For the first time in over 20 years, Italian Americans finally have a comprehensive television documentary that embodies a large scope of their struggles and achievements as immigrants in America.
Obviously, 500 years of history cannot be condensed into four hours but a realistic and historically accurate version has finally come to light. Narrated by actor Stanly Tucci, this unique documentary describes the epic and fascinating journey of the Italian immigrants, their assimilation, their struggles, achievements, cultural clashes, and powerful achievements into American society.
The film starts with an interesting 1964 medical study call the “Rosetto Effect”. Rosetto is a small town in rural Pennsylvania that boasts a large Italian American population. Rosetto made national news back then due to a study that was revealed that Italian Americans had a very low death rate from heart attacks. Their diet and exercise were no different from any other American, but the community was different than others. The study revealed that it was a cohesive society. It bonded together and the citizens felt emotionally safe within their Italian American community, hence, the very low death rate. Fifty years later, that has obviously changed, but it did say something about the Italian American community and its cohesiveness and strength of family and society.
There was an expression in Italy that life in America weakened the Italian family because Americans did not know how to live family life. Many early immigrants chose to leave and return to Italy. Italy, itself, had a very complex history. Prior to 1860, there was no Italy, just provinces and the Southern Provinces were under Spanish domain. In 1860, Garibaldi came along to unify Italy. Unfortunately, instead of being under Spanish domain, now the Northern Provinces became the oppressors for the Southern provinces. The result was crushing poverty, worse than that the Southern Italians had ever experienced.
By 1870, the first wave of Italian immigrants began to arrive to the United States, mostly Sicilians to the port of New Orleans. They would replace the African slaves who were emancipated after the US Civil War. New Orleans was the first Italian American community in the United States. They were a tight-knit Sicilian community and growing in numbers due to the potential job opportunities.
In 1891, one of the darkest periods in Italian American history occurred and it happened in New Orleans. The chief of police was killed. As he lay dying, he accused the “Italians” or the “dagos” as they were referred to, as killing him. The Italian immigrant was considered dark and criminal and for the first time, the word “mafia” was used to describe their secret criminal society. Eleven Italian Americans were charged with his murder but acquitted. The masses in New Orleans were not satisfied with this verdict and they stormed the jail cell where the defendants were being held. They capture 11 innocent Italian men and lynched them. It was the largest mass lynching in U.S. history. In the end, no one ever knew who killed the chief of police.
By 1900, the second industrial revolution was in motion and over three million Italian immigrants arrived, mostly from Southern Italy and settled in the industrial cities of the United States, mainly on the East Coast. They lived in terrible conditions, working in dangerous situations, and saving every cent in order to go back to Italy to buy a small piece of land or house. They would sometimes travel back and forth 8 or 9 times. They would risk their lives and leave families behind for years at a time. They would live in enclaves, or what we would be called “Little Italy’s”. They never trusted outsiders or authoritative figures because of their experiences back in Italy from foreign invaders and kept to themselves.
Unfortunately, in every community there was the criminal element, as in all immigrant communities these types of people preyed on their own kind. This one was the “Black Hand” or “La Mano Nera”. They extorted money from businesses, blackmailed their own people, kidnapping their children, bombed their businesses and conducted every kind of criminal activity. This was the criminal organization prior to the mafia in America. It would take a police officer of Italian descent, along with other police officers who spoke Italian dialects to infiltrate and fight these criminals. That police officer was named Joe Petrosino, from Padula, a small village near Salerno. Petrosino formed the “Italian Squad”, which was a unit of law enforcers who would fight these criminals who preyed on their own countrymen. Unfortunately in 1909, Petrosino would be assassinated in Palermo while on assignment. He would be the first and only police officer killed on foreign soil in the line of duty in New York City history.
The documentary also describes the Italian Americans in San Francisco. There was a thriving community in that city. In 1904, a son of Italian immigrants, Amedeo Giannini founded the Bank of Italy. Two years later the great earthquake of San Francisco struck. It was Giannini who believed in loaning money to the Italian Americans on just a handshake to rebuild their homes and in turn, rebuild the city. Giannini made a tremendous contribution in how modern banking is conducted. The bank he founded is now named the Bank of America and one of the largest banks in the world.
As Italians in America began to build their lives in this country, they faced everyday obstacles, stigmatized by their cultural expressions, ridiculed by their ways, whether it was food, the way they spoke or the way they practiced their religion. Their children had loyalty conflicts. Would they Americanize or stay true to their Italian heritage and culture? Would they assimilate? These were the issues that they had to overcome. It would take several generations to resolve these conflicts and to establish what would remain important to them, whether it be religion, culture or even language.
Italian-Americans, in the early 20th century were the lowest level of the working class. They were exploited beyond belief. However, it was time they took to the streets and demanded their rights. The Italian labor movement was born. They led massive strikes and demanded comparable wages and security. In 1912, in Lawrence, Massachusetts, they led the most successful strike in the history of the United States that finally lead to changes in workers’ rights.
In the 1920’s, the United States imposed immigration quotas, limiting the number of Italians who could immigrate. Ethnic prejudice was becoming a way of life. Italians were associated with crime, radicalism and anarchism. In 1921 two Italian anarchist, Sacco and Vanzetti were arrested and indicted on murder. Although they claimed their innocence, they were found guilty and sentenced to death; they became the “cause celebre” for Italian Americans. They were symbolic for all Italian American against ethnic prejudice. It was the largest outcry the world had ever seen and it was the first time Italian Americans gave a voice to the social injustice that they were experiencing.
By the 1930’s, Italians were firmly part of the working class system, although at the lowest level. There was another element that was emerging within the culture, the mafia or organized crime. It was a means of making money and rising above the working class. It was also a way of not having to deal with the ethnic prejudices and entry into legitimate businesses that was biased against Italian Americans. In the 1930’s, over 2 million Italians had immigrated but were still not considered a part of mainstream America. It would take World War II and the dedication and lives of many Italian Americans to prove to America and Americans that they were loyal Americans.
During those years, Italians in America were still very much in touch with Italy. They were well aware of what was going on, specifically with information provided by the Italian language press in the United States run by Generoso Pope, the first Italian American millionaire in the United States. Generoso Pope, an Italian immigrant, arrived to the United States as a young boy from a small town in the Campania region. Through hard work and good fortune, he was able to amass a great fortune and able to buy the Italian language newspaper, Il Progresso. In doing so, he promoted Mussolini’s regime and also became a close advisor to President Roosevelt. However, when the United States enter the War, Pope had to change his stance on Mussolini in order to keep his relationship with Roosevelt and show the United States that the Italians in America were loyal to this country. When World War II was declare, Italian American young men showed their loyalty by fighting for the United States. They felt a deep patriotism and wanted to defend their adopted country. One and a half million Italian Americans fought for this country in Europe including Italy and in the Pacific against Japan.
Unfortunately, the United Stated did not see it that way. In 1941, President Roosevelt declared that those Italians who were not citizens were considered Enemy Aliens and had to register as such. The humiliation was devastating to those Italians who had lived here for decades, raised their families and called America home. The final insult was when Italians in America were ordered to evacuate their home and interred into camps. It was not until October 12, 1942 that the government reversed the order; however, the damage was done. They never spoke of this injustice even after the order was reversed. In fact, it became one of the largest secrets in the history of the Italians in the United States.
Another issue was prevalent particularly during the war years. It was the idea of not speaking Italian. Italian was the “enemy’s language”. Since the United States was at war with Italy, it was frowned upon to speak Italian. Italians were not only encouraged but pressured into only speaking English and to teach their children to speak English.
After the war, the Italian Americans wanted to live the “American Dream”. The wanted the suburban life, education, and free of prejudices. They began to have successes many areas including the music industry, television, and movies. Between 1947 and 1954, 25 Italian Americans had chart-topping hits on the radio. Italians used their culture of the “bel canto” tradition which helped them in their singing success. Singers such as Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin became the embodiment of American culture.
More Americans were embracing Italian food and culture which were going mainstream; however, many Italian Americans still remained in Italian enclaves. They never wanted to venture out for fear of discrimination. Children were discouraged from going to college and chose blue-collar professions instead of advancing themselves. The idea was to always stay close to the family out of fear of prejudice that followed Italian Americans wherever they went.
In the 1950’s and ‘60’s, the scourge of the Italian Americans was coming to a head. There was a crackdown on organized crime, the Mafia. For Italian Americans, it was fact of life and a stain on their heritage. The stereotype was very hurtful to them. It permeated all aspects of their lives. They could not get away from it. During that time, there was a Senate probe on organized crime. Many of the organized crime leaders refused to answer questions except one who finally exposed the Italian American Mafia, known as “La Cosa Nostra”.
Over the years, Italian Americans were even more determined to rid themselves of the stereotype and achieve much more. There were the success stories. Antonin Scalia, who in 1986, was appointed to the United States Supreme Court. Geraldine Ferraro, the first woman and first Italian American nominated as Vice President in 1984. Then there was Mario Cuomo, the most eloquent of all the Italian Americans. They had put all their hopes and dreams of him becoming the first Italian American President. Unfortunately, it was not to be. He decided in 1991, that he did not want to run for the Presidency. It dashed all hopes for Italian Americans that they would someday have an Italian American as President of the United States.
Finally, the last enclaves were rapidly disappearing. They were not made for Italian Americans to stay in them. They were just stops before one could move on to a better life. By the end of the 20th century, Italian American identity has been defined in popular culture, in the movies, and television. There was no longer an authenticity of our culture or heritage. However, the tide began to turn. A good number of Italian Americans began embracing their roots and are shedding the stereotypes. They are redefining what it means to be Italian American by re-establishing their authentic culture, whether it is through food, language, music and travel to find one’s roots and seeking to connect with their family’s past. They are Americans of Italian heritage and can embrace what their ancestors had to give up in order to survive in this country. Today, Italian Americans have come full circle and can be proud and have dignity in their heritage and can define it without its prejudices.
Italian Americans (PBSAmerica) -Firts episode – La famiglia