold. The first is that they believe their stay in the US is only temporary, so they do not apply for American citizenship also because, should they do so, they would lose Italian citizenship. Consequently, they cannot qualify for the suffrage. The second reason is their lack of electoral experience back in Italy: universal manhood suffrage is not enforced in Italy until 1913, whereas it was introduced in the US almost a century earlier. Many immigrants thus have no experience of voting. There is also the language barrier: unable to understand English, the Italian immigrants find it hard to develop an interest in electoral campaigns.

Things start changing in 1928, when Alfred E. Smith secures the Democratic nomination for the White House. A Catholic of Irish ancestry, Smith is the first presidential candidate of either major party who does not belong to the WASP establishment – both from the ethnic point of view and from that of religious denomination – that has hitherto almost monopolized the main elective and appointive offices. Smith’s appeal contributed to a significant political mobilization of the heretofore-lukewarm eligible Italian-American voters and lead them to the polling stations for the first time. Turnout even doubles between 1924 and 1928 in a few Little Italies.

This change of behavior comes hand in hand with a switch in partisan allegiance. In the beginning, the few Italians who vote side with the Republican Party, for three main reasons: for fear that a Democratic President would mean another economic crisis and increase in unemployment, as happened during Grover Cleveland’s second administration; for the association they make between the US Republican Party and the Italian Republicanism of Mazzini and Garibaldi; and because the Republicans, who are the party in power, exploit their control over patronage to secure the support of people who are inclined to barter their votes for a job or any other political favor. In 1928, the Italians go over to the Democratic Party. Their attachment consolidates few years later in response to the policies of FDR’s New Deal. “Balanced tickets”, namely the strategy by which the Democratic Party slates leaders of the diverse ethnic minorities for minor offices to win the support of their respective communities, bring out additional votes in the Little Italies. 

In the postwar decades, Italian Americans’ voting behavior undergoes an additional change: as they make their way up the social latter and become professionals, they feel once again they are better represented by the Republican Party. Their shift back to the GOP also results from the backlash at the Democratic increasing identification with African Americans’ claims.

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