Delfina Licata (Editor - Rapporto sugli Italiani nel Mondo)

Vi racconto l’immigrazione italiana in America

Apr 12, 2013 4225 ITA ENG

Since 2006, Fondazione Migrantes has published a yearly report on Italian citizens in the world – a unique resource for those with an interest in migration. We ask the project’s chief editor Delfina Licata to tell us more about it.

Delfina – how did the idea of the report come about?

The idea first came about in 2006. For 25 years, Fondazione Migrantes published a book – “Rapporto Immigrazione” – in collaboration with Caritas on the presence of immigrants in Italy, and we decided to retrace our own history of migration. Italian citizens still migrate today, with different motivations and in varying numbers. The publication starts from the past but brings the arguments up to date and analyses the present day. The contributors from different professional fields – historians, sociologists, economists, architects, artists – write from Italy or from abroad.

What are the numbers of Italian migration and presence in the USA?

Of the almost 26 million Italians who left Italy between 1876 and 1976 to make their fortune abroad, 22% went to the USA. Between 1892 and 1924, over 20 million people crossed Ellis Island: between 1896 and 1917, and then again in 1920-21, the Italians were the most numerous. In 1910, New York – the first city in the US in terms of number of inhabitants – counted 4.766.883 residents: 40% of these were foreigners and amongst them were 340.795 Italians. Of the 5 million 300 thousand Italians that migrated to the USA between 1820 and 1978, over 2 million did so between 1900 and 1910, and almost 4 million between 1880 and 1915 (between 50 and 60% of these returned to Italy in the first 15 years of the century).

Who were the Italians migrating to America?

Until 1900, the majority of them came from the North of Italy (mostly Veneto, Friuli-Venezia Giulia and Piedmont), but after that the bulk of them was made up of southerners, mostly from Campania, Sicily and Calabria.

Several of them were farmers destined to work in the mines. American law allowed them to bring along helpers with whom they could share their salary, so many miners brought their 8-12 year old sons to work with them, often illegally. People from Lombardy mostly went to work as miners and manual laborers in Missouri, Illinois, Vermont, Michigan, Washington State and later in Iowa, Texas, New Mexico, Arizona and San Francisco. There were also many political exiles from Piedmont, Lombardy and Tuscany who participated in the gold rush along the Sierra Nevada. They were the founders of several of the existing ghost towns, named after heroes of the Italian Risorgimento.  

Between 1901 and 1913, over 500.000 people emigrated from Calabria: among them were political and trade union managers who became the leaders of the American workers’ movement in the big cities and were thus filed as “dangerous subversives”.

As well as miners, in the early days the Italian immigrants were mainly farmers and artisans. Many of them were illiterate and itinerant, and would end up taking on the most diverse jobs and “building” America through its roads and skyscrapers. They often got caught up in the racketeering networks. There were numerous examples of family reunifications and families formed or growing on American soil, giving birth to the second generation. This generation and the following ones were often more educated, and leading personalities in the social, political, and entrepreneurial fields came out of them. 

The protagonists of the most recent migrations on the other hand are often university students, postgraduates and young professionals working in the American offices of Italian companies.

The Church’s role in helping Italians in the US was fundamental…

Since the beginning, priests and men of religion (Scalabrinian missionaries, Franciscan, Silesian, Jesuits and others) followed and assisted the Italian migrants. Monsignor Scalabrini in particular was active in favor of Italian migrants in the States to defend them from the exploitation of migration agents and other intermediaries and to offer them the comfort of the Church.

Profession of the Catholic Church in the USA was difficult because this was opposed not only by the Protestants, but also by the local Catholics, who did not tolerate the popular Mediterranean interpretation of the religion and often considered patron saint festivals as pagan or superficial events. In New York in the nineteenth century, Italian immigrants – considered inadequate for the local churches – were allowed to congregate in basements. Many of them refused to accept this arrangement and chose to convert to the Protestant confession: in 1918 these were 25.000 in New York alone.

How did the Americans respond to the arrival of large numbers of Italian migrants?

Very rarely did our fellow countrymen see their American dream materialize. In most cases they ended up doing the most humble jobs. Between the end of the nineteenth and beginning of the twentieth centuries, Italian migrants were the object of defamation campaigns that represented them as being anthropologically inclined to committing crime. The prejudice was mainly associated with southerners who were called by the names such as “dago” and “wop”.

This mounting racism escalated into violence. In New Orleans, Italian migrants had substituted the black slaves in the cotton harvest: at the end of the 1800s there were around 30.000 in New Orleans, 90% of them were Sicilian. Some of them were accused of murdering the city’s chief of police, and the mayor gave orders to search the entire Italian community. 250 people were arrested, and 11 of these were tried for a crime they had not committed. But because they were innocent, they were eventually acquitted. This caused the anger of the locals, who were waiting for an excuse to turn against the Italian community. The day after – on March 14 1891, an enraged crowd of 20.000 people rushed the jail, took the 11 Italians and slaughtered them savagely. A moment of tension between the two governments ensued, terminating with the official disapproval of the events on the part of President Harrison and compensation of the victims’ families.

In 1913, in Calumet, Michigan, the Italian migrants working in the copper mines went on strike because they hadn’t received their pay for several months. That Christmas evening the Italian community gathered in the premises of the Società Italiana di Mutua Beneficenza, known as Italian Hall. Some men sent by the copper industrialist Charles Moyer bolted the doors shouting “Fire! Fire!”. 73 people – most of them children – died in the commotion.

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