The Great Arrival and the Dawn of Italian America

Poverty, natural disasters & war drove millions from Italy. The Great Arrival transformed the nation's cultural landscape and led to the creation of Italian America.

By: Tony Traficante, ISDA Contributing Editor 

The Journey

They scrimped and saved to buy a ticket to America and today they gathered in the village piazza about to leave everything familiar—family, friends, and loved ones. There was a group of families, single men, husbands, fathers, and sons. Amid weeping and hugs, promises were made to send money home, and return soon, or send for them. Many, however, would never return, and some would never see families or friends again.

But, in spite of the anguish of departure, they were upbeat, hoping to find fortune, and a better way of life.

The Italians were leaving out of necessity and desperation. Four million Italians, many from the “Mezzogiorno,” the southern areas of Italy, emigrated to the United States between 1890 and 1920. The southern regions of Italy suffered more significant hardships than the north, where there were better advantages of industry, education and quality of life.

Other factors contributed to the migration of the southern Italians, among them poverty, unemployment, a scarcity of farming land, high taxes, and natural disasters. During years of disastrous volcanic eruptions at Mount Vesuvius and Mount Etna, surrounding towns sustained enormous casualties. A violent earthquake, in 1908, rocked the southern part of Italy, creating a tsunami with such crushing force it decimated more than 100,000 Italians, and laid bare vast areas of Messina and Reggio di Calabria.

The Italians traveled from small southern communes and hamlets, going by whatever means available—train, bus, horse and cart, and even via “L’asino.” Arriving at a departing port, most likely Naples, the immigrants underwent humiliating fumigation of body, clothes, and goods, a document verification, then a cursory medical exam.

Steerage Class

Herded aboard ships, they were directed to third class, crowded “steerage” compartments located at the very bottom of the boat. The steerage “halls” were lined with rows of metal bunks stacked two high. They were primitive, unsanitary, and claustrophobic. Privacy was non-existent, and amenities were basic.

Bedding consisted of straw mattresses covered with a piece of canvas sheeting. A life preserver was their pillow. They were given a lightweight blanket, and a set of metal eating utensils consisting of a fork, spoon, and tin lunch pail.

Third class meals were meager and far from gourmet. There were no dining tables or chairs; the Italians made do by sitting on bunks, floors, or when permitted “al fresco” on deck. Traveling steerage class was a most unpleasant experience surrounded by unbearable conditions. There was sickness, cramped quarters, putrid stenches of vomit, urine, and whatever else, with little ventilation.

This article first appeared in La Nostra Voce, ISDA’s 28-page monthly newspaper, which chronicles Italian-American life, culture and traditions. Subscribe today!

But, even among the discomfort and sickness, the resilient Italians made the best of the situation finding time for enjoyment and a bit of diversion. On occasion, they celebrated a marriage or birth.  Then, there was always someone with a concertina to complement the immigrants’ songfest and dancing. The ladies passed time crocheting, while men played a bit of “briscola, tre sette or morro.”

The journey to America was a long and harsh one. After days at sea, most immigrants landed at the infamous Ellis Island. As they walked into the cavernous dark halls, fearful and anxious, they were “greeted” by immigration officials shouting orders. The Italians, not understanding what they were saying, complained, “che diavolo hanno detto.”

Their long, long day was about to begin. The primary concern was getting through the medical inspections. Chalk marks on the clothes of an immigrant identified his or her medical condition: H for heart problems, E for eye problems, L for lameness, and so forth. U.S. laws also required an intelligence exam to identify the “idiots, imbeciles, morons, or other mentally deficient persons.” Those with minor illnesses are held in quarantine for a day or two; others with severe medical conditions were put aside, and likely deported.

For the anguish of it all, Italians dubbed Ellis Island, “L’Isola Delle Lagrime”—the island of tears!

Having made landfall, those without sponsorship of family, or friends faced new concerns, like finding a place to live and work. They had no choice but to engage the services of a “Padrone for assistance. The Padrones were usually former immigrants themselves and were trustworthy and helpful; others were there to take advantage of the immigrants.

The Italians tended to settle and live together, forming communities often called “Little Italy.” They organized fraternal societies providing them benefits, stability, social interaction, and a basic indoctrination into the American way of life.

Many Italian immigrants decided to stay and sent for family member; as many went back to Italy. For those who remained, life ahead would be no easy road.

The Italian immigrants contributed much to the success of this great nation; their legacy is a proud and generous one. And, for the sake of our descendants, the story of our ancestors must be told, and never forgotten!

The successes of our ancestors are important occurrences in American history; they are undeniably part of our inheritance.


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