Two of the five New York borroughs, Queens and Brooklyn, are not only part of New York, but also part of Long Island, at least officially: even so, usually when somebody refers to Long Island thinks about Nassau and Suffolk Counties, not the Queens or Kings (Brooklyn) County.
Long Island is home to many, many Italian Americans. One of them knows a lot about them, and he is our guest today: we are very happy and honored to have with us Professor Salvatore LaGumina.
Professor LaGumina, what's the story of the emigration of our fellow Italians to Long Island?
At the beginning of the mass immigration from Italy, in the late 19th century, most of that immigration headed for big cities: however, even at that time, there was a smaller group went directly to live on Long Island where they created little enclaves in half a dozen or more towns on Long Island, and where currently the 4th or 5th generations of these first-comers live there, For the most part these were of a proletarian background and sought the opportunities to find employment. Within three generations they became the largest single ethnic group in all of Long Island.
It is a fact that most Italian immigrants settled in various centers in New York City, where they formed identifiable Italian American neighborhoods, from Mulberry street to Arthur Avenue in the Bronx, to sections of Brooklyn, Queens, and Staten Island. Long Island real estate promoters focused on selling properties to Italians in these Little Italies. On of the more fascinating promoters of Long Island land was Generoso Pope, the creator of the newspaper "Il Progresso italo-americano" who partnered with a few others to establish a little community they called San Remo. He then provided 20 x 100 foot plots, to anyone who subscribed to his newspaper for a year. That's how a number of Italians obtained their properties in that area in the 1920s and 1930s. Now, generations later, their descendants still live there.
The migration pattern followed by most Italians was what was called the family immigrant pattern in which pioneer immigrant - usually someone in the community or family - would let them know where there was employment and once this was known, back in their little home towns, their relatives or friends would migrate to these areas. Just to give you an example, in Westbury many people from Durazzano, Nola and Saviano: started to come in the 1880s, and now four or five generations later their children, grandchildren and great grandchildren continue to reside there.
Are there places or people of particular meaningful importance in describing the Italian American community in Long Island?
Italian Americans play an extremely important part in all aspects of Long Island life. Politically, the Long Island Italian American who achieved the highest position was Alfonse D'Amato, who became a United States senator. He is the only Italian American from New York State ever elected to that position, even to this day. On the other hand, there are many, many examples of prominence on local levels, in little towns and communities.
About education, at one point there were three Italian Americans who served as college presidents simultaneously on Long Island. That happened up to about 20 years ago or so, it was an example of Italian excellence in the field of higher education.
Were you one of them?
No, they were Salvatore LaLima, President of Suffolk Community College; Sean Fanelli, President of Nassau Community College; and Frank A. Cipriani, President of The State University of Farmingdale. I never became President, but I became a faculty member, and chairman of the History and Political Science Department at Nassau Community College and I instituted the Center for Italian American Studies at the college which I still direct, 37 years later. The center focuses on positive contributions to the community on the part of Italian Americans.
What about Italian places in Long Island?
There's a community on the south shore of Long Island called Copiague, and next to it you will find a town called Lindenhurst: in both of these places you'll see marks of Italian background. For example, in Copiague, there are a number of streets with Italian names, like Garibaldi Boulevard and Marconi Boulevard. In Lindenhurst there are structures that imitate the Italian style: a Venetian setting, bridges that cross streams, all very "Italian" in their architecture. On a main street, there are two high towers, with the lions of Venice on the top.
There are also many clubs and societies that reflect a strong interest in Italian background. For example, in Westbury there's a Maria SS. Dell'Assunta Society: this started in 1911, over a century ago, and it's still going strong. They have functions in their building, which was constructed by Italian immigrants in the 1930s, with their own labor and their own participation. There are several of these places throughout the island.
According to the US Census 2000, Suffolk and Nassau are number one and number three in the list of the Counties with the highest percentage of Italian Americans: we're talking about more than 725,000 people. How would you describe the actual Italian community in Long Island?
Those numbers suggest that this is the largest group of Italian ancestry in any two contiguous counties in the United States, a figure larger than the entire New York City that encompasses five counties. The number of Italians in New York City has shrunk in recent years, while they have grown on Long Island.
Many of these Italian Americans are well aware of their background even though they don't necessarily speak Italian although quite a number do speak the language. Their Italian heritage is reflected in their names, in their involvement in social and cultural organizations with an Italian interest, and in their participation in various events. For example, the Order of the Sons of Italy is very prominent on Long Island in numerous communities, and they hold an annual Columbus Day Parade in one of the towns, Huntington, with a lot of participation.
Is there an important Italian Festival in Long Island, one that could be described as more significant than others?
Well, my impression is that the most significant is the annual Italian Festival in the grounds of Hofstra University: it attracts every year a lot of people and there are many displays, many boots that offer an opportunity to purchase many Italian things and is a very good showing. In addition, there are on-going conferences in many institutions such as Nassau Community College and Stony Brook University.
And then of course there are numerous feasts, religious feasts, named after various saints.
Is there a difference among the Italians in Long Island and the ones in the New York boroughs?
Well, it's a tough question to answer. I think that in the big cities, like New York City, where there were numerous Italian neighborhoods, they were in fact settled within the ethnic enclave according to Italy's regions. For example, I grew up in a part of Brooklyn that was not just Italian, but heavily Sicilian; and it was Sicilian that was the first point of reference. You'll find other examples in big cities where the Italian neighborhoods were regionally identifiable. I don't think that you have that same display of regional identification in the Long Island communities, I can't see them as playing a role.
That's one thing that comes to mind, in other aspects they have similarities in terms of organizations and feasts to honor Saints, display and cook Italian food, teach Italian language, and so on.
Besides those about the Long Island Italians, you wrote several other books. I'd like to ask you about a couple of them. The first is "The Humble and the Heroic: Wartime Italian Americans". This is a very interesting and important topic...
During the Second World War, the participation of the Italian Americans in the armed services like the army, the navy, the marines was extraordinary: even though it's hard to get definitive numbers the impression is that the Italian Americans participated in numbers far beyond their percentage of population. There has been figures thrown out that a million or more American soldiers were of an Italian background: whatever the figure is, there has been little material published about this, you'll find other immigrant groups that have a lot more books and articles written about them.
My book was a combination of historical record, through research, and my own reflections and recollections of what went on in that period. I was not in the service, because I was a bit too young, but most of my friends ended up in the armed services. I examined not only the battlefront, where there were heroes like John Basilone, but also the home front, the participation of many immigrant Italians to work on behalf of the war effort. A quick example. At one point General Eisenhower visited a clothing factory in Brooklyn owned by Italian Americans, where he congratulated and thanked them for making the uniforms for 16 million people in the armed services: an activity not as dramatic as the battlefront, but one in which people on the home front were helping the war effort in various capacities. And so it was a labor of love for me, a labor I'm glad I got it out there.
You are also the author of "Wop! A Documentary History of Anti-Italian Discrimination". Please tell us something more about this
I wrote that in the early 1970s, I think it was published in 1972. The Italian immigrants were considered by the Americans as illiterate, and many of them were; but that was held against them, and they were criticized for going around begging for alms. Another reason for discrimination was the Catholic religion: American Protestants looked upon these newcomers as ignorant. There were other reasons, but the biggest single ongoing reason for discrimination is the issue of crime. Even before Italian immigrants started to come in large numbers, one could read in the most prestigious newspapers and journals about crime in Italy: robbers and bandits became almost a steady diet so by the time they came here the Americans were already thinking about them as criminals. Of course this image continued with the mafia and then with The Godfather.
So, this is something with an ongoing basis for discrimination, and I think it still continues to a degree, not as severe as it used to be, but it's still there: and I think that this was important to record.
Is there a new book are you working on right now?
In the next few months, I have a new book coming out. The title is "The Office of Strategic Services and Italian Americans. The untold story". I explore the significant if not vital role of Italian Americans in the intelligence/spy organization that existed before there was a CIA. The untold story revolves around the OSS, which relied on the participation of many Italian Americans for infiltration purposes. It's quite a story.
Last but not least: what do you think about the severe harsh that day by day seems to grow in America against Christoper Columbus?
I think that it's unfortunate that it's happening. Columbus was perhaps no saint but he was the foremost explorer in over 500 years. He was a man of his times. All European explorers looked down on the American Indians, he wasn't the first one to do this or the last. I think that the Indigenous Americans have latched onto something that emphasizes what their interest is, which is fine: they have not been treated fairly, I think they deserve a better hearing. But that can be done with denigrating another ethnic group.
I have a problem with the way the Native Americans have tried to put all the blame on Columbus: they have a legitimate cause, but that shouldn't be at the expense of other groups - it unleashes bitter feelings. He did what he had to do at that time, he's the effective discoverer of America, and we can't get away from that: that's a historical fact. The people that had come before never made much of a dent, it's almost as if they were never here, the world was different after Columbus.
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