Assimilation: The Early Italian Immigrant's Dilemma

By Miriam B. Medina

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"The early Italian immigrants were not welcomed in America; they would be verbally abused by name calling such as "wop," "guinea," and "dago," which resulted in a widespread mutual climate of open hostility, suspicion and distrust. In some areas, the early Italian immigrants met with anti-Roman Catholic, anti-immigrant discrimination and violence such as the lynching in 1891 of eleven Italians in New Orleans, Louisiana, even after they were found not guilty of murder. These aspects of American life influenced an unfavorable American experience among the early Italian immigrants.. Most of them had no interest in Assimilation.

The Italian immigrants who had come from all parts of Italy, setting aside their pre-existing differences and deep divisions, found the need to band together and fend for themselves in this new hostile environment. Most of the Italian immigrants settled in cities, establishing their own neighborhoods according to their native province or village of origin, almost independent of the life of the great city. They possessed a fierce pride and loyalty to their provincial customs and dialects. In these neighborhoods, they could be free to speak their own language, eat their own ethnic foods, practice their customs and religion as if back in their homeland, without any hindrance. These communities were designated as "Little Italy". Here the people followed the customs and ways of their forefathers. They would put their savings into Italian banks, Italian newspapers were published for their benefit, Italian theaters and moving-picture shows would furnish them with recreation. The stores would display Italian names, Italian priests would minister to their spiritual needs.

A neighborhood, where an undaunted Italian community despite discrimination, hardships and suffering in adapting themselves to their new environment, has always worked diligently and consistently , preserving and promoting their cultural heritage. It was a neighborhood where life-long relationships never ceased to be formed. So powerful was this sense of neighborhood, that many families as well as their descendants till this day would spend their entire lives living within its confines.

In America as well as in Italy (la famiglia) is a tight knit unit even till this day. Respect and support of the elderly is very important in the Italian-American families. During the early days of immigration, the father was looked upon as head of the household. The women ran the household influencing the social and religious lives of their children, as well as making important decisions with regard to the family. One of the most important aspects of the religion of the Italians that was brought to the New World was the celebration of a patron saint or the Madonna with processions, fireworks and worship invocating protection for their village. In East Harlem there were at one time in attendance 50,000 celebrating the Feast of Mt.Carmel. The Feast of Sant' Antonio is celebrated annually in very much the same fashion as their ancestry did and still do today in Brusciano, Italy by building a Giglio and dancing it in the streets of Manhattan, N.Y.

Although the early Italian immigrants did not wish to pursue agriculture in America, yet many dedicated themselves to working the land as a form of economic survival. As they traveled throughout America, in search of employment, some Italians would seize upon entrepreneurial opportunities. They would convert swampy lands of the southern regions into fruitful soil. On the west coast they grew lemons, oranges and other fruits. The wine industry from the grapes was undertaken on a large scale. The early Italian immigrants became suppliers of fruits and vegetables to large cities, making major contributions to the economic strength of America. The skilled Italians worked as masons, stonecutters, mechanics, shoemakers, tailors, musicians and barbers practicing their trades and crafts in the neighborhoods and cities in which they lived. Those who were not skilled during the early 1900s were forced to take jobs as common laborers and factory workers seeking employment in shipyards, mines, railroads and construction.

A large number went into the peddler business, selling fruits and vegetables, as well as working as waiters in restaurants and hotels. Little by little the familiar sight of Italian vendors displaying their wares from the push carts, would be seen along the crowded streets of Little Italy and down by First Avenue in Italian Harlem. Small enterprises began mushrooming all over the United States, within the Italian communities, becoming an important part of the settlement process. Not only did these small Italian enterprises play an important role in their own economic progress, but also obtained key positions in the enterprise system that has made America what it is today, the financial center of the World.

As the Italian population increased, publication of one of the leading Italian Newspaper "Il Progresso Italo-Americano in New York, helped strengthen the immigrant's ties with Italy, assisting them in their assimilation to the American Society. One of the largest and most influential Italian organization established in America which commenced in New York City in 1905 was the "Order of the Sons of Italy in America, which provided numerous benefits in meeting the needs of the Italians living in this country. Most recent is the founding of the "NIAF" The National Italian American Foundation, "which has devoted itself to preserving the rich history and heralding the innumerable contributions of Italian Americans. NIAF'S efforts have paved the way for many Americans of Italian descent to realize their dreams academically, artistically and culturally while contributing to the tradition of their great heritage. " The NIAF supports education by offering scholarships and research awards for Italian-American students.

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


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