By: Paul Pirrotta
Today it would be very hard to find anyone in the United States who would argue that Italian immigrants are not welcome or have not contributed to all aspects of American life. It was not always that way.
I have chronicled the plight of Italian immigrants during the Great Arrival, who braved long journeys, prejudice, and endured enormous sacrifice for the hope of a better future for their families.
All of us can relate to the universal message of heroism in facing seemingly insurmountable odds. The families referenced, and the Hartford location, are but a microcosm of the broader experience of Italian immigrants in the U.S.
The first wave of Italian immigrants, those who arrived between 1870 and 1900, was but a trickle compared to the flood that opened at the start of the 20th century.
The U.S. Census Bureau reports that between 1901 and 1930, 14 million European immigrants were admitted into America, of which 3.6 million came from Italy, by far the largest group. Eighty percent of the Italian immigrants came from the impoverished South.
The Italian population of Hartford, Conn. increased exponentially over these years: in 1880, Hartford County had 180 Italian-born immigrants, by 1940 they totaled 20,000. Statewide the number went from 1,000 to 80,000. These figures do not include their children born in the USA.
The first Italian immigrants to settle in Hartford arrived from Laurenzana and Corleto Perticara, two small towns in the Province of Matera, Basilicata. They created a cohesive unit and joined forces to advance their interests.
They confronted and overcame discrimination, they took the riskiest jobs for little compensation and their living conditions were almost inhumane.
They were not welcome. On December 18, 1872 the Hartford Courant offered up the following editorial: “The Italian problem does not become any more cheering … New York City has received two thousand emigrants from the sunny land who had heard that in America one could get a living by standing in a corner … Their condition utter destitution; boys coming here to either beg or steal …”
The editorial ends with this warning: “It is to be hoped that the authorities, having discovered the problem, will apply some remedies before the evil becomes much worse.”
The headlines of the time reflect the environment encountered by our ancestors.
Working conditions were dangerous. Rosario Failla, pictured below with his wife and son, came to America in 1910 from Floridia (SR), Italy. Like thousands before him he came alone. He came to work, save money and return home.
He joined a large group of Floridians in Winsted, Conn., and got a job working on the railroad. A terrible accident led to the loss of both legs, which you can notice by looking carefully at the picture.
He wrote to his wife that he was “half a man” and that he would stay in America to die, his wife insisted that he return home. A friend helped him manage the long sea voyage back to Italy. He spent the rest of his days sitting at a fruit stand selling produce harvested by his wife and son.
Living conditions were spartan. Most emigrants arrived here, at least at first, by themselves and accommodations like the ones pictured below were the norm.
Here is a description of the living conditions in Hartford at the time.
“The buildings, usually four stories high, were, for the most part overcrowded. The apartments frequently housed up to 24 families and seldom had any private plumbing … Sometime as many as six families would share a bathroom … Front Street was the hearth of the East Side. Since there were no playgrounds or yards everyone from children to old men to women moved out onto the streets. It was alive and pulsating with action at all hours of the day and night.”
In August 1915 the Hartford Courant published an article which must have been quite an eye opener to the local population.
“The conventional Italian of the Vaudeville stage, with his air of good-natured poverty and his lack of intelligence was not copied from the Italians in Hartford. There are approximately 12,000 people of Italian birth or descent in the city. They are assessed for $10,000,000 on a grand list of $110,000,000. They own real estate assessed at about $6,000,000. The majority of them have bank accounts. There are about 2,000 Italian children in the schools of the city. There are a number of Italian youths from Hartford in the colleges of the country. Academic degrees are not uncommon among the Italians here!”
”The rise of the Italians is one of the most interesting illustrations of assimilation of American ideas by the foreigner. He started — in Hartford as elsewhere — as a digger of ditches, or as a peddler of rags or as a banana man. Now he is a banker, a businessman or a professional man with a college degree. And he is proud of his rise and makes no attempt to disguise the fact that he once worked with his hands. He no longer digs ditches: he hires others to dig ditches for him. The Italian day laborer in Hartford is in a small minority.“
The immigrants formed mutual aid societies, maintained their culture and social customs. Their children went on to insert themselves into the mainstream and became leading political figures, doctors, lawyers, architects, business owners, etc.
The Columbus holiday became the symbol of the contribution Italian immigrants made to a better America. In 1909 Connecticut legalized the holiday and it became the reference point for all Italian Americans.
Thousands upon thousands would show up at the local parades, politicians would want to participate, statues were erected to commemorate the discoverer. What a difference compared to the situation today.
Italian Americans face a very difficult challenge but one we must confront head on, and we must start with our own children. We must provide a balanced view of Columbus, and above all, we must explain what Columbus means to our culture.
The statues and holiday don’t stand for oppression and persecution, as argued by critics, but rather, they represent the courage and sacrifice of our immigrant ancestors, who made America what it is today.
Paul Pirrotta is the author of Courage and Sacrifice: The Italian immigrants of Hartford 1860-1960