Italian Americans are residents of the United States who trace their ancestry to Italy or to other regions where the Italian language is widely spoken. According to the 2000 U.S. census, almost 16 million Italian Americans live in the United States. They constitute about 6 percent of the U.S. population. Most are grandchildren and great-grandchildren of the 3.8 million Italian-born immigrants who entered the United States from 1899 to 1924. Some are descendants of Italian-speaking immigrants from Austria, Switzerland, and Latin America. Others are themselves immigrants, including the more than 1 million who came to the United States after World War II ended in 1945. Two-thirds of the Italian American population live in and around major cities in the northeastern part of the United States.
Topic Links For This Page
The Joy Of Growing Up Italian American
Italian American Treatment During WWII
Notable links for Italian Americans
The Italian Historical Society of America
Order Sons of Italy in America
Italian American Timeline
Center for Italian Studies
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 medicine.
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 New England.
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 clubs.
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 years.
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, MA, PhD.)
THE JOY OF GROWING UP ITALIAN AMERICAN
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 had done.
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. (Author Unknown)
TREATMENT OF ITALIAN AMERICANS DURING WORLD WAR II
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 American internees.
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. (Source: Encarta Yearbook, September 1997)