In today’s world, being Italian can be a very good thing: you dress well, live well and speak with a sexy accent (just ask Paolo). The world looks to Italy and Italians for their opinions on food, fashion, cars and whatever else is cool. Sadly however, there was a time, at least here in the United States, when newly-arrived Italians were treated worse than animals.
This is a glimpse into some of the struggles that Italians had to endure in their attempts to make a better life for themselves in America.
Today Italians, like all European peoples, are considered racially Caucasian or ‘white’, but that was not always the case. When Italian immigrants began arriving in the United States in the late 19th Century, they were met with racial prejudice. These people, mainly from Southern Italy, were physically darker than most of the arriving immigrants from Europe at the time and were treated harshly. News clippings from the late 19th century describe these Italian immigrants as a sub-human race and it was not uncommon for Italians to be hanged by mobs in the southern states, especially around the city of New Orleans.
The first waves of arriving Italians were seen as ‘clannish’ by the larger population, preferring to stick to their own kind rather than assimilate. But language and culture are hard stumbling blocks to overcome, especially in America’s quickly growing cities, where competition for jobs and living space was fierce. Their Catholic faith also put them at odds with Protestant America, and grouped them with the other marginalized groups like the Mexicans of the south and the Irish of the north. It was also easy for local law enforcement to pin crimes on men who did not know English, or their legal rights.
Italian anarchists Ferdinando Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti were tried and executed in 1927 in what is a prime example of anti-Italianism. Due to the radical political views of these two Italian immigrants, they were put to death for a crime neither committed, despite alibis, evidence and even international public support. The trial is still studied today as a case study in civil liberties, as it is fairly obvious anti-Italian feelings were rampant among both the jury and judge.
This video plays the beautiful touching song from Joan Baez about Sacco and Vanzetti (Nicola and Bart), it also shows very interesting images from the era
The Struggle For Survival
Part of the reason the Italians were treated so badly was that they were seen as unintelligent, menial laborers. They were willing to work in deplorable conditions, especially on first arrival. Many of the first Italian fishermen of Gloucester, Massachusetts, settled there after years of doing nearly anything from working in rail yards and stables, to mining for gold in California. The determination of these first immigrants to support their families was apparently misunderstood as a slave or servant mentality. It is a theme that is still current today in America: the native residents accuse the immigrants of taking their jobs, underselling them by working longer hours for much lower wages. And apparently Italians have forgotten their history because this is also their attitude towards foreigner workers in Italy.
What observers at the time did not realize was that these industrious men and women were just starting out on the ground floor. This backbreaking and often degrading labor was just a stepping stone to acceptance and legitimacy within American society. The first generation suffered to make life easier for the generations to come.
Acceptance Into Society
While stereotypes about Italians and Italian-Americans still exist, the struggles eventually got easier for these first arrivals. The hard work paid off and eventually Italians started making themselves known in society, as well as contributing to America’s greatness. They became business owners and politicians, and eventually started moving out of the old “Little Italy” neighborhoods.
At the same time that Sacco and Vanzetti were undergoing a travesty of American justice, a young star of the silver screen was helping to reshape the image of Italians. The short-lived career of Rudolph Valentino helped introduce a new, more positive stereotype associated with Italians. Valentino introduced the ‘Latin lover’ persona to Hollywood: this image of the charismatic Italian male that is irresistible to women was certainly a step in the right direction. However, even Valentino faced discrimination and was once typecast as a gangster in his early career.
Discrimination against Italians was to see another wave during World War II, when thousands were sent to internment camps or were watched by the US Government. Many others had to carry special identification if they happened to work near sensitive areas, such as near naval bases or along waterfronts.
Once Italians gained a bit of legitimacy among the larger American population, the old derogatory and racial stereotypes disappeared. Italians were no longer dirty Neanderthals living in tenements. By the mid 20th century, Italians were firmly established in American pop culture: from music, to fashion, to cars. Even the sport of baseball, America’s pastime, had Joe DiMaggio as one of the best of all time.
Today even the bad stereotypes associated with Italians and Italian-Americans, such as the criminal element, reflect a touch of class. A century ago, Italian mobsters were portrayed as filthy monsters lurking in the shadows. Today, with movies like Goodfellas and popular TV shows like the Sopranos, it is sometimes hard not to like the bad guys. Now, the filthy monsters drive the nicest cars, wear the most expensive suits and live in marble palaces!
Times and attitudes in the United States have changed, but it still seems that every group that arrives has to ‘run the gauntlet’ at first and prove itself, even today. Italians have not come to the United States in large numbers since the 1950’s, but those that do certainly have a much easier cultural transition. Stereotypes and bad jokes aside, Italians today are fully appreciated for all their contributions to American society, both past and present.
By Justin Demetri
Sources For More Information