My grandparents and their parents clawed their way to New York approximately 100 years ago. The girls, too, worked. The men were stone cutters and worked in the garment district. We came from the bottom of the boot, literally and figuratively, in Italy – from Bari, Calabria, Naples and Sicily.
I’ve studied the history of the Italian migration to America quite a bit, at least when I was younger and had more time to walk the stacks of old libraries. To be honest, it never moved me, even as a young kid living with 8 people in a 2 bedroom second-floor apartment in Queens. As I age, I am a bit more intrigued. Here are some passages I stumbled upon while reading a book about … forest fires … in the western U.S.
Domenico Bruno left his home, like many in the village, with the intention of making just enough money to help his family and build his own nest egg. After that, he would return to Rivara, if not a rich man, then at least with enough of a stake to buy a farm in the Canavese valley, with its good grass and alluvial soil, replenished by snowmelt from the mountains. His father was a farm laborer, an aging peasant no longer able to work, who lived off his small garden and help from friends. The family’s other son, Pietro, had been drafted by the military and sent to Tripoli. It was up to Domenico to save the family. He said goodbye in 1907, a year when 285,000 Italians went to America.
Never before had so many people fled Italy for the United States. In that year, one in four immigrants came from Italy, a country that could barely feed its citizens as it tried to move, a latecomer, into the Industrial Age. By 1910, the high-water mark of emigration, Italy had given up more than 2 million of its people in less than a decade. Most of them were from the south, from Naples, with its corruption and crowded tenements, from Sicily and Apulia and other parts of the heel of Italy’s boot – places where the soil was as tired and broken as the people, hopeless lands with dark suspicions. The north was considered more European, more prosperous, closer in identity and outlook to France, Germany, or Switzerland. One of the exceptions was the mountain valley northwest of Torino, the home of Domenico and Giaccomo.
Most immigrants landed in Boston, New York or Philadelphia, the docks thick with Sicilian dialect, which Domenico and his friends could barely understand. The cities were filthy and dangerous, and “many Italians were dazed by the complexity of existence” in these urban centers, the immigration commission reported. Everyone heard the story of a twelve-year old Italian girl, Camela Teoli, who was working in a factory where cotton was twisted into thread when the machine tore off a big part of her scalp.
The Rivara immigrants heard about a place in Arizona Territory with better pay … The company favored Mexican and Italian laborers, who were cheaper and though to be more docile than the Irish. … They maintained a three-tiered wage system: one for trouble-free whites, one for Mexicans and one for Italians. Such attitudes were typical in a decade when nine-million immigrants came to the United States, and one-third of the population was either foreign-born or a child of someone born from abroad. The Italian surge in particular angered those who felt the nation was no longer recognizable, had lost its sense of identity. And they hated all these strange languages spoken in shops, schools or churches. The Immigration Restriction League, founded by Boston Blue Bloods with family ties to the old Tories of England, campaigned to keep undesirable classes from entering the country. They meant Italians, Greeks, Jews and people from Eastern Europe.
“The scum of creation has been dumped on us,” said the nativist politician Thomas Watson. “The most dangerous and corrupting hordes of the Old World have invaded us.” It was not just politicians who attached Mediterranean immigrants as a threat to the American way of life. Francis Walker, president of MIT, called Italian and Greek immigrants, “beaten men from beaten races, representing the worst failures in the struggles for existence.” Another educated expert cautioned Americans against, “absorbing the excitable blood from Southern Europe.”
In 1880, the United States had barely 40,000 Americans of Italian descent. In little more than a generation’s time, there were more than three million, a wave that prompted calls to close the doors of passage to Italy. Aside from the Chinese, who had been rousted out of many western mining towns at the end of a gun or pitchfork, the Italians received, “the roughest treatment of all ethnic groups,” as one study found. During a congressional hearing on immigrant restrictions, a building contractor told the lawmakers he never referred to his Italian workers as white men. “No, sir, an Italian is a dago.”
Domenico Bruno and Giacomo Viettone were part of the crew sent to the St. Joe side of the ridge … By August 20, the boys from Rivara Canavese had worked 16 days in a row, in a location within five miles of what is known as Dago Creek. … “The Italians, the Hebrew and the Slav, according to popular belief, are poisoning the pure air of our otherwise well-regulated cities, the immigration commissioner, E.A. Goldenweiser, wrote of a prevailing view, based on a survey of 10,000 American households.
The Italians had a saying: “I came to America because I heard the streets were paved with gold. When I got here, I found out three things. First, the streets weren’t paved with gold. Second, they weren’t paved at all. And third, I was expected to pave them.”
- Today the country is not overrun with Italians, and Italy seems to have plenty of Italians left in it (though if they continue their trend toward lower fertility …)
- Today the country is not overwhelmed with Italian culture
- Today, I suspect if you did not have the luxury of examining last names, you might even have a hard time identifying who is of Italian descent.
- Today, Italian-Americans, while I suspect have somewhat lower economic outcomes than the overall population, are not noticeably poorer, more disruptive, etc. than the general population.
- None of the Italian immigrants to America owned slaves or benefited from slavery or even the Jim Crow laws of the South – particularly since the discrimination in post-bellum American not only was severely targeted at them (as the above passage gives you a glimpse of), but prevented them from freely transacting with others, namely African Americans, who had been heartily discriminated against. In other words, Italian Americans are poorer both because of the discrimination they faced and that faced by African Americans. Indeed, man of us who hail from Southern Italy are likely to have had ancestors who themselves were slaves, or something very close to it, and in the not too distant past either.
- Given the past injustices that my family and descendants have provably suffered, I very much look forward to receiving reparations not just from one country but two!