Assimilation: The Early Italian Immigrant's Dilemma

By Miriam B. Medina

"Between 1881 and 1917 about four million Italians arrived. By 1910, the Italian-born population of the United States was 1,343,070. The Italian peasant was the poorest in Europe. In 1905, 323,000 Italians were ill of malaria and thousands of them died. There were also periodic earthquakes that wiped out entire towns especially in Calabria. During the years 1906, 1907, 1913 and 1914, the Italian emigrants to the United States would exceed approximately 250,000 a year."

Everyone was looking for a piece of the action as America expanded. Steamship companies, railroad companies, state immigration bureaus, as well as industrial firms and private enterprises, turned to workers in Europe. Ruthless businessmen hired unscrupulous agents to work on commission. They were sent to Europe with a collection of enticing pamphlets, advertisements, drawings and pictures. "Remember promise them anything, just get them over here. There's big bucks in it for you."

The commissioned agents, the "Smooth Operators," exploited the vulnerability of the masses. These operators promised wealth that would prove an illusion. But to the oppressed people of Europe, the hope of economic betterment for themselves and their children was the promise of a life they had long dreamed of. The smooth operator convinced the downtrodden that land was cheap, that jobs were plentiful and that some day they could return to their home country as wealthy land owners.

Between 1881 and 1917 four million Italians , mostly males, entered the United States. Many intended to return to their homeland after making enough money to establish a higher standard of living in Italy for themselves and their families. The industrialization of Northern Italy, which established a higher standard of living, slowed the emigration from this area. In contrast, the people from Sicily and the southern provinces struggled economically at the end of the 19th century. The land was not looked after properly; little was done to make the soil productive. Parasites destroyed most of the vineyards in southern Italy. The Sicilians did not have the opportunity to climb any economic ladder. Instead, they were reduced to sharecroppers, and they were obligated to stay until they paid off their debts.

"Labor agents, the notorious 'padroni,' enriched themselves at the expense of the "immigrants." The padroni [the loan sharks or flesh peddlers] hired gangs of workmen, charged a heavy commission for the service, and advanced passage money for the journey from Italy, also at a fancy price" .The padroni hooked up with railroad companies, factories, farmlands etc., providing work for the gangs of immigrants while charging an exorbitant commission for supplying the labor-power here in the United States. "The padrone has been very useful also, all in all, to the Italian laborer. The immigrant, in his ignorance of the language, could not find employment and could not look after himself in any way if he did. The padrone steps in and finds him employment, boards and lodges him while at work, collects his wages, writes his letters, acts as his banker, and engineers any and all dealings which the laborer may have with the concern for which he may be working. The padrone has therefore served a very useful purpose to both employer and laborer, and also to the public."

However, many of the padroni were not scrupulous in dealing with their own countrymen. They were ignorant men themselves trying to make as much money as they could out of the ignorance of others. Since the early Italian immigrants could not speak the English language and did not know the conditions of labor in the United States, they depended with a blind belief on the "Boss" for all their needs. It was on this lack of knowledge and dependence where the power of the padrone would rest. The Camorritti of Naples were members of a secret organization, at one time more powerful than the police, who subsisted largely by extorting money from the peasants. "The bulk of Italian immigration came from the southern and perhaps least favorably known provinces, Abruzzi, Avelliuo, Basilicata, Sicily, Naples, and Calabria. Most of them were of the peasant class and accustomed to hard work and meager fare, generally illiterate, but of a childlike mind and imagination, quick to forget, and easily led astray by schemers. The majority were booked for New York." (a) These early immigrants were hired out to whoever were willing to pay the padrone's exorbitant prices, of which he would pay the laborer the least amount of money in return for his hard work. If anyone dared to protest, they would be discharged, threatened with heavy penalties or severely abused. The women suffered the most, since numerous of them were placed in houses of prostitution and never heard of again. Even the children were sent out to the streets to find work in order to add to the coffers of the "Boss." The Italian laborer submitted to these extortions only because there were no other choices offered to him , since he was in a strange country with a strange language, and to complain was useless. Besides, who then would he complain to? Did anyone care? So it was either to continue working for the "Boss" or starve.

Upon being released from the Ellis Island processing, the newly Italian immigrants would fan out to the areas of New York City that consisted of crowded and neglected tenements in the lower part of Manhattan. Immigrants had to live in damp smelly cellars or attics, or up to six or 10 people, men, woman and children packed into crowded single rooms where "filth for so many years reigned undisturbed and pestilence wiping out hundreds of lives annually. These tenement buildings were dangerous firetraps, as well as a breeding place for murderous rodents that would kill babies in their cribs. The poor did not have the luxury of water, especially if they lived on the upper level. Water had to be carted from the fire hydrant in the street and carted upstairs. The Italian immigrants would come to the dumps to search for rags. They would bring their food with them, squatting down in the filth to eat their lunch.

From the hills and vineyards of Lombardy and Tuscany, from the mountains of Abruzzi, from the farms of Basilicata and the mines of Sicily, they all came with the one common purpose of getting better paid work. Italian immigrants tended to do whatever they had to do, accepting the jobs that other Americans didn't want to do, just so they could support themselves. There were many that were not as fortunate to find steady work that returned back to their native Italy discouraged and with empty pockets. These Italian immigrants, tricked by the stories told to them in Europe about plentiful work and big wages, in America, were induced to leave their native land, only to find suffering and hunger as a result of the deception told by the steamship agents.

A reporter from the Brooklyn Daily Eagle gives the following description in his article "Italian Immigration" dated August 9, 1888.

"Three hundred and fifty disappointed Italians who came to this country with the expectation of obtaining steady work at high wages, left for home. Tricked on both sides of the water, it does not take them long to find out that America is by no means the labor paradise they expected to find it."

Another report is also given in the article "Coming Here To Suffer" dated January 24, 1900. "The old fable that the streets in America are paved with gold, which has lured many an immigrant here only to endure cold and hunger, is being repeated in a new form and is likely to throw upon our town an army of ignorant foreigners this summer, for whom there is no possibility of finding work. The new bait is not golden paved streets, but the prospect of work on the rapid transit tunnel."

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Website: The History
Article Name: Assimilation: The Early Italian Immigrant's Dilemma
Author  Miriam B. Medina


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