Printer Friendly Version
Few Italian Americans today identify closely with Italy. Even fewer read Italian
literature, follow Italian politics, or belong to organizations that promote
Italian culture in the United States. However, many remain in touch with family
or friends in Italy, and many more socialize with other Italian Americans in the
United States. Among themselves, Italian Americans still recognize cultural
differences rooted in the distinctive regional cultures of northern, central,
and southern Italy, and Sicily. The majority of Italian Americans belong to the
Roman Catholic Church. However, almost half of recent generations have
intermarried with Catholics of other ethnic backgrounds or with people from
different denominations, such as American Protestants, and Jews.
Italian Americans have made substantial contributions to American life in the
arts, theater, music, and popular culture. As restaurant proprietors and food
retailers, they have transformed Italian specialties into foods and beverages
consumed by most Americans—notably pizza, broccoli, spaghetti, and hearty red
wines. They have also gained prominence in the construction and garment
industries. Many other Italian Americans work in professions such as
engineering, law and
In most ways Italian Americans now resemble other urban residents of the United
States in their education, income, and politics. But Italian Americans prefer to
see themselves as lovers of life, good food, and strong family ties. Studies
show that Italian Americans are more likely than other Americans to live close
to their relatives and to socialize with them regularly. Italian Americans value
holiday customs that set them apart from other Americans, such as summertime
street festivals honoring patron saints.
Three-fourths of all Italian immigrants to the United States came from regions
south of Rome. Although the vast majority had been farmers in Italy, 97 percent
settled in cities in the United States. They often established distinctive
ethnic neighborhoods known as Little Italies. Many early Italian immigrants
settled in New York City and San Francisco. In 1860 New York City had an Italian
population of 10,000. By 1920 almost one-fourth of all Italian immigrants lived
in New York City, while more than half lived in the middle Atlantic states and
The factors that initiated the southern Italian emigration were mostly economic
and the shortage of tillable land was also a problem. Difficult conditions
characterized life in southern Italy in those times. For centuries the entire
Italian peninsula was divided into feuding states, with foreign powers often
ruling one or several states. In this chaotic situation, the feudal system ruled
the economic system, leaving the money concentrated in the hands of a privileged
few. The 1800's were marked by several bloody uprisings that would eventually
unify Italy in 1871, but the cost was the loss of over a million lives. Southern
Italy's lack of coal and iron ore severely hampered the growth of industry. In
the last half of the 1800's, deforestation, soil erosion and overpopulation made
a difficult situation even worse. Then, in the early 20th century, several
natural disasters rocked southern Italy: Mt. Vesuvius erupted burying an entire
town near Naples, Sicily's Mt. Etna erupted practically every year from
1900-1935, and the Sicilian earthquake of 1908 and its resultant tidal wave that
swept through the Strait of Messina killed more than 100,000 people in the city
of Messina alone.
Traditionally Italian men came to the United States before the rest of their
family. Most Italian immigrants never planned to stay in the US permanently.
There is even a special phrase that was coined for Italians: "Birds of Passage"
since their intent was to be migratory laborers. Even though about 75% of
Italian immigrants were farmers in Italy, they did not wish to farm in the US
(as it implied a permanence that did not figure in their plans). Instead, they
headed for cities where labor was needed and wages were relatively high. Many
Italian men left their wives and children behind because they expected to return
(and many, many did). They worked seasonal and unskilled jobs building railroads, streets,
skyscrapers, and public transportation systems; mining coal; or working in
steel, shoe, and auto plants. Many of the women who followed the men to the
United States found work in the urban garment trades, canneries, and textile
mills. Immigrant children often left school before graduating to help their
families earn money.
Life in Italian neighborhoods in the early 1900s revolved around family, church,
and small self-help insurance societies formed by villagers from a single
Italian town. Other key community institutions included neighborhood businesses,
such as banks, boardinghouses, groceries, and saloons. In later years, political
parties, the Catholic Church, and labor unions often sponsored sports and social
Many Americans of northern European ancestry regarded early Italian immigrants
as undesirable foreigners who were “not quite white.” Some anti-immigrant
activists feared Italian American support for radical labor organizations, such
as the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) and the Italian Socialist
Federation. Others associated Italian Americans with mysterious criminal
organizations, such as the Mafia or the Black Hand, a secret society devoted to
blackmail and terrorism. They demanded that Italian Americans abandon their
distinctive ways in order to become 100 percent American. Fear of Italians,
along with other southern and Eastern European immigrants, led Congress to
restrict immigration in 1921 and again in 1924.
During the 1920s and 1930s, Italian immigrants gained U.S. citizenship in large
numbers. In New York City, the children of immigrants preferred to move from
Manhattan to the outlying boroughs of the Bronx, Brooklyn, Queens, and Staten
Island where they could purchase a modest home. Many immigrants found
higher-paying work in skilled trades, while their American-born sons and
daughters sought work in corporate offices. Italian Americans also began to win
election to prominent public offices. Such politicians as New York City mayor
Fiorello La Guardia and New York congressman Vito Marcantonio relied on the
support of Italian American workers in vast industrial unions, including the
International Ladies' Garment Workers' Union (ILGWU) and the Amalgamated
Clothing Workers of America (ACWA).
Also during the 1920s and 1930s, the domination of Italy by fascist dictator
Benito Mussolini caused sharp tensions in Italian American communities.
After the United States entered World War II (1939-1945), the U.S. government,
fearing that Japanese, German, and Italian immigrants might betray their adopted
country for their former homelands, proceeded to classify even naturalized
citizens as “enemy aliens.” The section below, titled "Treatment of Italian
Americans During World War II", describes
the experiences of Italian Americans during this infamous
period of U.S. history as well as a memorial that was displayed in Washington,
D.C. in 1997. Although eager to feel pride in their homeland, Italian Americans
ultimately chose loyalty to the United States after it entered World War II in
1941 and declared war on Italy. The large numbers of young Italian American men
who fought in World War II perceived themselves as totally American in the
Postwar prosperity and government programs to assist war veterans allowed large
numbers of Italian Americans to leave their old neighborhoods for the suburbs.
By the 1960s the earnings of Italian American men, which had lagged behind those
of older immigrant groups, had risen to the national average. Similarly,
educational achievement among Italian American women caught up with both Italian
American men and other American women. The majority of Italian Americans
are now well educated and middle class. Italian Americans are still portrayed in
negative ways, particularly in popular culture, which frequently depicts them as
urban gangsters. But they prefer to emphasize the upward mobility and financial
successes of their families, achieved over several generations of American life.
(Source: Encarta 2004; Contributed by: Donna Gabaccia, BA,
I was well into adulthood before I realized that I was an American. Of
course, I had been born in America and had lived there all of my life, but
somehow it never occurred to me that just being a citizen of the United States
meant I was an American. Americans were people who ate peanut butter and jelly
on mushy white bread that came out of plastic packages. ME?? I was Italian.
For me ... as I am sure for most second-generation Italian-American children who
grew up in the 40s or 50s, there was a definite distinction drawn between US and
THEM. We were Italians. Everybody else – the Irish, German, Polish, Jewish –
they were the "MED-E-GONES." There were no hard feelings, just – well – we were
sure ours was the better way. For instance, we had a bread man, a coal man, an
ice man, a fruit and vegetable man, a watermelon man, and a fish man; we even
had a man who sharpened knives and scissors who came right to our homes, or at
least right outside our homes. They were the many peddlers who plied the Italian
neighborhoods. We would wait for their call, their yell, their individual
distinctive sound. We knew them all, they knew us. Americans went to the stores
for most of their foods – what a waste.
Truly, I pitied their loss. They never knew the pleasure of waking up every
morning to find a hot, crisp loaf of Italian bread waiting behind the screen
door. And instead of being able to climb on back of the peddler's truck a couple
of times a week just to hitch a ride, most of my "MED-E- GONE" friends had to be
satisfied going to the A&P. When it came to food, it always amazed me that my
American friends or classmates only ate turkey on Thanksgiving or Christmas. Or
rather, that they only ate turkey, stuffing, mashed potatoes and cranberry
sauce. Now we Italians – we also had turkey, stuffing, mashed potatoes and
cranberry sauce, but – only after we had finished the antipasto, soup, lasagna,
meatballs, salad and whatever else Grandma thought might be appropriate for that
particular holiday. This turkey was usually accompanied by a roast of some kind
(just in case somebody walked in who didn't like turkey) and was followed by an
assortment of fruits, nuts, pastries, cakes and, of course, homemade cookies. No
holiday was complete without some home baking, none of that store-bought stuff
for us. This is where you learned to eat a seven-course meal between Noon and
4:00 p.m, how to handle hot chestnuts and put peach wedges in red wine. I truly
believe Italians live a romance with food.
Speaking of food – Sunday was truly the big day of the week. That was the day
you'd wake up to the smell of garlic and onions frying in olive oil. As you laid
in bed, you could hear the hiss as tomatoes were dropped into the pan. Sunday we
always had gravy (the "MED-E-GONES" called it "sauce") and macaroni (they called
it "pasta"). Sunday would not be Sunday without going to Mass. Of course, you
couldn't eat before Mass because you had to fast before receiving Communion.
But, the good part was we knew that when we got home, we'd find hot meatballs
frying and nothing tastes better than newly-fried meatballs and crisp bread
dipped in a pot of gravy.
There was another difference between US and THEM. We had gardens, not just
flower gardens, but huge gardens where we grew tomatoes, tomatoes, and more
tomatoes. We ate them, cooked them, jarred them. Of course, we also grew
peppers, basil, lettuce and squash. Everybody had a grapevine and a fig tree,
and in the fall everyone made homemade wine, lots of it. Of course, those
gardens thrived so because we also had something else it seemed our American
friends didn't seem to have. We had a Grandfather. It's not they didn't have
grandfathers, it's just that they didn't live in the same house, or nearby. They
visited their grandfathers. We ate with ours, and God forbid we didn't see him
at least once a week. I can still remember my Grandfather telling me how he came
to America as a young man "on the boat." How the family lived in a rented
tenement on Thompson St. in New York's "Little Italy" and struggled to make ends
meet; how he decided he didn't want his children, four sons and five daughters,
to grow up in that environment. All of this, of course, in his own version of
Napolitano/English which I soon learned to understand quite well.
So, when he saved enough, and I could never figure out how, he bought two houses
in New Jersey. The house in Hoboken and the house at Long Branch at the Jersey
shore served as the family headquarters for the next 40 years. I remember how he
hated to leave, would rather sit by the window and watch his garden grow and
when he did leave for some special occasion, had to return as quickly as
possible. After all, "Nobody's watching the house." I also remember the holiday
when all the relatives would gather at my Grandfather's house and there'd be
tables full of food and homemade wine and music. Women in the kitchen, men in
the living room, and kids, kids everywhere. I have a lot of cousins, first and
second. And my Grandfather, his fine moustache trimmed, would sit in the middle
of it all surveying his domain, proud of his family and how well his children
He had achieved his goal in coming to America and to New Jersey and knew his
children and their children were achieving the same goals that were available to
them in this country because they were Italian Americans with that strong
Italian work ethic. When my Grandfather died years ago at the age of 89, things
began to change... Slowly at first. Family gatherings were fewer and something
seemed to be missing, although when we did get together, I always had the
feeling he was there somehow. It was understandable, of course, everyone now had
families of their own and grandchildren of their own.
Una Storia Segreta (Italian for “A Secret Story” or “A Secret
History”), a traveling exhibit examining the United States government's
treatment of Italian Americans during World War II (1939-1945), went on display
in Washington, D.C., on September 29, 1997. The exhibit's organizers, members of
the American Italian Historical Association's (AIHA) Western Regional Chapter,
hoped the exhibit would draw attention to a little-examined aspect of American
The United States entered World War II in December 1941. Fearing that German,
Italian, and Japanese immigrants might retain their former loyalties, U.S.
authorities imposed restrictions on them, and in the case of Japanese Americans,
interned even native-born and naturalized citizens en masse. Italian Americans
and German Americans affected by these restrictions were generally resident
aliens, legal immigrants who were not yet U.S. citizens.
Beginning in January 1942, German, Italian, and Japanese resident aliens were
required to register with authorities and carry cards identifying them as “enemy
aliens”; forbidden to travel more than 8 km (5 mi) from their homes without
permission; forced to surrender “contraband” such as firearms, radios, cameras,
and “signaling devices” such as flashlights; and subjected to an 8 PM to 6 AM
curfew on the West Coast. About 600,000 Italian Americans were classified as
“enemy aliens,” the exhibit organizers said.
Some Italian American fishermen on the West Coast were forced to surrender their
boats for the duration of the war, the exhibit organizers said. Others,
including the father of baseball great Joe DiMaggio, were restricted from
fishing in the Pacific Ocean. In February 1942 all so-called enemy
aliens—including some longtime U.S. residents—were forced to evacuate
“prohibited” zones, primarily coastal areas. These restrictions applied even to
those with relatives serving in the U.S. armed forces.
Some Italian Americans were arrested and detained. According to the exhibit's
organizers, the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) arrested 1521 Italian
American resident aliens between December 1941 and June 1942. Many were quickly
released, but about 250 spent up to two years in internment camps in Oklahoma,
Montana, Tennessee, and Texas.
Restrictions against most Italian Americans were lifted in October 1942.
However, some naturalized Italian Americans considered dangerous by the military
were forced to evacuate military zones (areas declared sensitive by military
authorities) after October 1942 and were not allowed to return until Italy
surrendered to Allied forces in September 1943.
These wartime experiences caused long-term changes in the Italian American
community, exhibit organizers said. Propaganda calling for all so-called enemy
aliens to “Speak American” led many Italian Americans to stop speaking their
mother language. Others Americanized their names or otherwise shied away from
their heritage to avoid suspicion.
The number of Italian Americans interned during the war was significantly
smaller than the number of German Americans (more than 10,000) and Japanese
Americans (more than 110,000). In addition, many German and Japanese Americans
were detained for the duration of the war, and many Japanese Americans
permanently lost their property and businesses. In 1988 then-President Ronald
Reagan signed the Civil Liberties Act of 1988, which apologized for the
treatment of Japanese Americans and provided a $20,000 payment to surviving
internees. No compensation has ever been offered to German American or Italian
Organizers hoped the exhibit would prompt the Department of Justice to begin an
inquiry into the restrictions, relocations, and internments, many of the details
of which remain classified. An inquiry was also among the measures sought in
legislation introduced by Representatives Rick Lazio (R, NY) and Eliot Engel (D,
NY), and Senator Alphonse D'Amato (R, NY) on June 26, 1997.
Encarta Yearbook, September 1997)
These pages are optimized for the resolutions of 1024x768 and 1280x1024
© Michael Quagliata 2001-2009
All rights reserved.
and information that appear on this site may be copied for
non-commercial/non-profit use only
except where the source is credited to a second party.
No distribution or other rights are
given or implied by their presentation.
The commercial use of images found
on this site is prohibited unless approved by the author.
Contact the author via