The Rise of Italian America

Italian immigrants toiled to change their lives, and in the process, started a new way of life.

By: Tony Traficante. ISDA Contributing Editor

…and we cannot understand
All the ways that God would lead us
to that blessed Promised Land

Thousands poured through the gates of Ellis Island, hopes high, as they left behind years of misery and poverty. Most were farmers from the southern regions of Italy where the land was rugged and harsh.

As they relocated mostly along America’s coastal areas, they united with family, or friends in Italian communes. Here they felt secure among their own, speaking their dialect, eating their food and free to practice their customs, without fear of ridicule.

Living in an Italian immigrant community was a unique and unforgettable experience. I have many fond memories, and yes, a few bad ones, too. The remarkable thing was that families and “paesani,” bonded, remained devoted, did things together, and helped one another. It was in this community of friends where one learned to share, work together, and understand other’s customs.

The neighborhood sat on the border of the city, near “la Campagna,” the countryside, where moms went in search of “cicoria,” dandelions. Carrying their shopping bags, with twisted rope-like handles and armed with small paring knives, they plucked those delicious greens, that would find their way in a pot, with meatballs, or beans. (Can you believe the mericani” called them weeds?)

There was a mix of mostly Southern Italians in the area. Each spoke a different dialect, the consequence of leaving Italy before Mussolini nationalized the language. We were Basilicata, Calabrese, Siciliano, Napolitano and even a few northern Italians, “i Furlani,” who insisted theirs was not a dialect but a language of its own! They were right, to a point, because it is a fact that all dialects were once separate Italian languages.

The immigrants joined fraternal associations, for solidarity and a “Diario,” which offered limited hospital, sick and burial benefits. It was, also, here the immigrants learned about and embraced the American way. It became part of their social life along with weddings, festivals, christenings, communions, confirmations and, yes, the inescapable funeral.

Deeply religious people, the Italians attended church services. In the summer, they celebrated their patron saint with a parade, fun and games. Hundreds lined the street in adoration of the passing Saint, pinning dollars on beautiful silk streamers, hoisted on-high by marching men.

Games, a street fair, and dancing followed the morning parade. During the afternoon one could hear friendly bantering over the measured distance between a bocce ball, and the little pallino,” and watch contestants struggle up a greased pole to claim la cuccagna,” the prize at the top! Finally, as night neared, you could hear the roar of oohs and aahs as the spectacular display of fireworks lit up the sky.

The depression years and second world war, was a frightening time for our forebearers, as it was for a thousand others. To make things worse, President Roosevelt declared Italian, Japanese and German nationals enemies of the United States! Hundreds of Italian-Americans faced travel restrictions, incarceration, lost businesses, homes and even their lives.

Employment was scarce for the Italians. To support themselves they worked whatever was available; usually temporary, non-benefit, back-breaking, low paying jobs that no one else wanted. Men dug ditches, mined coal and ore, worked the farm or hauled heavy hod containers up ladders. Women also worked long hours, in textile sweatshops, as domestics, or as a family, on farms.

It is difficult to imagine what all the early Italian pioneers went through to reach American soil, or what their lives were like years after. They faced enormous hardships, threats and discrimination, and even witnessed their brethren dangle by the neck at the end of ropes.

But despite all the adversities and suffering, the Italian immigrants remained an unfaltering, resilient, determined people. Like the dandelion flower, wherever the wind took them, they blossomed anew.

There is no question our Italian predecessors left an indelible mark on the American landscape. And because of them, we inherited a proud and remarkable legacy that can overcome any challenge.

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