“Whatever the individual does is recognized and American Democracy gives him a fair chance and reasonable opportunity.” Assemblyman Chas. Novello of New York City 1921
In this final part of a 4 part series examining the history and heritage of Italian- Americans, we will explore the importance of the family unit and the neighborhood to the successful assimilation process of Italian immigrants. In the previous 3 parts, we examined the background of Italian immigrants, their reasons for coming to America and the hardships they overcame.
In America as well as in Italy, la famiglia is a tight-knit unit. Respect and support of the elderly is very important to Italian-American families. During the early days of immigration, the father was looked upon as head of the household. The women ran the household, influencing the social and religious lives of their children, as well as making important decisions with regards to the family. One of the most important aspects of the religion of the Italians that was brought to the New World was the celebration of a patron saint: the Madonna with processions, fireworks and worship, invoking protection for the village. In East Harlem there were 50,000 celebrating the Feast of Mt. Carmel at one point. The Feast of Sant’ Antonio is celebrated annually in the same fashion as Italian ancestry did and still do today in Brusciano, Italy, by building a Giglio and dancing with it in the streets of Manhattan, N.Y.
Although the early Italian immigrants did not wish to pursue agriculture in America, many dedicated themselves to working the land as a form of economic survival. As they traveled throughout America in search of employment, some Italians would seize upon entrepreneurial opportunities. They converted swampy lands of Southern regions into fruitful soil. On the West Coast they grew lemons, oranges and other fruits. The wine industry was undertaken on a large-scale. The early Italian immigrants became suppliers of fruits and vegetables to large cities, making major contributions to the economic strength of America. Skilled Italians worked as masons, stone-cutters, mechanics, shoemakers, tailors, musicians and barbers, practicing their trades and crafts in the neighborhoods and cities in which they lived. Those who were not skilled during the early 1900s were forced to take jobs as common laborers and factory workers, finding employment in shipyards, mines, railroads and in construction.
Many became peddlers, selling fruits and vegetables. Some worked as waiters in restaurants and hotels. Little by little the familiar sight of Italian vendors displaying their wares from push carts were seen along the crowded streets of Little Italy and down by First Avenue in Italian Harlem. Small enterprises began mushrooming all over the United States within Italian communities becoming an important part of the settlement process. Not only did these small Italian enterprises play an important role in their own economic progress, but they also obtained key positions in the enterprise system that has made America what it is today, the financial center of the World.
As the Italian population increased, a leading Italian Newspaper, “Il Progresso Italo-Americano” in New York, was established. Its purpose was to help strengthen the immigrant’s ties with Italy. This newspaper was an influential tool, assisting the Italian immigrant in their assimilation to American Society. One of the largest and most influential Italian organizations established in America commenced in New York City in 1905, the “Order of the Sons of Italy in America”, which provided numerous benefits, meeting the needs of the Italians living in this country. The Sons of Italy were an immense help in softening the demeaning image of the “Wop,” providing psychological compensation through their Italian-American program, keeping alive a love for Italy, retaining the Italian language and stressing Columbus Day as a symbol of solidarity between America and Italy.
Let’s not forget the founding of the “NIAF”, The National Italian American Foundation, which not only preserves the rich history of Italian Americans but also praises their innumerable contributions to American society. The NIAF’s efforts have enabled many Americans of Italian descent to realize their dreams academically, artistically and culturally, while contributing to the tradition of their great heritage. It also supports education by offering scholarships and research awards for Italian-American students.
The Great Depression took a heavy toll on the Italian Americans, especially the men that worked in the construction industry. Regular employment was difficult to come by to support and feed their large families. The wives then had to take in homework just to keep her family afloat. It was easier for women to find work. Even the children needed to help out. If the wife was lucky enough to find work outside of the home, she still had to continue performing her household jobs, cooking, dish-washing, washing clothes and caring for the children. At the end of the day the exhausted wife sometimes fell asleep at the table until she went to work the next day. One thing for sure, as a rule, the unemployed men would never take over the household chores. The role of wife, mother and working woman was not an easy task during the early immigrant and depression years. As the Italian woman became more Americanized, “she took up mainstream values and fought for education and equality.” By the 1920’s and 1930’s, Italian Americans were beginning to be assimilated into the American way of life. In the 1940’s, there were still a large amount of unemployed Italians, but then the economy started to improve. By the 1950’s, Italian-Americans were able to move to better housing and sanitary conditions. World War II was a major turning point for the Italian Americans in regards to acceptance into American society. Improvement in the American economy, expansion of higher education, suburbanization and government assistance to veterans occurred in the post-World War II years. These conditions provided opportunities for the second generation of Italian-Americans. They made rapid progress by achieving the success of home ownership, which gave them respectability and independence. Out of all the immigrant groups in America, they were known to have the highest percentages of home ownership. Owning a home was also a step toward assimilation.
Since the 1890’s, the term “Mafia” along with crime and violence has been unfairly associated with Italian-Americans. This negative image has prevailed as public prejudice. The percentage of Italian-Americans that have been involved in organized crime is small in comparison to the vast majority who are hard-working, law-abiding, patriotic and civic-minded American citizens.
After the great era of Italian immigration, which began during the late 1800’s into the early 1900’s, Italian immigrants have moved steadily into the mainstream of American society seeing their children grow up as Americans. Many have moved from poverty and working class labor jobs earning higher educational levels, resulting in extensive accomplishments and economic success. The Italian-Americans have become respected members of their communities, contributing their talents and knowledge to America as a whole in the fields of arts, entertainment, politics and much more.
The early Italian immigrant, ingrained with the customs and traditions which were held sacred in the old world culture, in their attempt to transfer these same family values and traditions to America, created divisions and conflicts between both generations. The second generation found themselves straddling two cultures while developing their own identity. They became Americanized too fast, undergoing a substantial degree of change. They did not retain the language, the traditions or the customs, or accept the way of their immigrant parents thought. As the second generation became completely absorbed into the American mainstream, their lifestyle practices, their manner of dressing, and their choices of recreation and entertainment created a schism between the two generations. This culminated with much irritation, friction and unhappiness. Interest in the old world culture became minimal or nonexistent. However, the flip side to this is that there has always been Americans of Italian descent that would experience the best of both worlds, proudly retaining aspects of their culture and celebrating the heritage that their ancestors once brought to their newly adopted home while enjoying the best that the American culture has to offer. Today, we are all Americans, but Italian Americans hold a unique place in the building of the foundation of American Society, and they proudly celebrate both the heritage that helped them earn their place in this great Melting Pot and the position they hold in modern America!