Italian American History and Culture

Many history books use the term "melting pot" to describe America and the ethnic heritage modern Americans share. While it is now probably cliché to use this expression, it is a fairly accurate one. Though our country began as colony of Great Britain, millions of people from Germany, Ireland, Africa, Mexico and other countries have immigrated to the United States. Immigrants from Italy have also come to America in droves. Though they came to make a better life for themselves and their children, they also shaped the religious, culinary, and cultural heritage of their new country.

Italian Immigration

While many people think of the American people as descendents of northern European stock, millions of modern Americans are descended from Italian immigrants. In fact, Italian Americans are the fourth largest ethnic group in America. Most of these immigrants came from the southern parts of Italy, like Sicily and Campania, because of the political situation in Italy. Overall, an estimated 5.5 million Italians immigrated to the U.S. between 1820 and 2004. Most of these, about 4 million, came in the period between 1880 and 1920. Now there are 18 million Americans who claim Italian ancestry.

Early Period

Even though the heaviest amount of immigration didn't occur until the late nineteenth century, Italians had an important role in the settlement of the American colonies and even in the creation of the country. In fact one of the earliest "English" explorers who gave England a claim in the New World was actually an Italian, John Cabot, or Giovanni Caboto. It was also another Italian explorer, Giovanni Verrazzano, that discovered New York Harbor. As the colonies grew and flourished, many Italian artists, architects, and sculptors were invited to come to America to help in creating buildings or providing art for the wealthy colonists.

Thomas Jefferson had a close friend who was an Italian immigrant, Filippo Mazzei, who penned the words, "All men are by nature free and independent." These words greatly influenced Jefferson who used them when he in turn penned the Declaration of Independence. And it was another Italian, Constantino Brumidi, who installed the beautiful fresco inside the capitol building of the new country.

Many Italian missionaries were sent by the Catholic Church to the New World. They usually labored and served the Native American populations. Others were sent to the colonies to serve the Catholics who had come to America in order to practice their religion freely. The first Catholic Bishop in the United States was an Italian, Alessandro Geraldini.

While most of the Italian immigrants tended to stay in the northeast, often in the port cities to which the ship arrived, there were pockets of Italian Americans all over the colonies. However, the largest Italian influence continued to be in the northeast. Italian immigrants, though always maintaining many practices from their mother country, were fiercely patriotic to their adopted homeland. They served in the army during the Revolutionary War and during the Civil war, mostly on the Union side.

Main Period of Immigration

For centuries since the collapse of the Roman Empire, Italy had not existed as a single unified entity. Instead, it was a series of principalities each ruled by a different prince, duke, or ruling family. The Italian Unification of 1861 changed all that, but it was not a smooth transition. The new government favored the areas in the north part of Italy, leaving the south with heavy taxes. This largely rural area had many tenant farmers who were no longer able to make a living, especially as the area was heavily populated.

Instead, millions of Italians decided to head to America. Most intended to make a new home for themselves over there, while others intended to stay long enough to make their fortune and then return to Italy. Either way, life was not easy once they arrived in the Land of Opportunity. Not only did they not know the language, but they were usually without any education or training to speak of. Thus they were mainly relegated to manual laboring jobs.

To cope with this transition to a strange land with a different language, Italian immigrants, like many other immigrant groups, tended to live very close together in the cities to which they came. These pockets of Italian population were called "Little Italies." Within these communities they helped each other, fed each other, practiced their religion, and kept up many of the familiar customs of their homeland.

These Little Italies became important cultural areas of the cities. Often the Italians would establish restaurants, thus introducing Italian cuisine to America. Pope Leo XIII even sent missionaries to the Little Italies in the U.S. to serve the people there. As immigrants were able to establish themselves, the next generation was able to stay in school and learn trades. Thus they were able to raise themselves to the level of skilled labor, and eventually to professional jobs. In fact, an Italian entrepreneur, Amadeo Giannini, established a bank in San Francisco for the Italian population there, which eventually became Bank of America, one of the largest banks in the country today.

World War I

Events in the world in the years of World War I and immediately afterwards sharply curtailed the numbers of immigrants from all countries, including Italy. Of course, travel is not very safe during war, making many people wait until it is over to leave. Then the U.S. passed the Emergency Quota of 1921 and Immigration Act of 1924. These greatly restricted the number of immigrants who could enter the United States each year. In essence, only 2% of the number of people from that country who were in the U.S. in 1890 were allowed to come into the U.S. each year. Italian immigration levels fell over 90%.

During the war itself, Italian Americans served with distinction. They made up over 10% of the American military during the conflict, a much higher percentage than their population. There was even an Italian Congressional Medal of Honor recipient, Michael Valente. However, the time in the service helped many of the returning soldiers. Their experience allowed them to seek more specialized jobs, improving their families' lots even more.

During the '20s, many Italian Americans moved out of Little Italy as they were able to find these better jobs. Then the depression hit Little Italies all over the country just as it did everyone else. While great strides had been made in improving the residents' lives, much of this improvement was lost during the difficult times of the depression. Many Italian Americans were assisted by the government works programs of the New Deal.

The 1920s and 1930s also saw the influence of Italian American culture and the people themselves spread to a wider area of the country. While many of the more prosperous ones became involved in politics and unions all over the country, others took advantage of technological advances like the radio and movies. Italian Americans became actors, singers, directors, and cartoonists. They also became involved in sports, especially in baseball.

World War II

Although never seen as insidious as German Americans or Japanese Americans, Italian Americans were often painted with the same brush as America was thrown into World War II. Some were put into detention camps along with their Japanese and German countrymen. Others, especially along the West Coast, were forced to move away from the coastline, which was considered more vulnerable. Immigrants who had never completed the citizenship process were required to carry special paperwork that identified them as such.

In spite of this, and the fact that Italy was allied to Japan and Germany, Americans of Italian descent joined the service by the thousands, just as they had done in previous wars. Not only did they serve well, but they made crucial contributions. Fourteen Italian Americans were given the Medal of Honor. Though many German immigrants, like Einstein, made significant scientific contributions to the atomic bomb capabilities, it was an Italian scientist and immigrant, Enrico Fermi, who established the first sustainable nuclear reaction. Italian American women made significant contributions at home. Rosie the Riveter was actually based on an Italian American named Rose Bonavita.

When the war ended, the returning soldiers were able to use the GI Bill to go to college, many for the first time in their families. This, along with the improved economy, allowed Italian Americans to greatly improve their lives and move even further into mainstream culture. While this greatly improved the quality of their lives, it also led to the exodus of the Little Italies by many of the younger generation. They also began to marry non-Italians with greater frequency.

This greater opportunity in life as well as education led Italian Americans to be even more active in all areas of the country. They became more involved in public service. While thousands became police officers and firemen, others went into politics. In 1950, Vincent Impellitteri became mayor of New York City. Others went onto important posts with the federal government.

Many of the most popular actors and singers of the post war years were of Italian descent. People like Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Tony Bennett, and Perry Como were some of the most popular artists of the era. Many Italian Americans also made it big as professional athletes and coaches. Joe Dimaggio, Yogi Berra, Joe Paterno, Vince Lombardi, and Rocky Marciano were all successful Italian American athletes and coaches.

Contemporary Period

By 1970, there was no discernible economic or educational difference between Italian Americans and the rest of society. They are also active in all areas of employment and culture. They continue to be represented at the highest levels of government. There are two Italian Americans, Antonin Scalia and Samuel Alito, on the Supreme Court today. They have served as cabinet members and as Speakers of the House. Dozens have been governors of states, including Andrew Cuomo of New York.

They also continue to enjoy success in the film, music and sports industries. Athletes like Mary Lou Retton, Joe Montana, Dan Marino made it the top levels of their sports. Many Italian actors and directors have been very successful. They include big names like Sylvester Stallone, Frank Capra, Francis Ford Coppola, Nicolas Cage, John Travolta, Tony Danza, and Rene Russo.

While Americans of Italian descent have also made advances in engineering, science, and business, one of the biggest contributions Italians have made to America is with the cuisine. Italian food was almost immediate hit with Americans. Many Italians have made successful businesses from their food, either by establishing restaurants or creating frozen and canned foods, like Ettore Boiardi, better known as Chef Boyardee. In fact some foods, like pizza, have been so ingrained into the culture as to be seen as more American than Italian.

The National Italian American Foundation is a nonprofit organization which was established to promote the Italian culture in the United States. While it has been success that so many Italians came to America for, that same success has seen the dilution of Italian culture as the descendents of these immigrants have integrated into society. The NIAF also helps with scholarships and mentoring to help the next generation of Italian Americans continue making significant contributions to society.