By: Felicia LaLomia, ISDA Contributing Editor
It was the early 1900s. Just a few decades earlier, all of Italy was brought together under the Italian Unification of 1861, but the country was by no means unified.
Southern Italians, burdened by heavy taxes, were living in poverty. Many of these people relied on farming and agriculture for their income, but natural disasters and disease made it hard to make a living. And the newly formed government was in no shape to help them out.
Whispers of the great opportunity America had to offer spread. As trans-Atlantic transportation became more affordable, the lure of what hopes and possibilities lay just across the ocean became more attractive. And many of these laborers gave in and made the trip.
Some were looking for permanent work and a place to build a home and a family, while others had thoughts of returning back to Italy to buy more land.
Whatever reasons they left Italy for, what was ahead for many Italian immigrants was hardship. In 1892, Ellis Island became the streamlined location all those entering the country from Europe had to go through.
After getting off the ship from a journey often filled with sea sickness, disease and loneliness, immigrants were numbered, sorted and examined.
They were checked over for their physical abilities and potential illnesses, with the risk of being sent home if an inspector saw something they thought could be threatening. To many Italians, Ellis Island became known as L’Isola dell Lagrime, the island of tears.
Once on American soil, however, the opportunity didn’t just present itself, and the difficult journey was far from over.
One third of Italian immigrants didn’t go any farther than New York City, clustering together in neighborhoods in Manhattan, the Bronx and Brooklyn to live among the familiar in both culture and language.
Many found themselves living in tenement housing — tall, overcrowded apartments. The rooms were dark and poorly ventilated without indoor plumbing, and it wasn’t uncommon to see disease sweep through these suffocating living conditions.
For work, many of the farmers, who were not equipped with the skills necessary for urban work, found themselves toiling in dangerous conditions. Digging canals, laying gas lines, or working on the developing subway system were common, as was work in a sweatshop or factory (The Triangle Shirtwaist factory fire of 1911 killed 146, many of which were Italian women and girls). The luckier ones who had skills could work as barbers, shoemakers or bartenders.
But it wasn’t just the working and living conditions. Italian immigrants faced a wave of prejudice. European and Asian immigration hit its peak in the late 19th century, and along with it came a sentiment of anti-immigration from Americans.
The U.S. was in economic turmoil, and many blamed the immigrants for taking jobs. Catholic churches were vandalized, cartoons and songs saw Italians as the punchline and a theory about people of Mediterranean descent having inferior intelligence swept through the press. This feeling continued until the 1920s when the U.S. passed a series of laws that restricted immigration, ending the Great Arrival of Italian immigrants.
For many Italian Americans today who can trace their ancestry back to the Great Arrival, hearing about the hardships that they faced is sobering. Some may even remember hearing their relatives of a different generation talk about the time with first-hand knowledge.
But it brings strength to every Italian American family today to know that their relatives went through all that so future generations could have better opportunities and a better life.