“The chief contribution that the American of Italian extraction may make to our democracy is to remember that while his goal is AMERICA, his starting point is Italy; that he is not to submerge his Italianism in America but to merge it with Americanism at its highest.” –Rabbi Stephen S. Wise
Since the commencement of this great nation, the United States of America has been receiving immigrants from all parts of the world. They have been attracted to its shores by the lure of freedom, wealth and opportunity. It has opened its doors to the hungry, the poor and the downtrodden. Italian immigrants have made quite an impact on American culture, but this has taken much time and effort to transpire. This article is part 1 of a 4 part series that explores the history and breadth of Italian immigration and assimilation into America’s great Melting Pot.
These early immigrants, upon their arrival to an unfamiliar world, began forming strong, concentrated communities, practicing features of their native cultures that were responsive to the natural adjustment to Anglo-Saxon culture. At the same time, this bonding slowed down the assimilation process of integrating with a social unity. The need to connect with their roots gave these immigrants a sense of security and identity within the receiving society. Some of these people, those who came from the same town or locality, that conversed in the same language and practiced the same religious beliefs, tended to stick together to help and support each other.
For some, the gradual assimilation process was easy, while for others there were several serious problems associated with this process. As to how long or how fast it would take for that person to adjust to this newly adopted social environment, it depended on that person’s ability to manage the difficulties and frustrations that they faced daily. Some of these problems may well not have arisen from assimilating to the American way of thinking and doing things. Most were due to conflicting values and attitudes that were imbedded from the country of origin and social class. While many lived in this state of conflict, even to the point of wanting to return to their homeland, regardless of the consequences, they also adjusted and readied themselves for a new life in America. Once that person became absorbed into America’s mainstream and progressed economically, staunch attitudes and ways of the “Old Country” were easily given up.
As each ethnic group moved from one culture to another, key changes began to take effect in their life patterns. These changes not only affected individuals and their families, they also affected American society with respect to economy, education, and inter-group relations.
Most immigrants that arrived in this country over the centuries have had their own dreams and expectations for the future, which they would like to see fulfilled in their lives, yet the only way to achieve the American Dream is through hard work, sacrifice and thriftiness.
With respect to the acculturation process, unfortunately, there have been some negative effects which have resulted from discriminatory attitudes of American society towards newly arrived immigrants. For example, the presence of racism played a decisive role.
Non-white immigrants were less readily accepted by American society, which, in turn, slowed down their assimilation. For those who possessed a higher education in comparison to the unskilled and illiterate, the assimilation was quicker. The higher their social class and professional status, the easier the acculturation became. Other relevant factors to consider include the English language and the amount of time that the immigrant spent in this country. The shorter the time frame, the less that person would learn about the roles, norms and customs of the receiving society, and how to interact with them, which is of crucial significance to the assimilation process.
In order to comprehend the role of the early Italian immigrant community in the process of assimilation, some of the aforementioned issues will be examined in this study. Without further delay I would like to start with my narration of “Once Upon A Time in America: The Early Italian Immigrant’s Assimilation Experience.”
As a result of the Industrial Revolution’s effects throughout Europe, the Northern part of Italy developed manufacturing facilities which created an economic boom for the Northern provinces. This meant jobs for the northerners, resulting in less scarcity of commodities and minimized agricultural problems. In the Northern part of Italy, the soil and atmosphere were more favorable than in Southern Italy. The Northerners were more prosperous and more “European” than their Southern counterparts. If the Northern Italian working man could not find work, he would cross the border into the neighboring European countries or sail to Argentina, Brazil or the United States to make money, then return to his homeland and family when he had enough.
Whereas, in the Southern part of Italy, the Southerners that lived in the coastal areas were able to sustain themselves by fishing or via trade. Those that lived inland had to resort to farming to make a living. Since transportation was limited to the interior, and farming was not a dependable source of economic stability, this created severe hardships for the inland population. The elements that contributed to this factor were the harsh environmental conditions that the area was subjected to, including:
1. The scarcity of land worth cultivating
2. Soil erosion
4. Lack of sufficient rainfall
There were other problems as well. Disease affected the grapevines, malaria destroyed the lives of many, and natural disasters such as the volcanic eruption of Mount Vesuvius buried an entire town near Naples, not to mention the 1908 earthquake that contributed to Southern Italy’s predicament. So in effect, the Southerners suffered more distress than the northerners.
In part 2 of this 4 part series, we will continue with the historical background of the Italians, many of whom immigrated to America.