Poverty, overpopulation, and natural disaster were the driving factors towards the mass Italian emigration that characterized the years from 1876 to 1976. The greatest recipient of this influx was the United States of America (USA). In fact, the Italians form the largest component of Europeans that have migrated across the Atlantic to the US. Since they first arrived, Italian Americans have made tremendous efforts in creating America as the world sees it today. This research paper is a look at the arrival of these Italian immigrants, their eventual settlement and the contributions they have made to American society over the course of time.
Where did they come from:
The vast majority hailed from the former Independent and Sovereign State of southern Italy and the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies. This encompasses all of continental southern Italy from Abruzzi, to Calabria and Puglia, and Sicily. The majority were mostly rural peasants with very little education.
How did they travel?:
Between 1892 and 1924, about three-fourths of the immigrants entered the United States through the Ellis Island immigration station, built on a small island in New York Harbor. The original suggestion was to have an immigration facility built on Liberty Island, where the Statue of Liberty sits, but opposition from the Nativists, who did not want the Statue of Liberty “tainted” by the immigrant masses, prevented this from happening. (McLaughlin&Lightman, p.59)”Human cargo” became a major source of profit for shipping companies sailing the between the Atlantic. Cotton, wood, and crop cargoes were offloaded at European ports and immigrants would aboard the return trip back to America. The federal government regulated this trade by requiring shipping companies to scrutinize prospective immigrants and holding them responsible for “unwanted brethren”. The ship’s manifest, therefore served as a record of inventory of their cargo. It became the document of record for all individuals coming through Ellis Island. To this day, the original ship records are on display at Ellis Island museum.
Where they settled in America:
Coping with poverty meant that Italians had a long history of migrating to foreign countries. The 19th century saw more Italians migrating to South America as opposed to North America. Northern Italians were earliest Italian immigrants to the United States, becoming prominent as fruit merchants in New York and wine growers in California. Later, migrants came from the south and the communities and institutions they formed reflected the region’s fragmentation, with hundreds of mutual aid societies, being established based on kinship and place of birth.
The place of origin dominated the clustering of Italian immigrants in the US like the Neapolitans and Sicilians settling in parts of New York, and in turn some Sicilians settling on different streets as part of a deeper fragmentation. However, Italians enclaves, or all-Italian neighborhoods were a rarity. The Italians would dwell with other immigrant groups, such as, the Irish, the Jews, the Germans, and the Poles, while remaining in their clusters. Immigrants usually settled in different regions of U.S. based on there roots in Italy. The Sicilians took to New Orleans, the Neapolitans and Calabrians went to Minnesota, while northern Italians settled in California. The largest concentration, however, was mostly in the mid Atlantic states with 472,000 in New York and 200,000 in Pennsylvania in the year 1910. Other notable areas that attracted Italians were New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Connecticut, Massachusetts, Maryland, Illinois, California, Ohio, Indiana, and Florida.
To this day many Italian Americans retain certain aspects of their orignal culture. Italian food, drink, art, Roman Catholicism, annual Italian feasts and a strong commitment to extended family are a highlight of this group of Americans. Italian contributions to aspects of American culture are as follows;
The Italian influence on popular music in the 1940s and as recently in the 1970s has had a profound effect on American culture. Movies that deal with cultural issues embody Italian American words and lingo. Frank Sinatra and Tony Bennett are the two most prominent examples of Italian Sensibility and character earning laurels in the field of music.
Italian feasts are among the most popular of Italian American cultural contributions. Throughout the United States, “Italian neighborhoods”, or more appropriately termed as ‘Little Italy’, one may come across festive celebrations such as the well known San Gennaro Feast in New York City or the unique Our Lady of Mount Carmel “Giglio” Feast in Brooklyn, New York.
Italian feasts are characterized by elaborate displays of devotion to God and patron saints. The March 19th St. Joseph’s feast day is perhaps the most popular one. These feasts are much more than simply passive events every year. They embody a “typically Italian” approach to life and communities that prepare them take them very seriously. Feast ,or Festa in Italian, is an umbrella term embodying various secular ,religious, indoor and outdoor activities. A typical, Italian feasts consists of festive communal meals, religious services, games of chance and skill and outdoor processions consisting of statues resplendent in jewels and donations. These celeberations usually take place over the course of several days, and is communally organized, over the course of several months, by a church community or a religious organization. At the time of writing, there are more than 300 Italian feasts celebrated throughout the United States. These feasts are enjoyed each year by millions of Americans from diverse backgrounds. Italian delicacies such as Zeppole and sausage sandwiches are a major attraction.
A number of Italians named missionaries operated in America during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Examples include Present-day Arizona and the Wisconsin-Michigan area which saw Friar Eusebio Kino and Friar Samuel Mazzuchelli respectively. Being Roman Catholics, these Italians have a strong connection with the vatican back in Europe and have been instrumental in religious and social causes esp. in the case of abortion.
Italian style and Italian artisans heavily influenced the Washington, D.C.’s architecture while Constantino Brumidi is responsible for painting numerous frescoes in the Capitol between 1855 and 1880. Many of America’s finest buildings draw inspiration from the Italian style of Architecture which is a descendant of the Roman architecture that prevailed during the time of the empire, hundreds of years ago.
Italian Americans have also been successful at influencing American culture through crime. Alphonse Gabriel Capone (1899-1947) or Al “Scarface” Capone as he is popularly known, terrorized Chicago in the 1920’s and 1930’s leading a crime syndicate dedicated to illegal traffic of alcohol during the prohibition period in those days. To this day a cult surrounds the man, with many forms of art trying to express the man on canvas, film or through music. The Mafia is a resurgent theme, with hip hop artists, prominently the late Notorious B.I.G., making references to this feature of Italian, particularly Sicilian, culture.
Italian Americans have characterized much of holly woods fame. The most notable example in this context is the Godfather Series. The Movie based on a novel by another great Italian American writer, Mario Puzo, explores Italian American themes including emigration, poverty, social troubles and most importantly organized crime. The movie has been rated as one of the best movies in the History of American film Making by the American film Institute while the Internet Movie data Base went further when its client base of users from across the globe rated it as the Best Movie ever Made across the globe. The movie starred eleven Italian Americans.
The Rocky Series was another mania that gripped the US. Starring Sylvester Stallone, another Italian American, the cult of the “Italian Stallion” gripped the nation and continues to do so to this day. Although the majority of Italian Americans dont speak Italian fluently, a dialect of sorts has evolved , particularly in the urban Northeast, often popularized in film and television.
Italian American writers have also had their share with Mario Puzo (author of the Godfather), Don Delillo and Lawrence Ferlinghetti creating masterpieces with the use of the pen. Many of the works of Italian American writers have been turned into screen plays, most notably Mario Puzo’s The Godfather.
Politics and Movements for Change:
Italian Americans have also bred great politicians and social reformers. Politicians include greats like Geraldine Ferraro and Mario Coumo while Mother Cabrini and Fiorello La Guardia stand out as notable reformers hailing from The Italian American Community.
Italian delicacies have become a common sight across the United States with scores of restaurants offering Italian Food. Some Restaurants are fully dedicated to this special type of cuisine. The most notable dish “Pizza”, this amazing dough of bread with meat and vegetable toppings made its way to America with the immigrants and was such a hit that it led to the creation of one of the largest retail chains in the world namely, Pizza Hut. The Chain now has a worldwide presence and represents American culture and is a symbol of American power.
The Italian American Community has also been responsible for revolutionizing the business world. Bank of America is one such contribution of the Italian American community. The Bank is rated as the largest bank in the nation as far as deposits go and the third largest bank in the world. The Bank of America is the largest company by Market Capitalization listed at the Dow Jones Industrial Average. In 2006, Bank of America overtook Citigroup reporting a second quarter net income of $ 5.48 Billion. The Bank was founded by Amadeo Giannini in 1904.
Lido Anthony “Lee” Iacocca is another notable Italian American Industrialist who is commonly known for his revival of the Chrysler brand in the 1980’s when he was heading the company. He brought the company out of the pits of doom and revived it as a competitive brand.
Although most of these businessmen only accomplished huge profits for there respective companies, it is a fact that they have been responsible for creating powerful cultural brands that portray American culture and have become the symbol of America across the world.
America can be rightfully termed as the land of immigrants. American culture comprises of the amalgamation of a diverse people comprising Jews, Europeans, Asians and Latin Americans. However, the influence that Italian Americans have had on America is profound. From the world of business to the universe of fashion, from literature to theater and from food to architecture, Italian Americans have helped shaped America as it is today. In the 2000 U.S. Census, Italian Americans constituted the sixth largest ancestry group in America with about 15.6 million people or 5.6% of the total US population at that time. The Italian Americans continue to form one of the most dynamic and contributing society in America with interests in business, politics, sport and American culture as a whole. The way America and Italian immigrants have merged together, it can be argued that Italian Americans have found “Little Italy” in America.
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