Italian Americans

views updated May 18 2018


by George Pozzetta


Moored by Alpine mountains in the north, the boot-shaped Italian peninsula juts into the central Mediterranean Sea. Along its European frontier, Italy shares borders with France, Switzerland, Austria, and Slovenia. The nation's land mass, which includes the two major islands of Sicily and Sardinia and numerous smaller ones, measures 116,324 square miles (301,200 square kilometers)almost exactly double the size of the state of Florida. Italy's population in 1991 stood at 57.6 million. With the exception of the broad north Italian Plain at the foot of the Alps, the peninsula is crosscut through much of its length by the Apennine mountain chain. The obstacles created by the highlands, valleys, and gorges found in the mountain regions fostered strong cultural and linguistic differences.


Italy's modern state traces its mythological roots to the founding of the city of Rome in 753 B.C. More historically verified is the fact that the Romans engaged in territorial expansion and conquest of neighboring lands, devising effective colonization policies that ultimately sustained a widespread realm. By 172 B.C., Rome controlled all of the Italian peninsula and began moving outward into the Mediterranean basin. At its peak, the Roman empire extended from the British Isles to the Euphrates River. The Pax Romana began to crumble, however, by the end of the first century A.D. The sack of Rome by the Visigoths in 410 A.D. presaged the more complete disintegration of the empire in the later fifth and sixth centuries. With its political integration shattered, the country remained fragmented until the late nineteenth century. Italy was, in the view of many Europeans, a "mere geographic expression."

Italy is a relatively young nation state, achieving full unification only during the Risorgimento of 1860-1870. Prior to this, the peninsula consisted of often mutually antagonistic kingdoms, duchies, city-states, and principalities. Some of these regions had a history of autonomous rule, while others came under the periodic control of foreign powers as a result of recurrent wars and shifting political alliances. Over the centuries, therefore, powerful regional loyalties emerged, and persisted well after unification. Although local cultural variations remained notable, the most significant internal distinctions have been those stemming from the contrast between a relatively prosperous, cosmopolitan, urban North and a socially backward, economically depressed, agricultural South.

Southern Italy (Mezzogiorno ), the source of more than 75 percent of immigration to the United States, was an impoverished region possessing a highly stratified, virtually feudal society. The bulk of the population consisted of artisans (artigiani ), petty landowners or sharecroppers (contadini ), and farm laborers (giornalieri ), all of whom eked out meager existences. For reasons of security and health, residents typically clustered in hill towns situated away from farm land. Each day required long walks to family plots, adding to the toil that framed daily lives. Families typically worked as collective units to ensure survival. Angelo Pellegrini, who became a successful immigrant, remembered his sharecropping family: "The central, dominating fact of our existence was continuous, inadequately rewarded labor.... Education beyond the third grade was out of the question.... At eight or nine years of age, if not sooner, the peasant child is old enough to bend his neck to the yoke and fix his eyes upon the soil in which he must grub for bread. I did not know it then, but I know it now, that is a cruel, man-made destiny from which there is yet no immediate hope of escape." (Angelo Pellegrini, Immigrant's Return. New York: Macmillan, 1952; pp. 11, 21.)

The impact of unification on the South was disastrous. The new constitution heavily favored the North, especially in its tax policies, industrial subsidies, and land programs. The hard-pressed peasantry shouldered an increased share of national expenses, while attempting to compete in markets dominated more and more by outside capitalist intrusions. These burdens only exacerbated existing problems of poor soil, absentee landlords, inadequate investment, disease, and high rates of illiteracy. With cruel irony, as livelihoods became increasingly precarious, population totals soared. Italy jumped from 25 million residents in 1861 to 33 million in 1901 to more than 35 million in 1911, despite the massive migration already underway.


An exodus of southerners from the peninsula began in the 1880s. Commencing in the regions of Calabria, Campania, Apulia, and Basilicata, and spreading after 1900 to Sicily, Italian emigration became a torrent of humanity. From 1876-1924, more than 4.5 million Italians arrived in the United States, and over two million came in the years 1901-1910 alone. Despite these massive numbers, it should be noted that roughly two-thirds of Italian migration went elsewhere, especially to Europe and South America. Immigration to the United States before and after this period accounted for approximately one million additional arrivalsa considerable movement in its own rightbut the era of mass migration remains central to the Italian immigrant experience.

Yet, there were important precursors. Italian explorers and sailors venturing outward in the employ of other nations touched America in its earliest beginnings. The most famous was, of course, Christopher Columbus, a Genoese mariner sailing for Spain. Other seafarers such as John Cabot (Giovanni Caboto), Giovanni da Verrazzano, and Amerigo Vespucci, and important missionaries such as Eusebio Chino and Fra Marco da Nizza, also played roles in early exploration and settlement.

After the American Revolution, a small flow of largely northern-Italian skilled artisans, painters, sculptors, musicians, and dancers came to the new nation, filling economic niches. With the failure of the early nineteenth-century liberal revolutions, these immigrants were joined by a trickle of political refugees, the most famous of whom was Giuseppe Garibaldi. By the second half of the century, American cities also typically included Italian street entertainers, tradesmen, statuette makers, and stone workers, who often established the first beachheads of settlement for the migrations to come. Many of these pioneers were merely extending generationsold migratory patterns that had earlier brought them through Europe. An old Italian proverb instructed: Chi esce riesce (He who leaves succeeds).

This initial Italian movement dispersed widely throughout America, but its numbers were too small to constitute a significant presence. By 1850, the heaviest concentration was in Louisiana (only 915 people), the result of Sicilian migration to New Orleans and its environs. Within a decade, California contained the highest total of any statea mere 2,805and New York, soon to become home to millions of Italian immigrants, counted 1,862.

Everything changed with mass migration, the first phase of which consisted primarily of temporary migrants"sojourners"who desired immediate employment, maximum savings, and quick repatriation. The movement was predominately composed of young, single men of prime working age (15-35) who clustered in America's urban centers. Multiple trips were commonplace and ties to American society, such as learning English, securing citizenship, and acquiring property, were minimal. With eyes focused on the old-world paese (village), a total of at least half of the sojourners returned to Italy, although in some years rates were much higher. Such mobility earned Italians the sobriquet "birds of passage," a label that persisted until women and families began to migrate and settlement became increasingly permanent in the years following 1910.

Migrants brought with them their family-centered peasant cultures and their fiercely local identifications, or campanilismo. They typically viewed themselves as residents of particular villages or regions, not as "Italians." The organizational and residential life of early communities reflected these facts, as people limited their associations largely to kin and paesani fellow villagers. The proliferation of narrowly based mutual aid societies and festas (feste, or feast days) honoring local patron saints were manifestations of these tendencies. Gradually, as immigrants acclimated to the American milieu, in which others regarded them simply as Italians, and as they increasingly interacted with fellow immigrants, campanilismo gave way to a more national identity. Group-wide organization and identity, nonetheless, have always been difficult to achieve.


In terms of settlement, immigrants were (and are) highly concentrated. Using kin and village-based chain migration networks to form "Little Italies," they clustered heavily in cities in the Northeast region (the Mid-Atlantic and New England states) and the Midwest, with outposts in California and Louisiana. More than 90 percent settled in only 11 statesNew York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Massachusetts, California, Connecticut, Illinois, Ohio, Michigan, Missouri, and Louisianaand approximately 90 percent congregated in urban areas. These patterns largely hold true today, although immigrants have branched out to locations such as Arizona and Florida. In every settlement area, there has been, over time, a slow but steady shift from central cities to suburbs.

Immigrants often sought out Little Italies as a result of the hostility they encountered in American society. As a despised minority rooted in the working class and seemingly resistant to assimilation, Italians suffered widespread discrimination in housing and employment. American responses to the immigrants occasionally took uglier forms as Italians became the victims of intimidation and violence, the most notorious incident being the 1890 lynching of 11 Italians in New Orleans. Italian mass migration coincided with the growth of a nativism that identified southern and eastern Europeans as undesirable elements. Inspired by the pseudo-scientific findings of eugenics and social Darwinism, turn-of-the-century nativists often branded southern Italians as especially inferior. Powerful stereo-types centering on poverty, clannishness, illiteracy, high disease rates, and an alleged proclivity toward criminal activities underscored the view that southern Italians were a degenerate "race" that should be denied entry to America. Criticism of Italians became integral to the successful legislative drives to enact the nativist Literacy Test in 1917 and National Origins Acts in 1921 and 1924.

Within Little Italies, immigrants created New World societies. A network of Italian language institutionsnewspapers, theaters, churches, mutual aid societies, recreational clubs, and debating societies helped fuel an emerging Italian-American ethnic culture. Aspects of the folk, popular, and high culture intermixed in this milieu yielding an array of entertainment options. Saloons or club buildings in larger urban centers often featured traditional puppet and marionette shows while immigrant men sipped wines and played card games of mora, briscola, and tresette. By the early 1900s, a lively Italian language theater brought entertainment to thousands and sustained the careers of professional acting troupes and noted performers such as the comedic genius Eduardo Migliacco, known as "Farfariello." On a more informal level, Italian coffee houses often presented light comedies, heroic tragedies, and dialect plays sponsored by drama clubs. Italian opera was a staple in most American urban centers, and working-class Italian music halls attracted customers by offering renditions of Neapolitan or Sicilian songs and dances. Band performances and choral recitals were regularly staged on the streets of Italian settlements. Although illiteracy rates among immigrants often ran well above 50 percent, newcomers in larger cities had access to Italian language bookstores stocked with poetry, short stories, novels, and nonfiction. In 1906 one New York bookseller published a catalogue of 176 pages to advertise his merchandise.

The cultural patterns of Little Italies were constantly evolving, providing for a dynamic interplay between older forms brought from Italy and new inventions forged in the United States. Many immigrants attempted to recreate old-world celebrations and rituals upon arrival in the United States, but those that directly competed with American forms soon fell away. The celebration of Epiphany (January 6), for example, was the principal Christmas time festivity in Italy, featuring the visit of La Befana, a kindly old witch who brought presents for children. In the United States the more popular Christmas Eve and Santa Claus displaced this tradition.

Even those cultural forms more sheltered from American society were contested. Immigrant settlements were not homogenous entities. Various members of the community fought for the right to define the group, and the ongoing struggle for dominance invariably employed cultural symbols and events.

"M y first impression when I got there, I tell you the God's truth, you're in a dream. It's like in heaven. You don't know what it is. You're so happy there in America."

Felice Taldone in 1924, cited in Ellis Island: An Illustrated History of the Immigrant Experience, edited by Ivan Chermayeff et al. (New York: Macmillan, 1991).

The commercial and political elites (prominenti ) usually aided by the Italian Catholic clergysought to promote Italian nationalism as a means of self-advancement. These forces invested great energy in celebrations of Italian national holidays (such as venti di settembre, which commemorated Italian unification), and in the erection of statues of such Italian heroes as Columbus, the poet Dante, and military leader Giuseppe Garibaldi.

These activities were challenged by a variety of leftist radicals (sovversivi ), who sought very different cultural and political goals. Anarchists, socialists, and syndicalists such as Carlo Tresca and Arturo Giovannitti considered Italian Americans as part of the world proletariat and celebrated holidays (Primo Maggio May Day) and heroes (Gaetano Bresci, the assassin of Italian King Umberto) reflecting this image. These symbols also played roles in mass strikes and worker demonstrations led by the radicals. Meanwhile, the majority of Italian Americans continued to draw much of their identity from the peasant cultures of the old-world paese. Columbus Day, the preeminent Italian American ethnic celebration, typically blended elements of all these components, with multiple parades and competing banquets, balls, and public presentations.

World War I proved an ambiguous interlude for Italian immigrants. Italy's alliance with the United States and the service of many immigrants in the U.S. military precipitated some level of American acceptance. The war also produced, however, countervailing pressures that generated more intense nationalism among Italians and powerful drives toward assimilation"100 percent Americanism"in the wider society. Immigration restrictions after 1924 halted Italian immigration, although the foreign-born presence remained strong (the 1930 census recorded 1,623,000 Italian-born residents the group's historic high). As new arrivals slowed and the second generation matured during the 1920s and 1930s, the group changed.

Several critical developments shaped the character of Italian America during the interwar years. National prohibition provided lucrative illegal markets, which some Italian Americans successfully exploited through bootlegging operations. During the 1920s, the "gangster" image of Italians (exemplified by Al Capone) was perpetuated through films and popular literature. The celebrated case of Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti further molded the group's national image, underwriting the conception of Italians as dangerous radicals.

The Great Depression overshadowed earlier economic gains, often forcing Italian Americans back into their family-centered ethnic communities. Here, the emerging second generation found itself in frequent conflict with the first. Heavily influenced by the traditional contadino culture passed on from their parents, the second generation uneasily straddled two worlds. Traditional notions of proper behavior, stressing collective responsibilities toward the family, strict chastity and domestic roles for females, rigid chaperonage and courting codes, and male dominance, clashed with the more individualist, consumer-driven American values children learned in schools, stores, and on the streets. Problems of marginality, lack of self-esteem, rebellion, and delinquency were the outcomes.

Partly because of these dynamics, the community structures of Little Italies began to change. The more Americanized second generation began to turn away from older, Italian-language institutions founded by immigrants, many of which collapsed during the depression. Italian theaters and music halls, for example, largely gave way to vaudeville, nickelodeons, organized sports, and radio programming. During the 1920s and 1930s, these transformations were also influenced by Benito Mussolini's fascist regime, which sponsored propaganda campaigns designed to attract the support of Italian Americans. The prominenti generally supported these initiatives, often inserting fascist symbols (the black shirt), songs ("Giovinezza"the fascist anthem), and holidays (the anniversary of the March on Rome) into the ichnography and pageantry of America's Little Italies. A small, but vocal, anti-fascist element existed in opposition, and it substituted counter values and emblems. Memorials to Giacomo Matteotti, a socialist deputy murdered by fascists, and renditions of Bandiera Rossa and Inno di Garibaldi became fixtures of anti-fascist festivities. Thus, the cultural world of Italian America remained divided.

Any questions concerning loyalties to the United States were firmly answered when Italy declared war on the United States in 1941, and Italian Americans rushed to aid the American struggle against the Axis powers. More than 500,000 Italian Americans joined the U.S. military, serving in all theaters, including the Italian campaign. The war effort and ensuing anti-communist crusade stressed conformity, loyalty, and patriotism, and in the 1940s and 1950s it appeared that Italian Americans had comfortably settled into the melting pot. The second generation especially benefited from its war service and the postwar economic expansion as it yielded new levels of acceptance and integration. In the 1950s, they experienced substantial social mobility and embraced mass consumerism and middle-class values.

Since the end of World War II, more than 600,000 Italian immigrants have arrived in the United States. A large percentage came shortly after passage of the Immigration Act of 1965, at which time yearly totals of Italian immigrants averaged about 23,000. Beginning in 1974, the numbers steadily declined as a result of improved economic conditions in Italy and changing policies in other immigrant-receiving nations. In 1990 only 3,300 Italian immigrants were admitted to the United States, but 831,922 Italian-born residents remained in the country, guaranteeing that Italian language and culture are still part of the American cultural mosaic.

Acculturation and Assimilation

Assimilation takes place at many different levels, but for the individual, it is likely that few captured the essence of the experience better than Rosa Cavalleri. Cavalleri came from the Italian town of Cuggiono in 1884 as a frightened young woman, joining her husband in a mining camp in remote Missouri. After undergoing numerous tribulations, Cavalleri settled in Chicago, where she cleaned floors and bathrooms, while remarrying and successfully raising a family. As Cavalleri neared death in 1943, she mused: "Only one wish more I have: I'd love to go in Italia again before I die. Now I speak English good like an American I could go anywherewhere millionaires go and high people. I would look the high people in the face and ask them questions I'd like to know. I wouldn't be afraid nownot of anybody. I'd be proud I come from America and speak English. I would go to Bugiarno [Cuggiono] and see the people and talk to the bosses in the silk factory.... I could talk to the Superiora now. I'd tell her, `Why you were so meanyou threw me out that poor girl whose heart was so kind toward you? You think you'll go to heaven like that?' I'd scold them like that now. I wouldn't be afraid. They wouldn't hurt me now I come from America. Me, that's why I love America. That's what I learned in America: not to be afraid." (Marie Hall Ets, Rosa: The Life of an Italian Immigrant. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1970; p. 254.)

The integration of Italians like Cavalleri into American life was a result of changes in both the group and the larger society. Italians were beginning to make a commitment to permanent settlement. This process was substantially underway by 1910, cresting in the 1920s when new immigration fell off. After this, perpetuation of the old-world public culture became increasingly difficult, although the family-based value structure was more resilient. During the 1920s and 1930s, the second generation continued to display many of its hallmarks: children of immigrants still held largely blue-collar occupations and were underrepresented in schools, tied to Little Italy residences, and attracted to in-group marriageschoices that demonstrated the continuing power of parental mores.

Changing contexts, however, diminished the "social distance" separating Italians from other Americans. In the 1930s, second-generation Italian Americans joined forces with others in labor unions and lobbied for benefits. They also began to make political gains as part of the Democratic Party's New Deal coalition. Also for the first time, the national popular culture began to include Italian Americans among its heroes. In music, sports, politics, and cinema the careers of Frank Sinatra, Joe DiMaggio, Fiorello LaGuardia, Frank Capra, and Don Ameche suggested that national attitudes toward Italians were in transition.

World War II was a critical benchmark in the acceptance of Italian Americans. Their wholehearted support of America's cause and their disproportionately high ratio of service in the military legitimized them in American eyes. The war also transformed many Little Italies, as men and women left for military service or to work in war industries. Upon their return, many newly affluent Italian Americans left for suburban locations and fresh opportunities, further eroding the institutions and contadino culture that once thrived in ethnic settlements.

The Cold War pushed the group further into the mainstream as Italian Americans joined in the anti-communist fervor gripping the nation. Simultaneously, structural changes in the economy vastly expanded the availability of white collar, managerial positions, and Italian Americans jumped to take advantage. Beginning in the 1950s, they pursued higher education in greater numbers than ever before, many receiving aid as a result of the G.I. Bill. Such developments put them into more immediate and positive contact with other Americans, who exhibited greater acceptance in the postwar years.

Ironically, a resurgent Italian American ethnicity emerged at the same time, as the group experienced increasing integration into the larger society. Italian Americans were active participants in the ethnic revival of the 1960s and 1970s. As American core values came under assault in the midst of Vietnam, Watergate, and the rising counterculture, and the nation's urban centers became torn by riots and civil protest, Italian Americans felt especially vulnerable and besieged. Unlike other ethnic groups, they had remained in urban enclaves, manifesting high rates of home owner-ship, where they now found themselves in contact and conflict with African Americans. Many interpreted the ensuing clashes in cultural terms, seeing themselves as an embattled minority defending traditional values in the face of new compensatory government programs. In response, ethnic traditions surrounding family, neighborhood, and homes gained heightened visibility and strength. New Italian American organizations and publications fostering ethnic identity came into being, and many old rituals experienced a resurgence, most notably the celebration of the feste.

Intermarriage rates increased after the 1950s, especially among the third and fourth generations who were now coming of age. By 1991, the group's overall in-marriage rate was just under 33 percent, above the average of 26 percent for other ethnic groups. But among those born after 1940by now a majoritythe rate was only 20 percent, and these marriages crossed both ethnic and religious lines. Once a marginalized, despised minority, Italian Americans are now among the most highly accepted groups according to national surveys measuring "social distance" indicators (Italians ranked fourteenth in 1926, but fifth in 1977). All of the statistical data point to a high level of structural assimilation in American society, although Italian American ethnicity has not disappeared.

That Italian American identity has lost much of its former negative weight is suggested further by recent census figures for ancestry group claiming. The 1980 census recorded 12.1 million individuals who claimed Italian ancestry (5.4 percent of national population). By 1990 this figure had risen to 14.7 million (5.9 percent), indicating that ethnicity remains an important and acceptable component of self-identification for substantial numbers of Italian Americans.

Despite strong evidence of integration, Italian Americans retain distinguishing characteristics. They are still geographically concentrated in the old settlement areas, and they display a pronounced attachment to the values of domesticity and family loyalty. Italian Americans still rely heavily on personal and kin networks in residential choices, visiting patterns, and general social interaction. Perhaps most distinctive, the group continues to suffer from stereotypes associating it with criminal behavior, especially in the form of organized crime and the mafia. These images have persisted despite research documenting that Italian Americans possess crime rates no higher than other segments of American society and that organized crime is a multi-ethnic enterprise. Television and film images of Italian Americans continue to emphasize criminals, "lovable or laughable dimwits" who engage in dead-end jobs, and heavy-accented, obese "Mamas" with their pasta pots.

These representations have influenced the movement of Italian Americans into the highest levels of corporate and political life. The innuendos of criminal ties advanced during Geraldine Ferraro's candidacy for vice-president in 1984 and during Mario Cuomo's aborted presidential bids illustrate the political repercussions of these stereotypes, and many Italian Americans believe that bias has kept them underrepresented in the top echelons of the business world. Since the 1970s, such organizations as the Americans of Italian Descent, the Sons of Italy in America, and the National Italian American Foundation have mounted broad-based anti-defamation campaigns protesting such negative imagery.


The major national holidays of ItalyFesta della Republica (June 5), Festa dell'Unità Nazionale (November 6), and Festa del Lavoro (May 1)are no longer occasions of public celebration among Italian Americans. Some religious holidays, such as Epifania di Gesù (January 6), receive only passing notice. Most Italian Americans celebrate Christmas Day, New Year's Day, and Easter Day, but usually without any particular ethnic character. The principal occasions of public celebration typically revolve around Columbus Day, the quintessential Italian American national holiday, and the feste honoring patron saints. In both cases, these events have, in general, become multi-day celebrations virtually devoid of any religious or Italian national connotation, involving numerous non-Italians.

In New Orleans, Louisiana, St. Joseph's Day (March 19) is celebrated by some members of the Italian-American community. The tradition began in Sicily, the origin of much of New Orleans' Italian-American population. The day was commemorated by the building of temporary three-tiered alters, loaded with food offerings for the saint. The alters were found in private homes, churches, some restaurants, and public places associated with Italians, with the general public invited. Visitors to the alters are often given lagniappe (a sack of cookies and fava beans, a good luck charm) to take home.

Preparations for St. Joseph's Day began several weeks in advance with baking of cookies, breads and cakes. Cookies, such as twice-baked biscotti and sesame-seed varieties, could be shaped into forms with religious significance. Bread, cannoli, seafood and vegetable dishes are also found on the alter. Such dishes include forschias and pasta Milanese covered with mudriga. Mudriga was also called St. Joseph's sawdust, made of bread crumbs and sugar. No meat was found because the holiday almost always falls during Lent. In addition to food, the alter often had an image of St. Joseph, home grown flowers, candles and palm branches.

Italian immigrants utilized traditional costumes, folk songs, folklore, and dances for special events, but like many aspects of Italian life, they were so regionally specific that they defy easy characterization. Perhaps the most commonly recognized folk dance, the tarantella, for example, is Neapolitan, with little diffusion elsewhere in the peninsula.


The difficult conditions of daily life in Italy dictated frugal eating habits. Most peasants consumed simple meals based on whatever vegetables or grains (lentils, peas, fava beans, corn, tomatoes, onions, and wild greens) were prevalent in each region. A staple for most common folk was coarse black bread. Pasta was a luxury, and peasants typically ate meat only two or three times a year on special holidays. Italian cuisine wasand still isregionally distinctive, and even festive meals varied widely. The traditional Christmas dish in Piedmont was agnolotti (ravioli), while anguille (eels) were served in Campania, sopa friulana (celery soup) in Friuli, and bovoloni (fat snails) in Vicenza.

In the United States, many immigrants planted small backyard garden plots to supplement the table and continued to raise cows, chickens, and goats whenever possible. Outdoor brick ovens were commonplace, serving as clear ethnic markers of Italian residences. With improved economic conditions, pastas, meats, sugar, and coffee were consumed more frequently. One New York City immigrant remembered asking, "Who could afford to eat spaghetti more than once a week [in Italy]? In America no one starved, though a family earned no more than five or six dollars a week.... Don't you remember how our paesani here in America ate to their hearts delight till they were belching like pigs, and how they dumped mountains of uneaten food out the window? We were not poor in America; we just had a little less than others." (Leonard Covello, The Social Background of the Italo-American School Child. Totowa, New Jersey: Rowman and Littlefield, 1972; p. 295.)

"Italian cooking" in the United States has come to mean southern-Italian, especially Neapolitan, cuisine, which is rich in tomato sauces, heavily spiced, and pasta-based. Spaghetti and meatballs (not generally known in Italy) and pizza are perhaps the quintessential Italian dishes in the United States. More recently, northern Italian cooking characterized by rice (risotto ) and corn (polenta ) dishes and butter-based recipeshas become increasingly common in homes and restaurants. Garlic (aglio ), olive oil (olio d'oliva ), mushrooms (funghi ), and nuts (nochi ) of various types are common ingredients found in Italian cooking. Wine (vino ), consumed in moderate amounts, is a staple. Overall, Italian dishes have become so popular that they have been accepted into the nation's dietary repertoire, but not in strictly old-world forms. Americanized dishes are generally milder in their spicing and more standardized than old-world fare.


A number of Italian American organizations have supported the Cooley's Anemia Foundation to fund research into Thalassemia, once thought to be a sickle cell anemia confined to persons of Mediterranean ancestry. Recent research has demonstrated the fallacy of this belief, however, and contributions have largely ceased.


Italian is a Romance language derived directly from Latin; it utilizes the Latin alphabet, but the letters "j," "k," "w," "x," and "y" are found only in words of foreign origin. "Standard" Italianbased on the Tuscan dialectis a relatively recent invention, and was not used universally until well into the twentieth century. Numerous dialects were the dominant linguistic feature during the years of mass immigration.

Italian dialects did not simply possess different tonalities or inflections. Some were languages in their own right, with separate vocabularies and, for a few, fully developed literatures (e.g., Venetian, Piedmontese, and Sicilian). Italy's mountainous terrain produced conditions in which proximate areas often possessed mutually unintelligible languages. For example, the word for "today" in standard Italian is oggi, but ancheuj in Piedmontese, uncuó in Venetian, ste iorne in Sicilian, and oji in Calabrian. Similarly, "children" in Italian is bambini, but it becomes cit in Piedomontese, fruz in Friulian, guagliuni in Neapolitan, zitedi in Calabrian, and picciriddi in Sicilian. Thus, language facilitated campanilismo, further fragmenting the emerging Italian American world.

Very soon after the Italians' arrival, all dialects became infused with Americanisms, quickly creating a new form of communication often intelligible only to immigrants. The new patois was neither Italian nor English, and it included such words as giobba for job, grossiera for grocery, bosso for boss, marachetta for market, baccausa for outhouse, ticchetto for ticket, bisiniss for business, trocco for truck, sciabola for shovel, loffare for the verb to loaf, and carpetto for carpet. Angelo Massari, who immigrated to Tampa, Florida, in 1902, described preparations in his Sicilian village prior to leaving it: "I used to interview people who had returned from America. I asked them thousands of questions, how America was, what they did in Tampa, what kind of work was to be had.... One of them told me the language was English, and I asked him how to say one word or another in that language. I got these wonderful samples of a Sicilian-American English from him: tu sei un boia, gud morni, olraiti, giachese, misti, sciusi, bred, iessi, bud [you are a boy, good morning, alright, jacket, mister, excuse me, bread, yes, but]. He told me also that in order to ask for work, one had to say, `Se misti gari giobbi fo mi?' [Say, mister got a job for me?]." (Angelo Massari, The Wonderful Life of Angelo Massari, translated by Arthur Massolo. New York: Exposition Press, 1965; pp. 46-47.)

Italian proverbs tend to reflect the conditions of peasant and immigrant lives: Work hard, work always, and you will never know hunger; He who leaves the old way for the new knows what he loses but knows not what he will find; Buy oxen and marry women from your village only; The wolf changes his skin but not his vice; The village is all the world; Do not miss the Saint's day, he helps you and provides at all times; Tell me who your friends are and I will tell you what you are; He who respects others will be respected.

Family and Community Dynamics

The family (la famiglia ) rested at the heart of Italian society. Family solidarity was the major bulwark from which the rural population confronted a harsh society, and the family unit (including blood relatives and relatives by marriage) became the center of allegiances. Economically and socially, the family functioned as a collective enterprise, an "all-inclusive social world" in which the individual was subordinated to the larger entity. Parents expected children to assist them at an early age by providing gainful labor, and family values stressed respect for the elderly, obedience to parents, hard work, and deference to authority.

The traditional Italian family was "father-headed, but mother-centered." In public, the father was the uncontested authority figure and wives were expected to defer to their husbands. At home, however, females exercised considerable authority as wives and mothers, and played central roles in sustaining familial networks. Still, male children occupied a favored position of superiority over females, and strong family mores governed female behavior. Women's activities were largely confined to the home, and strict rules limited their public behavior, including access to education and outside employment. Formal rituals of courting, chaperonage, and arranged marriages strictly governed relations between the sexes. Above all, protection of female chastity was critical to maintaining family honor.

Family and kin networks also guided migration patterns, directing precise village flows to specific destinations. During sojourner migrations, the work of women in home villages sustained the family well-being in Italy and allowed male workers to actively compete in the world labor market. In America, the extended family became an important network for relatives to seek and receive assistance. Thus, migration and settlement operated within a context of family considerations.

Attempts to transfer traditional family customs to America engendered considerable tension between generations. More educated and Americanized children ventured to bridge two worlds in which the individualist notions of American society often clashed with their parents' family-centered ethos. Still, strong patterns of in-marriage characterized the second generation, and many of their parents' cultural values were successfully inculcated. These carryovers resulted in a strong attachment to neighborhoods and families, consistent deference to authority, and blue-collar work choices. The second generation, however, began to adopt American practices in terms of family life (seen, for example, in smaller family size and English language usage), and the collective nature of the unit began to break down as the generations advanced.


The peasant culture placed little value on formal instruction, seeking instead to have children contribute as soon as possible to family earnings. From the peasant perspective, education consisted primarily of passing along moral and social values through parental instruction (the term buon educato means "well-raised or behaved"). In southern Italy, formal education was seldom a means of upward mobility since public schools were not institutions of the people. They were poorly organized and supported, administered by a distrusted northern bureaucracy, and perceived as alien to the goals of family solidarity. Proverbs such as "Do not let your children become better than you" spoke to these perceptions, and high rates of illiteracy testified to their power.

These attitudes remained strong among immigrants in America, many of whom planned a quick repatriation and saw little reason to lose children's wages. Parents also worried about the individualist values taught in American public schools. The saying "America took from us our children" was a common lament. Thus, truancy rates among Italians were high, especially among girls, for whom education had always been regarded as unnecessary since tradition dictated a path of marriage, motherhood, and homemaking.

Antagonism toward schools was derived not only from culture, but also from economic need and realistic judgments about mobility possibilities. Given the constricted employment options open to immigrants (largely confined to manual, unskilled labor), and the need for family members to contribute economically, extended schooling offered few rewards. From the parental viewpoint, anything threatening the family's collective strength was dangerous. Generations frequently clashed over demands to terminate formal education and find work, turn over earnings, and otherwise assist the family financially in other ways. Prior to World War I, less than one percent of Italian children were enrolled in high school.

As the second generation came of age in the 1920s and 1930s and America moved toward a service economy, however, education received greater acceptance. Although the children of immigrants generally remained entrenched in the working class (though frequently as skilled workers), they extended their education, often attending vocational schools, and could be found among the nation's clerks, bookkeepers, managers, and sales personnel. The economic downturn occasioned by the depression resulted in increased educational opportunities for some immigrants since job prospects were limited.

Italian Americans were well situated in post-World War II America to take advantage of the national expansion of secondary and higher education. They hastened to enroll in G.I. Bill programs and in the 1950s and 1960s began to send sons and daughters to colleges. By the 1970s, Italian Americans averaged about 12 years of formal education; in 1991 the group slightly surpassed the national mean of 12.7 years.


Although Italian immigrants were overwhelmingly Roman Catholic, their faith was a personal, folk religion of feast days and peasant traditions that often had little to do with formal dogma or rituals. As such, its practices differed greatly from those encountered in America's Irish-dominated Catholic Church. Unlike Irish Americans, most Italians possessed no great reverence for priests (who had sometimes been among the oppressors in Italy) or the institutions of the official Church, and they disliked what they regarded as the impersonal, puritanical, and overly doctrinal Irish approach to religion. As in Italy, men continued to manifest anticlerical traditions and to attend church only on selected occasions, such as weddings and funerals.

For their part, the Irish clergy generally regarded Italians as indifferent Catholicseven pagans and often relegated them to basement services. The Irish American hierarchy agonized over the "Italian Problem," and suspicion and mistrust initially characterized relations between the groups, leading to defections among the immigrant generation and demands for separate parishes. A disproportionately low presence of Italian Americans in the church leadership today is at least partially a legacy of this strained relationship. Protestant missionaries were not unaware of these developments. Many attempted to win converts, but met with very little success. With the establishment of "national parishes," however, the Catholic Church hit firmer ground, and Italian parishes proliferated after 1900. In many settlements, parish churches became focal points providing a sense of ethnic identity, a range of social services, and a source of community adhesion.

Italian immigrant Catholicism centered on the local patron saints and the beliefs, superstitions, and practices associated with the feste. The feste not only assisted in perpetuating local identities, but they also served as a means for public expression of immigrant faith. In the early years, feast days replicated those of the homeland. Festivals were occasions for great celebration, complete with music, parades, dancing, eating, and fireworks displays. At the high point, statues of local saints such as San Rocco, San Giuseppe, or San Gennaro, were carried through the streets of Little Italies in a procession. New Yorker Richard Gambino, in Blood of My Blood, recalled the feast days of his youth: "Not long ago there were many such street feste. Their aromas of food, the sight of burly men swaying from side to side and lurching forward under the weight of enormous statues of exotic Madonnas and saints laden with money and gifts, the music of Italian bands in uniforms with dark-peaked caps, white shirts, and black ties and the bright arches of colored lights spanning the city streets.... True to the spirit of campanilismo, each group of paesani in New York had its festa. Three feste were larger than the others. Sicilians, especially from the region of Agrigento, went all out for the huge September festival of San Gandolfo. In July, thousands turned out to honor the Madonna del Carmine. And in the fall, Neapolitans paid their respect to the patron of their mother city, San Gennaro."

Worshippers lined the streets as processions moved toward the parish church, and they vied to pin money on the statue, place gifts on platforms, or make various penances (walking barefoot, crawling, licking the church floor [lingua strascinuni ], reciting certain prayers). Irish prelates frequently attempted to ban such events, viewing them as pagan rituals and public spectacles. A cluster of beliefs focusing on the folk world of magic, witches, ghosts, and demons further estranged Italians from the church hierarchy. Many immigrants were convinced, for example, of the existence of the evil eye (malocchio or jettatura ), and believed that wearing certain symbols, the most potent of which were associated with horns (corni ) or garlic amulets, provided protection from its power.

As the second and subsequent generations grew to maturity, most strictly old-world forms of religious observance and belief were discarded, leading to what some have called the "hibernization" of Italian American Catholicism. Many feast day celebrations remain, although, in some cases, they have been transformed into mass cultural events which draw thousands of non-Italians. The San Gennaro feste in Manhattan's Little Italy is a case in point: once celebrated only by Neapolitans, it now attracts heterogeneous crowds from hundreds of miles away.

Employment and Economic Traditions

Throughout the years of mass migration, Italians clustered heavily in the ranks of unskilled, manual labor. In part, this seems to have resulted from cultural preferencemen favored outdoor jobs dovetailing old-world skillsand immigrant strategies that sought readily available employment in order to return quickly to Italy with nest eggs. But American employers also imposed the choice of positions since many regarded Italians as unsuited for indoor work or heavy industry. Immigrants thus frequently engaged in seasonal work on construction sites and railroads and in mines and public works projects. Male employment often operated under the "boss system" in which countrymen (padroni ) served as middlemen between gangs of immigrant workers and American employers. Married women generally worked at home, either concentrating on family tasks or other home-based jobs such as keeping boarders, attending to industrial homework, or assisting in family-run stores. In larger urban centers, unmarried women worked outside the home in garment, artificial flower, and costume jewelry factories, and in sweatshops and canneries, often laboring together in all-Italian groups.

Some Little Italies were large enough to support a full economic structure of their own. In these locations, small import stores, shops, restaurants, fish merchants, and flower traders proliferated, offering opportunities for upward mobility within the ethnic enclave. In many cities, Italians dominated certain urban trades such as fruit and vegetable peddling, confectioniering, rag picking, shoe-shining, ice-cream vending, and stevedoring. A portion of the immigrants were skilled artisans who typically replicated their old-world crafts of shoemaking and repairing, tailoring, carpentry, and barbering.

The dense concentration of Italian Americans in blue-collar occupations persisted into the second generation, deriving from deliberate career choices, attitudes toward formal education, and the economic dynamics of the nation. Italians had begun to make advances out of the unskilled ranks during the prosperous 1920s, but many gains were overshadowed during the Great Depression. Partially in response to these conditions, Italiansboth men and womenmoved heavily into organized labor during the 1930s, finding the CIO industrial unions especially attractive. Union memberships among Italian Americans rose significantly; by 1937, the AFL International Ladies Garment Workers Union (with vice president Luigi Antonini) counted nearly 100,000 Italian members in the New York City area alone. At the same time, women were becoming a presence in service and clerical positions.

The occupational choices of Italian Americans shifted radically after World War II, when structural changes in the American economy facilitated openings in more white collar occupations. Italian Americans were strategically situated to take advantage of these economic shifts, being clustered in the urban areas where economic expansion took place and ready to move into higher education. Since the 1960s, Italian Americans have become solidly grounded in the middle-class, managerial, and professional ranks. As a group, by 1991 they had equalled or surpassed national averages in income and occupational prestige.

Politics and Government

Italians were slow to take part in the American political process. Due to the temporary nature of early migration, few took the time to achieve naturalization in order to vote. Anti-government attitudes, exemplified in the ladro governo ("the government as thief") outlook, also limited participation. Hence, Italian voters did not initially translate into political clout. Early political activity took place at the urban machine level, where immigrants typically encountered Irish Democratic bosses offering favors in return for support, but often blocking out aspiring Italian politicians. In such cities, those Italians seeking office frequently drifted to the Republican Party.

Naturalization rates increased during the 1920s, but the next decade was marked by a political watershed. During the 1930s, Italian Americans joined the Democratic New Deal coalition, many becoming politically active for the first time in doing so. The careers of independent/sometime-Republican Fiorello LaGuardia and leftist Vito Marcantonio benefited from this expansion. As a concentrated urban group with strong union ties, Italians constituted an important component of President Franklin Roosevelt's national support. The Democratic hold on Italians was somewhat shaken by Roosevelt's "dagger in the back" speech condemning Italy's attack on France in 1940, but, overall, the group maintained its strong commitment to the Party. In the early 1970s, only 17 percent of Italian Americans were registered Republicans (45 percent were registered Democrats), although many began to vote Republican in recent presidential elections. Both President Ronald Reagan and President George Bush were supported by strong Italian-American majorities. Overall, the group has moved from the left toward the political center. By 1991, Italian American voter registrations were 35 percent Republican and 32 percent Democratic.

The political ascent of Italian Americans came after World War II with the maturation of the second and third generations, the acquisition of increased education and greater wealth, and a higher level of acceptance by the wider society. Italian Americans were well-represented in city and state offices and had begun to penetrate the middle ranks of the federal government, especially the judicial system. By the 1970s and 1980s, there were Italian American cabinet members, governors, federal judges, and state legislators. Only four Italian Americans sat in Congress during the 1930s, but more than 30 served in the 1980s; in 1987 there were three U.S. Senators. The candidacy of Geraldine Ferraro for the Democratic vice presidency in 1984, the high profile of New York governor Mario Cuomo in American political discourse, and the appointment of Antonin Scalia to the Supreme Court are indicative of the group's political importance.

Since World War II, most Italian Americans have remained largely uninvolved ineven ignorant ofthe political affairs of Italy, no doubt a legacy of World War II and the earlier brush with fascism. They have been very responsive, however, to appeals for relief assistance during periodic natural disasters such as floods and earthquakes.

Individual and Group Contributions

Italians constitute such a large and diverse group that notable individuals have appeared in virtually every aspect of American life.


Lorenzo Da Ponte (1747-1838), taught courses on Italian literature at Columbia University and sponsored the first Italian opera house in Manhattan in the 1830s. Prior to becoming president of Yale University in 1977, A. Bartlett Giamatti (1938-1989) was a distinguished scholar of English and comparative literature. He resigned his presidency to become the commissioner of the National Baseball League. Peter Sammartino (1904-1992) taught at the City College of New York and Columbia University before founding Fairleigh Dickinson University. He published 14 books on various aspects of education.


Amadeo P. Giannini (1870-1949) began a store-front bank in the Italian North Beach section of San Francisco in 1904. Immediately after the 1906 earthquake he began granting loans to residents to rebuild. Later, Giannini pioneered in branch banking and in financing the early film industry. Giannini's Bank of America eventually became the largest bank in the United States. Lido Anthony "Lee" Iacocca (1924 ) became president of Ford Motor Company in 1970. Iacocca left Ford after eight years to take over the ailing Chrysler Corporation, which was near bankruptcy. He rescued the company, in part through his personal television ads which made his face instantly recognizable. Iacocca also spent four years as chairman of the Statue of Liberty/Ellis Island Foundation, which supported the refurbishment of these national monuments.


Frank Capra (1897-1991) directed more than 20 feature films and won three Academy Awards for Best Director. His films, stamped with an upbeat optimism, became known as "Capra-corn." Capra won his Oscars for It Happened One Night (1934), Mr. Deeds Goes to Town (1936), and You Can't Take It With You (1938), but he is also well known for Lost Horizon (1937), Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939), and It's a Wonderful Life (1947). In addition to directing, Capra served four terms as president of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences and three terms as president of the Screen Directors Guild. Francis Ford Coppola (1939 ) earned international fame as director of The Godfather (1972), an adaptation of Mario Puzo's best selling novel. The film won several Academy Awards, including Best Picture. Among numerous other films, Coppola has made two sequels to The Godfather ; the second film of this trilogy, released in 1974, also won multiple awards, including an Academy Award for Best Picture.

Martin Scorcese (1942 ), film director and screenwriter, directed Mean Streets (1973), Taxi Driver (1976), Raging Bull (1980), and Good Fellas (1990), among others, all of which draw from the urban, ethnic milieu of his youth. Sylvester Stallone (1946 ), actor, screenwriter, and director, has gained fame in each of these categories. He is perhaps best known as the title character in both Rocky (1976), which won an Academy Award for Best Picture (and spawned four sequels), and the Rambo series. Don Ameche (1908-1993), whose career spanned several decades, performed in vaudeville, appeared on radio serials ("The Chase and Sanborn Hour"), and starred in feature films. Ameche first achieved national acclaim in The Story of Alexander Graham Bell (1941) and appeared in many films, earning an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor for his performance in Cocoon (1986). Ernest Borgnine (born Ermes Effron Borgnino, 1915 ) spent his early acting career portraying villains, such as the brutal prison guard in From Here to Eternity, but captured the hearts of Americans with his sensitive portrayal of a Bronx butcher in Marty (1956), for which he won an Academy Award. Borgnine also appeared on network television as Lieutenant Commander Quintin McHale on "McHale's Navy," a comedy series that ran on ABC from 1962 to 1965. Liza Minnelli (1946 ), stage, television, and motion picture actress and vocalist, won an Academy Award for Cabaret (1972), an Emmy for Liza with a Z (1972), and a Tony Award for The Act (1977).


Pietro DiDonato (1911-1992) published the classic Italian immigrant novel, Christ in Concrete, in 1939 to critical acclaim. He also captured the immigrant experience in later works, including Three Circles of Light (1960) and Life of Mother Cabrini (1960). Novelist Jerre Mangione (1909 ) wrote Mount Allegro (1943), an autobiographical work describing his upbringing among Sicilian Americans in Rochester, New York. Mangione is also noted for his Reunion in Sicily (1950), An Ethnic at Large (1978), and La Storia: Five Centuries of the Italian American Experience (1992), with Ben Morreale. Gay Talese (1932 ), began his career as a reporter for the New York Times, but later earned fame for his national bestsellers, including The Kingdom and the Power (1969), Honor Thy Father (1971), and Thy Neighbor's Wife (1980). Talese's Unto the Sons (1992) dealt with his own family's immigrant experience. The poetry of Lawrence Ferlinghetti (1919 ) captured the essence of the Beat Generation during the 1950s and 1960s. His San Francisco bookstore, City Lights Books, became a gathering place for literary activists. John Ciardi (1916-1986), poet, translator, and literary critic, published over 40 books of poetry and criticism and profoundly impacted the literary world as the long-time poetry editor of the Saturday Review. Ciardi's translation of Dante's Divine Comedy is regarded as definitive. Novelist Mario Puzo (1920 ) published two critical successes, Dark Arena (1955) and The Fortunate Pilgrim (1965), prior to The Godfather in 1969, which sold over ten million copies and reached vast audiences in its film adaptations. Helen Barolini (1925 ), poet, essayist, and novelist, explored the experiences of Italian-American women in her Umbertina (1979) and The Dream Book (1985).


Francis Albert "Frank" Sinatra (1915-1998), began singing with the Harry James Band in the late 1930s, moved to the Tommy Dorsey Band, and then became America's first teenage idol in the early 1940s, rising to stardom as a "crooner." Moving into film, Sinatra established a new career in acting that was launched in 1946. He won an Academy Award for his performance in From Here to Eternity in 1953. Since 1954, Sinatra has made 31 films, released at least 800 records, and participated in numerous charity affairs.

Mario Lanza (1921-1959) was a famous tenor who appeared on radio, in concert, on recordings, and in motion pictures. Vocalist and television star Perry Como (born Pierino Roland Como, 1913 ) hosted one of America's most popular television shows in the 1950s. Frank Zappa (1940-1993), musician, vocalist, and composer, founded the influential rock group Mothers of Invention in the 1960s. Noted for his social satire and musical inventiveness, Zappa was named Pop Musician of the Year for three years in a row in 1970-1972.


Fiorello LaGuardia (1882-1947) gained national fame as an energetic mayor of New York City, in which capacity he served for three terms (1934-1945). Earlier, LaGuardia sat for six terms as a Republican representative in the U.S. Congress. Known as "The Little Flower," LaGuardia earned a reputation as an incorruptible, hard working, and humane administrator. John O. Pastore (1912 ) was the first Italian American to be elected a state governor (Rhode Island, 1945). In 1950, he represented that state in the U.S. Senate. Geraldine Ferraro (1935 ) was the first American woman nominated for vice president by a major political party in 1984 when she ran with Democratic presidential candidate Walter Mondale. Her earlier career included service as assistant district attorney in New York and two terms in the U.S. Congress. Mario Cuomo (1932 ) was elected governor of New York in 1982 and has been reelected twice since then. Prior to his election as governor, Cuomo served as lieutenant governor and New York's secretary of state.

John J. Sirica (1904-1992), chief federal judge, U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia, presided over the Watergate trials. He was named Time magazine's Man of the Year in 1973. Antonin Scalia (1936 ) became the first Italian American to sit on the U.S. Supreme Court when he was appointed Associate Justice in 1986. Rudolph W. Giuliani (1944 ), served for many years as U.S. Attorney for the southern district of New York and waged war against organized crime and public corruption. In 1993, he was elected mayor of New York City.


Father Eusebio Chino (Kino) (1645-1711) was a Jesuit priest who worked among the native people of Mexico and Arizona for three decades, establishing more than 20 mission churches, exploring wide areas, and introducing new methods of agriculture and animal-raising. Francesca Xavier Cabrini (1850-1917), the first American to be sainted by the Roman Catholic Church, worked with poor Italian immigrants throughout North and South America, opening schools, orphanages, hospitals, clinics, and novitiates for her Missionary Sisters of the Sacred Heart.


Enrico Fermi (1901-1954), a refugee from Benito Mussolini's fascist regime, is regarded as the "father of atomic energy." Fermi was awarded the 1938 Nobel Prize in physics for his identification of new radioactive elements produced by neutron bombardment. He worked with the Manhattan Project during World War II to produce the first atomic bomb, achieving the world's first self-sustaining chain reaction on December 2, 1942. Salvador Luria (1912-1991) was a pioneer of molecular biology and genetic engineering. In 1969, while he was a faculty member at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Luria was awarded the Nobel Prize for his work on viruses. Rita Levi-Montalcini (1909 ) was awarded a Nobel Prize in 1986 for her work in cell biology and cancer research. Emilio Segre (1905-1989), a student of Fermi, received the 1959 Nobel Prize in physics for his discovery of the antiproton.


Joseph "Joe" DiMaggio (1914-1999), the "Yankee Clipper," was voted the Greatest Living Player in baseball. DiMaggio set his 56 consecutive game hitting streak in 1941. (The record still stands.) In a career spanning 1936 to 1951, DiMaggio led the New York Yankees to ten world championships and retired with a .325 lifetime batting average. At the time of his death, Vincent Lombardi (1913-1970) was the winningest coach in professional football, and the personification of tenacity and commitment in American sports. As head coach of the Green Bay Packers, Lombardi led the team to numerous conference, league, and world titles during the 1960s, including two Super Bowls in 1967 and 1968. Rocky Marciano (born Rocco Francis Marchegiano, 1924-1969) was the only undefeated heavyweight boxing champion, winning all his fights. Known as the "Brockton Bomber," Marciano won the heavyweight championship over Jersey Joe Walcott in 1952 and held it until his voluntary retirement in 1956. Rocky Graziano (born Rocco Barbella, 1922 ), middleweight boxing champion, is best known for his classic bouts with Tony Zale. Lawrence "Yogi" Berra (1925 ), a Baseball Hall of Fame member who played for the New York Yankees as catcher for 17 years, enjoyed a career that lasted from 1946 to 1963. He also coached and managed several professional baseball teams, including the New York Mets and the Houston Astros. Joseph Garagiaola (1926 ) played with the St. Louis Cardinals (1946-1951) and several other Major League clubs.


Frank Stella (1936 ) pioneered the development of "minimal art," involving three-dimensional, "shaped" paintings and sculpture. His work has been exhibited in museums around the world. Constantino Brumidi (1805-1880), a political exile from the liberal revolutions of the 1840s, became known as "the Michelangelo of the United States Capitol." Brumidi painted the interior of the dome of the Capitol in Washington, D.C., from 1865 to 1866, as well as numerous other areas of the building. Ralph Fasanella (1914 ), a self-taught primitive painter whose work has been compared to that of Grandma Moses, is grounded in his immigrant backgrounds.



Since the mid-1800s, more than 2,000 Italian American newspapers have been established, representing a full range of ideological, religious, professional, and commercial interests. As of 1980, about 50 newspapers were still in print.

America Oggi ( America Today ).

Currently the only Italian-language daily newspaper in the United States.

Contact: Andrea Mantineo, Editor.

Address: 41 Bergentine Avenue, Westwood, New Jersey 07675.

Telephone: (212) 268-0250.

Fax: (212) 268-0379.

E-mail: [email protected].

Fra Noi ( Among Us ).

A monthly publication in a bilingual format by the Catholic Scalabrini order; features articles on issues primarily of interest to Chicago's Italian community.

Contact: Paul Basile, Editor.

Address: 263 North York Road, Elmhurst, Illinois 60126.

Telephone: (708) 782-4440.

Italian Americana: Cultural and Historical Review.

An international journal published semi-annually by the University of Rhode Island's College of Continuing Education.

Contact: Carol Bonomo Albright, Editor.

Address: 199 Promenade Street, Providence, Rhode Island 02908.

Italian Tribune News.

Publishes a heavily illustrated journal that features articles weekly in English on Italian culture and Italian American contributions.

Contact: Joan Alagna, Editor.

Address: 427 Bloomfield Avenue, Newark, New Jersey 07107.

Telephone: (201) 485-6000.

Fax: (201) 485-8967.

E-mail: [email protected].

The Italian Voice ( La Voce Italiana ).

Provides regional, national, and local news coverage; published weekly in English.

Contact: Cesarina A. Earl, Editor.

Address: P.O. Box 9, Totowa, New Jersey 07511.

Telephone: (201) 942-5028.

Sons of Italy Times.

Publishes news bi-weekly concerning the activities of Sons of Italy lodges and the civic, professional, and charitable interests of the membership.

Contact: John B. Acchione III, Editor.

Address: 414 Walnut Street, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania 19106-3323.

Telephone: (215) 592-1713.

Fax: (215) 592-9152.

E-mail: [email protected].

VIA: Voices in Italian Americana.

A literary journal published by Purdue University.

Contact: Fred L. Gardophe, Editor.

Address: Department of Foreign Languages and Literatures, 1359 Stanley Coulter Hall, Purdue University, West Lafayette, Indiana 47907-1359.

Telephone: (765) 494-3839.

Fax: (765) 496-1700.


WHLD-AM (1270).

Broadcasts eight hours of Italian-language programming a week.

Contact: Paul A. Butler.

Address: 2692 Staley Road, Grand Island, New York 14072.

Telephone: (716) 773-1270.

Fax: (716) 773-1498.


WSBC-AM (1240).

Presents seven hours of Italian-language programming each week.

Contact: Roy Bellavia, General Manager.

Address: 4900 West Belmont Avenue, Chicago, Illinois 60641.

Telephone: (773) 282-9722.

WSRF-AM (1580).

Features 12 hours of Italian-language programming weekly.

Contact: Tony Bourne, Program Director.

Address: 3000 S.W. 60th Avenue, Ft. Lauderdale, Florida 33314.

Telephone: (305) 581-1580.

Fax: (305) 581-1301.

WUNR-AM (1600).

Features 12 hours of programs of ethnic interest.

Contact: Jane A. Clarke.

Address: 160 North Washington Street, Boston, Massachusetts 02114-2142.

Telephone: (617) 367-9003.

Fax: (617) 367-2265.

Organizations and Associations

America-Italy Society (AIS).

Fosters friendship between Italy and the United States based upon mutual appreciation of their respective contributions to science, art, music, literature, law, and government.

Contact: Gianfranco Monacelli, President.

Address: 3 East 48th Street, New York, New York 10017.

Telephone: (212) 838-1560.

American Committee on Italian Migration.

A non-profit social service organization advocating equitable immigration legislation and aiding newly arrived Italian immigrants. It sponsors conferences, publishes a newsletter, and disseminates information beneficial to new Italian Americans.

Contact: Rev. Peter P. Polo, National Executive Secretary.

Address: 373 Fifth Avenue, New York, New York 10016.

Telephone: (212) 679-4650.

E-mail: [email protected].

American Italian Historical Association.

Founded in 1966 by a group of academics as a professional organization interested in promoting basic research into the Italian American experience; encourages the collection and preservation of primary source materials, and supports the teaching of Italian American history.

Contact: Fred L. Gardaphe, President.

Address: 209 Flagg Place, Staten Island, New York 11304.

E-mail: [email protected].

Italian Cultural Exchange in the United States (ICE).

Promotes knowledge and appreciation of Italian culture among Americans.

Contact: Professor Salvatore R. Tocci, Executive Director.

Address: 27 Barrow Street, New York, New York 10014.

Telephone: (212) 255-0528.

Italian Historical Society of America.

Perpetuates Italian heritage in America and gathers historical data on Americans of Italian descent.

Contact: Dr. John J. LaCorte, Director.

Address: 111 Columbia Heights, Brooklyn, New York 11201.

Telephone: (718) 852-2929.

Fax: (718) 855-3925.

The National Italian American Foundation.

A nonprofit organization designed to promote the history, heritage, and accomplishments of Italian Americans and to foster programs advancing the interests of the Italian American community.

Contact: Dr. Fred Rotandaro, Executive Director.

Address: 666 Eleventh Street, N.W., Suite 800, Washington, D.C. 20001-4596.

Telephone: (202) 638-0220.

E-mail: [email protected].


Order Sons of Italy in America (OSIA).

Established in 1905, the organization is composed of lodges located throughout the United States. It seeks to preserve and disseminate information on Italian culture and encourages the involvement of its members in all civic, charitable, patriotic, and youth activities. OSIA is committed to supporting Italian-American cultural events and fighting discrimination.

Contact: Philip R. Piccigallo, Executive Director.

Address: 219 E Street, N.E., Washington, D.C., 20002.

Telephone: (202) 547-2900.

Fax: (202) 546-8168.

Museums and Research Centers

American Italian Renaissance Foundation.

Focuses on the contributions of Italian Americans in Louisiana. Its research library also includes the wide-ranging Giovanni Schiavo collection.

Contact: Joseph Maselli, Director.

Address: 537 South Peters Street, New Orleans, Louisiana 70130.

Telephone: (504) 891-1904.

The Balch Institute for Ethnic Studies.

Contains many documents addressing the Italian American experience in Pennsylvania and elsewhere, most notably the Leonard Covello collection. A published guide to the holdings is available.

Contact: Pamela Nelson, Associate Curator/Registrar.

Address: 18 South Seventh Street, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania 19106.

Telephone: (215) 925-8090.

Fax: (215) 9258195.

E-mail: [email protected].


The Center for Migration Studies.

Houses a vast collection of materials depicting Italian American activities. It features extensive records of Italian American Catholic parishes staffed by the Scalabrini order. The center also provides published guides to its collections.

Contact: Dr. Lydio F. Tomasi, Director.

Address: 209 Flagg Place, Staten Island, New York, 10304.

Telephone: (718) 351-8800.

Fax: (718) 667-4598.

E-mail: [email protected].


Immigration History Research Center (IHRC), University of Minnesota.

IHRC is the nation's most important repository for research materials dealing with the Italian American experience. The center holds major documentary collections representing a wide cross-section of Italian American life, numerous newspapers, and many published works. A published guide is available.

Contact: Dr. Rudolph J. Vecoli, Director.

Address: 826 Berry Street, St. Paul, Minnesota 55114.

Telephone: (612) 627-4208.

Fax: (612) 627-4190.

Email: [email protected].


The New York Public Library, Manuscripts Division.

Holds many collections relevant to the Italian American experience, most notably the papers of Fiorello LaGuardia, Vito Marcantonio, Gino C. Speranza, and Carlo Tresca.

Address: 42nd Street and Fifth Avenue, New York, New York 10018-2788.

Telephone: (212) 930-0801.

Sources for Additional Study

Alba, Richard. Italian Americans: Into the Twilight of Ethnicity. Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey: Prentice-Hall, 1985.

Battistella, Graziano. Italian Americans in the '80s: A Sociodemographic Profile. New York: Center for Migration Studies, 1989.

DeConde, Alexander. Half Bitter, Half Sweet: An Excursion into Italian American History. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1971.

Gabaccia, Donna. "Italian American Women: A Review Essay," Italian Americana, Volume 12, No. 1 (Fall/Winter 1993); pp. 38-61.

Gambino, Richard. Blood of My Blood. New York: Anchor, 1975.

Mangione, Jerre, and Ben Morriale. La Storia: Five Centuries of the Italian American Experience. New York: HarperCollins, 1992.

Orsi, Robert A. The Madonna of 115th Street: Faith and Community in Italian Harlem, 1880-1950. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1988.

Pozzetta, George E., "From Immigrants to Ethnics: The Italian American Experience," Journal of American Ethnic History, Volume 9, No. 1 (Fall 1989); pp. 67-95.

Vecoli, Rudolph J. "The Search for Italian American Identity: Continuity and Change," in Italian Americans: New Perspectives in Italian Immigration and Ethnicity, edited by Lydio Tomasi. Staten Island: Center for Migration Studies, 1985; pp. 88-112.

Italian Americans

views updated May 09 2018

Italian Americans


Identification and Location. The Italian peninsula is the European homeland of Italian Americans. Most Italian Americans trace their ancestry to the southern regions of Italy, although the earliest immigrants came mainly from the northern areas of the peninsula. Between 1880 and 1920 about five million Italians migrated to the United States from the poor southern regions, including Sicily. Many of the immigrants had little sense of an "Italian" identity, self-identifying instead with their hometowns or regions.

Italian Americans have settled throughout the United States, and there are "Little Italies" in New York, Boston, Chicago, Philadelphia, New Orleans, and San Francisco. Italians also settled in many less populated areas throughout the country. Most Italian immigrants were unskilled laborers who worked on the railroads, in the clothing shops, and on construction projects. In California many worked in the shipyards or on fishing boats. Today Italian Americans are found in every occupation, including Supreme Court Justice, commissioner of baseball, university president, teacher, lawyer, and businessperson.

Demography. The 1980 census noted that there were twelve million Americans who identified themselves as Italian Americans, six million of whom claimed Italian descent on both sides of the family. The 1990 census listed about fifteen million people who claimed Italian ancestry. There has been a rapid assimilation of Italian Americans into American culture, along with intermarriage with members of other ethnic groups. However, the largest proportion of intermarriage occurs with other members of the Catholic faith, especially Irish Americans. Although Italian Americans reside throughout the United States, they tend to cluster in the urban or suburban areas of the East Coast and West Coast.

Linguistic Affiliation. In the past most Italian immigrants spoke the language of their native region. More recent immigrants generally have been educated in Standard Italian based on the lingua di Dante of Florence and used in Italy by the government, schools, and television. In the United States a common version of Italian mixed with a great deal of English facilitated communication among the new arrivals. Second- and third-generation Italian Americans have basically lost the language unless they study it in school. Many in the fourth and later generations have done that to establish an "Italian" ethnic identity comparable to those of Hispanics and African Americans.

History and Cultural Relations

Italians came to the New World four hundred years before there was an Italian state. Beginning with Columbus and continuing with other early explorers, Italians came to explore and later to settle in the New World. Italians worked in Spain, England, France, Portugal, Germany, and the Netherlands and worked on ships from those countries. Italians also were found among the missionaries who came to convert Native Americans in every region of North and South America. In 1621 a group of Venetian artisans settled in James-town. About 150 Waldensians came to North America in 1657 to escape religious persecution. Other Waldensian Italians joined them in the eighteenth century. Maryland was a haven for Italians and other Catholics. Those early settlers generally remained in the colonies and merged into the population. Many of them fought in the American Revolution. Nevertheless, by 1871 only 12,000 Italians, mainly from the north, had come to the United States.

After Italian independence in 1861 about six million Italians came to the United States. A major reason for the immigration was famine in the mezzogiorno, the area south of Rome, including Sicily. The famine was a consequence of the unequal distribution of land and the northern bias of the new government, which did little to correct the landholding problems in southern Italy and Sicily. Government taxes were another burden on the poor. Many southern Italians had no love for the new state and had seen their standard of living fall drastically in the nineteenth century. America promised a better life. Although the major eastern urban centers attracted Italian settlement, Italians spread out to every region of the country and eventually into every industry. Italians who had come to the United States and learned enough English to deal with Americans became labor brokers called padroni. The padroni relied on a sense of unity with the immigrants to gain their trust, which was often misplaced. They recruited workers, found people places to rent, and served as bankersall at a price that was often exorbitant. A more recent and neglected wave of immigration took place after World War II, when the restrictions of the antiimmigration laws of the 1920s were lifted for refugees. There is still a large movement of Italians to the United States, but that movement has not been studied rigorously.


Many Italian immigrants settled in New York City in the area around Mulberry Street, the center of that city's Little Italy. Other Eastern cities also had famous Little Italies, such as Philadelphia's South Side and Boston's North End. Western states had their own Italian sections. New Orleans had Italian areas whose residents made contributions to jazz.

Many Italians moved to central and western New York to engage in the textile trade, while others who had worked in Sicily's sulfur mines went to the coal mines of Pennsylvania or West Virginia. Relatively few were able to do more than farm on weekends since the era of free or cheap land was over. Nonetheless, Italians took advantage of the economic opportunities of the time and moved into various professions and industries.


Commercial Activities. The earliest immigrants tended to be skilled artisans or professionals. From about 1880 until the 1920s migration shifted from the north of Italy to the poorer mezzogiorno region. These migrants worked at anything they could get. The building trades, ditch digging, factory work, mining, and, for the lucky, shopkeeping in mom and pop stores formed the bulk of their work.

There were always Italian American doctors, lawyers, and businesspersons. It took some time for priests of Italian descent to be accepted. Some dioceses refused to allow Italians, especially those from the southern regions, to be admitted to seminaries. By the 1920s and 1930s, however, Italian Americans were beginning to be assimilated into American life. World War II was a major turning point for the acceptance of Italian Americans in mainstream American society. There were, however, further battles to be fought, and Italian Americans continue to battle against ethnic slurs and stereotypes.

Trade. There have been Italians in trade since precolonial times. Many Italians entered the San Francisco fishing trade. Others started restaurants, tailor shops, stores, and other small businesses that catered to those of any background who craved high-quality service and excellent food. The Bank of America is a major Italian-founded business.

Division of Labor. Ostensibly, men ruled in more traditional families, but the reality was more complex. Frequently, major domestic decisions were made by women and confirmed by men. Women had a great deal of behind-the-scenes power, especially those who had a son. As the marriage progressed, a woman gained power. Moreover, many women were able to find jobs more easily than men, and in spite of the norm prohibiting women from working outside the home, many women in the early twentieth century found it necessary to work to make ends meet. Italian American women worked outside the home whenever necessary and then returned home to do the housework. Although the stated norm was for men not to work in the home, many did so. As women became more Americanized, they took up mainstream values and fought for education and equality.

Land Tenure. Ownership of land was an obsession with Italian immigrants. The period after World War II saw Italian Americans joining others in the move to the suburbs. Land ownership is a point of great pride among Italian Americans, as is a high degree of personal freedom in one's occupation.


Kin Groups and Descent. The Italian American community binds its members together with multiple connections. Descent is traced bilaterally, and affinal ties further strengthen those bonds. It is not uncommon for an individual to be related to another person on both sides of the family. Which ties are chosen for emphasis at any given time depends on a number of factors, including affection, expediency, work opportunity, and financial need.

Coparenthood is a quasi-kinship relationship that is extended to godparents at baptism and confirmation as well as best men and maids of honor at weddings. Italian Americans typically lived within an easy commute from their relatives, forming family clusters that could provide emotional and material support in times of crisis.

Kinship Terminology. Italian American kinship terminology is basically consonant with that of the wider North American mainstream. It is of the general Eskimo variety with the added feature of terms of address for fictive coparents (comare and compadre ). In Italian gender differences are expressed in terms that are otherwise similar for a given relationship. The terms for "aunt" and "uncle" are zia and zio, respectively.

Marriage and Family

Marriage. Few immigrants planned to settle permanently in the United States. The first Italian immigrants from the 1880s forward were generally males who first established themselves and then sent for their families. If their wives did not come, they typically married another Italian in the United States. There was little intermarriage in those days. Some unmarried men sent to Italy for brides whom they had never met. These immigrants established solid families, or so the myth holds. In fact, there was a good deal of male desertion in the early 1900s as men found it difficult to support a family while fighting against discrimination.

Weddings unite two families, not just two people. They symbolize the uniting of those families, the legitimacy of the children, and the continuation of families into the next generation. They are a means for bringing relatives together in a show of unity, displaying the wealth and stability of the family and the love between the parents and the children. They are a means for symbolizing the continuation of life and the affirmation of trust in God and His saints, especially the Holy Mother. Food, music, excitement, and spectacle are all part of the wedding, making Italian weddings famous in folklore, movies, television, and song.

Domestic Unit. The nuclear family is the major domestic unit. The extended family provided protection against hard times until World War II, and even after the war it was not unusual for a married couple to live with a parent, usually the bride's, until they saved enough money to set up an independent household.

Inheritance. Parents generally leave equal shares of their possessions to all the children after both have died. Special gifts of keepsakes may be made shortly before death or in a will. This equal sharing of property is a point of pride, and it is considered very bad form to argue over the shares. However, this norm is frequently violated in practice.

Socialization. The family is the primary unit of socialization. Strong family loyalty is taught from a child's earliest years. Children are taught to excel in their endeavors. Success in school traditionally was seen as the key to future success. Generally, the professions were stressed over learning for its own sake. There were exceptions if a child could prove that he could earn a living without schooling. Until fairly recently education beyond high school generally was not considered important for women. Women were taught to be subordinate to men, at least in public. In public, young girls were taught to clean, cook, and care for childrenso-called women's work. Men were expected to protect women and provide a steady income. Women were taught to be chaste, to be virgins when married, although they were also taught how to fool their husbands if they were not. Choosing the date of one's wedding to coincide with the end of one's period was one method to achieve this deception. As women grew older, they had more to say about public affairs and were considered to be socially more like a man. A true man was considered, in folklore at least, to be irresistible to women, and women therefore had to be chaperoned because they were "weak" and could not resist the male sexual force. Their lives were restricted, but young women found ways to trick parents who had "outsmarted" their own parents. However, one had to be careful not to bring shame on one's family; face had to be saved at all costs. Women were deemed dangerous because they could easily shame a family in a culture that stressed male dominance.

Sociopolitical Organization

Social Organization. The family, nuclear and extended, is the most important unit in Italian American social organization. The coparenthood relationship is a sacred one. Often a best man and a maid or matron of honor are immediately referred to reciprocally as compare or comare (cofather or comother). When a child is born, they are most frequently chosen as the godparents. The child will call them padrino and padrina,, "little father" and "little mother," or sometimes compare and comare. When a person was confirmed, he or she would use similar terms for the sponsor. The relationship was a way to tie people together through fictive kinship. It was common for people to choose powerful persons as sponsors to aid their children's chances in the future.

There are numerous societies in Italian American life: burial societies, clubs from one's home region or town, and social clubs for recreation, savings, political action, and gambling. These societies helped people adjust to American society. They also provided a basis for business and political power and united large numbers of people to work for common causes. Some of these groups, such as the Sons of Italy and the business clubs, attempted to combat discrimination and prejudice by pointing out Italian contributions to world culture and Italian American patriotism in the United States. There has also been an allegiance to American patriotic societies such as the American Legion to prove that one's allegiance is to the "new country." Italian American Civic Leagues, Casa Italianas, and other business organizations have promoted political action and social advancement.

Political Organization. Political and economic organizations worked together in Italian American society. Banned from other business groups, Italian American businessmen formed their own associations. Similarly, doctors and lawyers formed groups to advance Italian professionals. Political action in both major parties followed to help end discrimination and promote the interests of Italian Americans. The move to make Columbus Day a holiday was an example. The appointment of Italians to the Supreme Court, such as Antonin Scalia, was another. The appointment of cabinet officers and the election of senators, congressional representatives, mayors, and other elected officials of both parties demonstrated the assimilation of Italians in American life. Various political and civic groups followed throughout the United States, such as the Sons of Italy, UNICO (Unity, Neighbor, Integrity, Charity, and Opportunity), and the Italian American Civil Rights League.

Social Control. Peer pressure within the family plays a major role in social control. The family exerts strong pressure throughout a person's life. Ridicule threatening one's bella figura ("beautiful figure," or self-image) is a strong means of social control.

Conflict. Italian Americans claim that they are the last group that it is safe to ridicule in the media. They have faced discrimination in employment and other spheres. The association with the "Mafia" has plagued many honest people. It has been difficult to present a united front since there are many Italian identities as a result of the fragmented nature of Italy for many centuries.

Religion and Expressive Culture

Religious Beliefs. Ninety-eight percent of the population are Roman Catholic. The other 2 percent are mainly comprised of Jews, along with some Muslims, and Orthodox and Eastern Rite Catholics. The general supernatural beliefs are those of the Catholic Church as mixed with some older beliefs stretching back to antiquity. In Sicily, for example, Arabic and Greek influences have mixed with popular Spanish beliefs and have been incorporated into Catholicism. Thus, there are beliefs in the evil eye, charms, spells, messages through dreams, and various other types of omens. Witches have powers and there are anti-witches. Many of these beliefs have yielded to the rationalism of the modern age. Others however, exist below the surface.

Rome, or more precisely Vatican City, is the center of the Roman Catholic religion. Thus, the Pope, cardinals, bishops, monsignors, priests, members of various male and female religious orders, and others are omnipresent. The seven sacraments form a framework for religious life. Churches are plentiful and also attract the tourist dollar. There are more folk-like practitioners who carry on "magic" or "superstitious" practicesvarious healers who may have the gift of hands, witches, purveyors of charms and spells, and many others.

Religious Practitioners. At first the Irish- and German-controlled American clergy regarded southern Italian immigrants as pagans. Eventually, Italian Americans took a prominent position in the American Catholic Church. Catholic priests, nuns, brothers, and other officials form the vast majority of religious practitioners among Italian Americans. However, there are also local religious people who are healers or curers and others who have visions and can interpret dreams and tell the future. Protestants and Jews among Italian Americans have their own religious specialists. Originally, church attendance was mainly a female sphere. However, as time passed and the group became more "Americanized," more men began to attend church on occasions other than baptisms, weddings, and funerals.

Famous Italian American clergy include Bishop John Baptist Scalabrini, founder of the San Rafaele Society in America; Mother Frances Xavier Cabrini, the first American saint and a disciple of Scalabrini; Father Aurelio Palmieri, who advocated for a more open approach to Italian immigrants; and Joseph L. Cardinal Bernadin, the first Italian American cardinal.

Ceremonies. Religious ceremonies are frequent. In addition to the usual holy days of the Roman Catholic ChurchChristmas, Easter, Pentecost, the Immaculate Conception, there are local saints and appearances by the Pope. The sanctification of new saints, various blessings, personal, family, and regional feast days and daily and weekly masses add to the mix. There are also various novenas, rosary rituals, sodalities, men's and women's clubs, and other religious or quasi-religious activities.

Arts. Italian Americans have made their mark in literature, popular and classical music, the plastic and fine arts, and other artistic fields. The most famous names are Frank Sinatra, Louis Prima, Tony Bennett, Frankie Valli, Jerry Vale, Perry Como, Lou Monte, Arturo Toscanini, Mario Lanza, and Chuck Mangione in music; Lorenzo da Ponte (Mozart's librettist), Emmanuel Carnevali, John Ciardi, Jerre Mangione, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, and Helen Barolmeo in literature; Ugo Mochi, Robert DeNiro, Sr., Giuseppe and Frank Stella, and Constantino Brumela in painting; and the actors Jimmy Durante, Dean Martin, and Robert DeNiro, Jr.

Medicine. Folk healers and folk remedies have survived to the present time. Candles are placed on the source of an illness and covered with a glass to draw out the evil. Hands are placed on a break or sprain and moved to cure the patient and heal the injury. Olive oil is placed over the head of the sick person, and prayers are recited as the container is rotated over the person's head.

Death and Afterlife. Most Italian Americans follow the general Roman Catholic beliefs regarding heaven, hell, and purgatory. They generally believe in a life after death in which the good are rewarded and the evil are punished. Funerals take place in funeral parlors and tend to be elaborate. Respect for the dead is expected and displayed through remembrance and special prayers. There are also special shrines that people promise to visit upon the death of a family member. Failure to attend a wake for a family member or friend is cause for a breach of relationship.

For the original article on Italian Americans, see Volume 1, North America.


Alba, Richard (1985). Italian Americans into the Twilight of Ethnicity. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall.

Juliani, Richard, ed. (1983). The Family and Community Life of Italian Americans. Staten Island, NY: American Italian Historical Association.

Mangione, Jerre (1978). An Ethnic at Large. New York: Putnam.

Mangione, Jerre and Ben Morreale (1992). La Storia: Five Centuries of the Italian American Experience. New York: HarperCollins.

Salamone, Frank A. (2001). Italians in Rochester, New York: 1900-1940. Lewiston, NY: The Edwin Mellen Press.


Italian Americans

views updated May 11 2018

Italian Americans

For more information on Italian history and culture, seeVol. 4 Italians.


Italian Americans are the fifth largest ethnic group in the United States, after German, British, African, and Irish Americans. It is estimated that one out of every 20 Americans is of Italian descent. The first Italians to come to America emigrated from northern Italy in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. Few in number, they blended in with American society, making their homes mostly in the familiar terrain of California wine country. These first Italian Americans tended to be well-educated professionals and craftspersons

Beginning around 1880, however, a massive migration began from southern Italy to the United States. These immigrants were uneducated, poor farmers or landless peasants who had suffered for many years from poor soil, drought, unemployment, and political corruption and oppression. Between the years of 1860 and 1920, some five million southern Italians moved to the United States. Most were young men hoping to find good-paying jobs, save up a significant amount of money, and then return to Italy and their families. Perhaps 1.5 million of them actually did move back to Italy. The rest stayed in America.

The southern Italian immigrants tended to settle in New York City or neighboring areas because they did not have the money to travel very far after disembarking from the ship at Ellis Island. Because Italians preferred to live among their friends and neighbors, subsequent immigrants settled near those who had come before. Small enclaves of Italian Americans from the same region of Italy developed into "Little Italys," some of which still exist today.

Little Italys began as slums. Poor Italian immigrants moved into tenement housing recently vacated by earlier groups of immigrants such as Germans, Jews, or Irish, who had moved up to better housing. However, most Italian Americans chose to stay and improve their housing in Little Italy rather than move out when their financial situations improved.

Like most early immigrants, Italian Americans suffered from prejudice and discrimination, both from other Americans as well as within their own ranks. Northern and southern Italians have a history of mutual dislike, and Italian Americans continued to carry those bad feelings for one another. Other Americans were more accepting of northern Italians because they are generally fair haired and were seen as more "Germanic" and refined. Southern Italians, on the other hand, were seen as dark, brutish, ignorant peasants who would never fit in with sophisticated American society.

In the 1920s, American labor forces began to organize for better wages and working conditions. Because Italian Americans, poor and desperate for work, were willing to take any job for any wage, they were seen as a threat to other American workers. The press began depicting Italian Americans as criminals, suggesting that they were all connected with the Mafia. In fact, very few Italian Americans had any links with the Mafia or other organized crime. But the stereotype of the Italian American gangster had taken hold and has yet to be dislodged, as testified by the popular gangster movies The Godfather and Goodfellas, and the television series The Sopranos.

The trial of Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti, Italian Americans from Boston who were leaders in the socialist movement, grew out of anti-Italian sentiment and added more fuel to the fire. Arrested in connection with a robbery and killing, they were convicted despite a lack of evidence. After seven years of appeals, they were executed in 1927. Italian American witnesses for the defense were discounted because, according to popular belief at the time, Italians could not be trusted.

The Great Depression of the 1930s worsened the Italian Americans' situation. Not only were jobs hard to find, but also other Americans used the Italian Americans as scapegoats, accusing them of taking jobs away from "real Americans." Violence against Italian Americans, though not a new phenomenon (lynchings and murders had occurred as early as the mid-1880s), increased. Wages fell, and more and more Italian American men found themselves unemployed.

Italian American women's horizons suddenly expanded, on the other hand. Although men were traditionally the sole breadwinners of Italian families, the Depression forced Italian American men to allow their wives and daughters to work outside the home to supplement the family income. This brought Italian American women into contact with more people of all backgrounds, gave them confidence in themselves as independent persons, and caused them to begin to question their husbands' or fathers' authority. The dynamics began to change in Italian American families, and World War II (1939–45) cemented those changes.

Italian American men and women contributed greatly to the American war effort in both World Wars I and II. Although Italian Americans made up only 4% of the U.S. population at the start of World War I, they constituted 12% of U.S. military troops. In World War II, over 500,000 Italian Americans served in the U.S. military. Like other American women, Italian American women went to work on the homefront to support their families and their country, while the men were away at war. By the time the men returned, traditional Italian divisions of labor were gone for good in America.

In the booming postwar economy of the 1950s, Italian Americans finally improved their circumstances. They found good-paying jobs or started their own businesses. Many either moved to better neighborhoods or improved their homes in Little Italys. Young Italian Americans were able to afford higher education and so could advance to managerial or professional positions. By the 1980s, Italian Americans' average family income was about $2,000 higher than that for all U.S. families.

Italian immigration to the United States continues today, though at a much slower pace than during the Great Migration of 1880–1920. Because of global developments and improvements in worldwide communications, today's Italian immigrants are generally more knowledgeable and sophisticated than those who came before. For instance, as of the 2000 U.S. Census, two-thirds of Italian Americans worked in white-collar positions in business, medicine, law, education, and other professions. The total Italian American population in 2000 was nearly 16 million, although through intermarriage the number of people in the United States with at least one Italian grandparent was estimated to be about 26 million. About half of all Italian Americans live in the Northeast, with 2.7 million in New York State alone. (As of the 2000 census, 8.7% of the population of New York City was of Italian descent: 692,739 New Yorkers reported Italian ancestry, making them the largest European ethnic group in the city. The New York metropolitan area is home to 3,372,512 Italians, which is the third largest concentration in the world after the Milan and Rome metropolitan areas.) New Jersey and California each have 1.5 million Italian Americans followed by Pennsylvania (1.4 million) and Florida (1 million).

Sicilians have chosen a slightly different settlement pattern than other Italian Americans. The largest Sicilian American population is in California, with a sizeable number in New York State. The rest of the Sicilian American population is spread across the United States, with noticeable numbers in Ohio, Florida, Illinois, Michigan, and New Jersey.

Most Italian immigrants speak regional dialects of the Italian language. Many early immigrants were illiterate in "offi-cial" Italian. Once they arrived in the United States, they began to blend their various dialects with elements of official Italian and English, creating a common language known as Italglish. English words such as "picnic," "sandwich," and "son of a gun" were Italianized to become pichnicco, sanguiccio, and sonamagogna. Subsequent generations of Italian Americans were able to choose between the regional dialect of their parents and grandparents, official Italian, English, and Italglish. With each succeeding generation, however, fluency in all but English has diminished.

Italian Americans often anglicize their names to hide their ethnicity and/or ease their acceptance into American society. In earlier times, immigration officials also misspelled Italian names on entrance visas, anglicizing them either intentionally or accidentally. In this way, Rossi became Ross, Gilberti changed to Gilbert, and Bernardo was henceforth Bernard. Well-known Italian Americans who have anglicized their names include Anne Bancroft (Anna Marie Italiano), Tony Bennett (Anthony Benedetto), Dean Martin (Dino Crocetti), and Madonna (Madonna Louise Veronica Ciccone).

Italian Americans adhere to a unique brand of Roman Catholicism. Their faith is filled with festivity, magic, and independent spirit. Although fervent believers, they also staunchly support their right to question the Pope's teachings. Many use contraceptives and promote a woman's right to have an abortion.

The first Catholics to immigrate in large numbers to the United States were Irish Catholics. Because of generations of persecution, their faith had become secretive and somber. When the Italian Catholics arrived in America with their parades, bright colors, huge feasts, and parties on any and every occasion, the Irish Catholics were shocked and offended. They refused to allow Italian Catholics to worship in their churches. Finally, the Church in Rome decided to establish separate Italian Catholic parishes in the United States. These parishes each have a patron saint, whose feast day is jubilantly celebrated with a festa. Italian Americans hold festas for a multitude of occasions, and though the specifics vary, each contains dancing, singing, feasting, and a procession through the streets. One of the largest festas is that of San Gennaro in New York City.

Weddings are the most highly celebrated rite of passage among Italian Americans, and Christmas and Easter are the most important holidays. Some Italian Americans honor the feast day of St. Lucy (Santa Lucia) on 13 December, and most mark the feast day of St. John the Baptist on 24 June. All Souls Day on 1 November is another popular Italian American religious holiday, along with All Souls Eve (31 October), better known as Halloween.

Italian Americans began celebrating Columbus Day on 12 October 1866 in New York City. The tradition grew, and in 1909 Columbus Day became a legal U.S. holiday. Although Columbus Day has come under question in recent years by other ethnic groups in the United States, Italian Americans still cling to the holiday as an expression of their cultural heritage.

Italian Americans are very expressive people, communicating as much through gestures as with words. Some common Italian American gestures include slowly raising the chin, which means "I don't know," or "I'm not going to tell you"; thumbing the nose, an insulting gesture indicating that the other person is a fool; flicking the teeth to express anger; flicking the chin to express indifference; and lifting one eyebrow to say "It's time to talk."

The family is extremely important to Italian Americans. Family loyalty comes above all else. Younger generations of Italian Americans are less likely to live in neighborhoods surrounded by their extended family, so the nuclear family has become more central in recent years. The elderly are still cared for within the family whenever possible, however, in contrast to other Americans who are much more likely to admit their elderly parents and grandparents to nursing homes.

Food is nearly as important as family to Italian Americans. Most mainstream "Italian" restaurants serve an Americanized version of southern Italian cuisine, which centers on pasta (spaghetti, lasagne, ravioli, etc.). Northern Italian cuisine, revolving around polenta (made from cornmeal) and risotto (a rice dish) has been gaining in popularity in recent years. Bread is the staple food for all Italian Americans. Some traditional households use up to 25 pounds of flour per week for the family's homemade bread supply. Homemade pasta can require another 10 pounds of flour each week.

Mealtimes are family times, and as recently as the 1970s, a high school in Cleveland, Ohio, reported problems in keeping its Italian American students in school during lunch hour. Despite regulations to the contrary, the students would leave school to have lunch at home with their families. Dinner times in the evening are also not to be missed, except in the case of emergency. Wine is always present at evening meals. Italian Americans consider wine a food, not a liquor. Drunkenness is considered disgraceful, however, as expressed in the Sicilian rhyme: La biviri non misurata / Fa l'uomo asinata ("Drunkenness makes an ass of a man").

The majority of first-generation Italian Americans were un-educated laborers who believed that hard work was the path to wisdom. They did not, therefore, encourage their children to attend school. The dropout rate among second-generation Italian Americans was high. Gradually, however, succeeding generations of Italian Americans became more interested in education and began attending and finishing school in greater numbers. According to the 2000 Census, Italian Americans had a greater high school graduation rate than the national average, and a greater than or equal rate of advanced degrees compared to the national average.

Perhaps the greatest artistic contribution Italian Americans have made to American culture is the love of opera. In 1932, Italian immigrant Lorenzo Da Ponte founded the Italian Opera House in New York City, the first opera house in the United States. Italian American Gian-Carlo Menotti composed The Saint of Bleeker Street, which debuted on 27 December 1954 in New York City. It was the first opera composed by an Italian American, concerning Italian Americans, and performed by Italian Americans, and it won a Pulitzer prize.

Other Italian American musicians include Enrico Caruso, Frank Sinatra, and Bruce Springsteen (who is half-Italian American, half-Dutch American), along with singer-actors Annette Funicello, Jimmy Durante, and Madonna. Al Pacino, Robert De Niro, and Sylvester Stallone are well-known Italian American actors, and Penny Marshall (Marsharelli), Francis Ford Coppola, and Martin Scorsese (Martin Marcantonio Luciano Scorsese) are successful Italian American film directors. An Italian American artist whose creations are very well known is Joe Barbera, of the Hanna-Barbera animation team (creators of Yogi Bear, Tom and Jerry, the Jetsons, and the Smurfs). Frank Stella (b. 1936) achieved fame as a minimalist and abstract expressionist painter and sculptor in the 1960s: his paintings hang in America's most prestigious museums.

Italian Americans hold fast to the traditional Italian work ethic and so have risen to the top of many fields in American society. Physicist Enrico Fermi ushered in the atomic age; Fiorello La Guardia became the first Italian American mayor of New York City in 1933; Geraldine Ferraro won the nomination for Democratic vice presidential candidate in 1984, the first woman ever to do so; Mario Cuomo served as the governor of New York State from 1986 to 1994; Rudolph Giuliani served as mayor of New York during the 1990s and was mayor at the time of the 11 September 2001 tragedy; and Congresswoman Nancy Pelosi was elected the first female Speaker of the House of Representatives in 2007. The first Italian American millionaire was sand-and-gravel magnate Generoso Pope, whose son, Generoso Pope, Jr., publishes the National Enquirer. Lee Iacocca served as president of both the Ford Motor Company and Chrysler Corporation. Ernest and Julio Gallo, who entered the wine business in 1933, soon dominated the industry. Other successful Italian American businesses include Planters Peanuts, the Bank of America, Mr. Coffee, Chun King, Celeste Italian Foods Company, and Tropicana.

Italian Americans have also been very successful in sports. Charles Atlas (born Angelo Siciliano) was a world-famous bodybuilder whose correspondence course attracted the likes of Italian American baseball player Joe DiMaggio and Mahatma Gandhi. Other well-known Italian American athletes include boxer Rocky Marciano, baseball great Lawrence Peter "Yogi" Berra, football coach Vince Lombardi, quarterback Joe Montana, hockey player Phil Esposito, and gymnast Mary Lou Retton.

Older Italian Americans continue to enjoy the traditional games of bocce (lawn bowling) and morra (a guessing game where two people each extend some fingers of one hand at the same time and loudly guess what the total number of fingers will be). Most younger Italian Americans, however, have turned to more Americanized pastimes.

For the most part, Italian Americans have adapted to life in the United States and are well accepted in American society today. The difficulties of their early years in America have largely been put behind them.

While many of the stories of Italian men who came to America at the turn of the 20th century are filled with adventure and daring, the stories of the tenacious Italian women who came to America in search of success are just as compelling. Young Italian women bravely left their small towns and villages to live in the new world. They valued education, hard work, and honesty, and schooled their children in such virtues. While traditional Italian American women still work primarily in the home, contemporary Italian American women have become doctors, lawyers, artists, scientists, nurses, business-women, educators, writers, judges, and politicians.

Italian American men are stereotypically known for their "macho" culture with its emphasis on honor and virility. Coupled with a religious tradition steeped in Catholicism, Italian American gays and lesbians often find it a challenge to be accepted within the community. This social situation was explored in the 2003 documentary film Saints and Sinners, which tells the story of an Italian American gay couple planning a wedding according to Catholic rite. In addition to portraying the social ramification of such a union, the film deals with the intimate link between Italian American culture and the Catholic tradition, and suggests the perceptions that Americans have of Italian Americans and their faith.


Bernardo, Stephanie. The Ethnic Almanac. Garden City, NY: Dolphin Books/Doubleday & Company, 1981.

Gonzales, Juan L., Jr. Racial and Ethnic Groups in America, 2nd ed. Dubuque, IA: Kendall/Hunt Publishing Co., 1993.

LaGumina, Salvatore J., and Frank J. Cavaioli, Salvatore Primeggia, Joseph Varacalli, eds. The Italian American Experience: An Encyclopedia. NY: Garland, 1999.

Malpezzi, Frances M., and William M. Clements. Italian-American Folklore. Little Rock, AR: August House, 1992.

Mindel, Charles H., Robert W. Habenstein, and Roosevelt Wright, Jr., ed. Ethnic Families in America: Patterns and Variations, 3rd ed. New York: Elsevier Science Publishing Company, 1988.

National Italian American Foundation. (April 2, 2008).

National Organization of Italian American Women. (April 2, 2008).

National Sicilian American Foundation. (April 2, 2008).

Washburne, Carolyn Kott. Italian Americans. New York: Marshall Cavendish, 1995.

—revised by J. Hobby

Italian Americans

views updated May 29 2018


ITALIAN AMERICANS. Italian influence on American history can be traced back to the navigators Christopher Columbus and Amerigo Vespucci. America's founding fathers, especially Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin, were familiar with the Italian language and culture and with Roman history. Jefferson was a supporter of the Italian physician and merchant Filippo Mazzei and encouraged him in the early 1770s to bring Italian vintners to Virginia. Though not successful in that venture, Mazzei became actively involved in the colonists' struggle with England. Writing in the Virginia newspapers as "Furioso" he was one of the first people to urge Americans to declare independence and form a unified constitution to govern all thirteen colonies. Some of his phraseology later found its way into Jefferson's Declaration of Independence. William Paca, an early governor of Maryland, was one of the signers of the Declaration of Independence.

Italian Americans in the Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries

During the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries a number of Italian-named missionaries such as Friar Eusebio Kino and Friar Samuel Mazzuchelli operated in present-day Arizona and in the Wisconsin-Michigan area, respectively. Though the presence of Italian individuals in the United States was sparse before 1850, Lorenzo Da Ponte, who wrote librettos for Mozart, taught Italian language and literature at Columbia University. In 1825 he produced his Don Giovanni in New York.

Italian style and Italian artisans heavily influenced the design of buildings in Washington, D.C. Constantino Brumidi painted numerous frescoes in the Capitol between 1855 and 1880. There was a modest migration of Italians to California during and after the gold rush. Many in this group became prosperous farmers, vintners, and business leaders, including Domenico Ghirardelli (the chocolate maker), the Gallo and Mondavi families (wine producers), and Amadeo Giannini (the founder of Bank of America).

Though New York City had an Italian colony in the 1850s, Italians did not have serious impact until the mass migration of the 1880s. Italian unification in the 1860s failed to bring economic prosperity and in many places in the South the new government policies intensified la miseria (poverty). Moreover, basic advances in medicine in this period lowered the death rate and swelled the population. This led to massive migration of contadini (peasants), first to Latin America and then, in the 1880s, to the United States.

Most early Italian migrants were young men who originally intended to work for a season or two on the railroads or in the mines. Living frugally, they could save most of their meager wages and send remittances back to their mothers and wives. In the period from 1880 to 1920 about $750 million was sent to Italy. The impact of these remittances, the monetary investments of returning Italian Americans (rimpatriati), or the practical knowledge Italian Americans transferred back to Italy is impossible to calculate precisely. Yet it is clear that Italian migration to the United States was a two-way street. Migrations were not unique, one-time events, but rather represented a continuous relationship sometimes lasting over a century.

Estimates of the number of Italian immigrants are made murky by repeated crossings by the same individual, the undocumented entry of untold thousands, and inconsistencies in the spelling of names. About 4.5 million Italians made the trip to the United States and readily found work as unskilled laborers in the burgeoning industrial American economy. America needed the immigrants as much as the immigrants needed America. Between 1900 and 1910, 2 million Italians emigrated. The numbers peaked in 1907 at 285,000, in 1914 at 284,000, and in 1921 at 222,000. After 1900 Italian immigrants began in earnest to bring their families from Italy and Italian neighborhoods in large cities began to have more stability. In this "chain migration," paesani (townspeople) from a particular town in Italy transferred (over varying time periods) to specific neighborhoods and suburbs in the United States. In this manner, they created a near-replica of their hometown, adhering more or less to the social customs, dialect, and family patterns of Italy, even while beginning their journey to Americanization.

Italians brought with them an agrarian, Catholic, and family-based culture. Hard work and self-sufficiency were facts of life. Of all the social institutions in Italian society, the family was the only one that could be relied on consistently. In this sense, it was ironic that the early immigrants had to leave their families in order to save their families. The immigrants founded Società di Mutuo Soccorso (Mutual Benefit Societies) that often hired a physician on retainer and that provided modest benefits to survivors in case of death.

Italian immigrants were ambivalent toward the Catholic Church. On the one hand, they were all baptized Catholics, they believed in the saints, and were devoted to the Blessed Virgin Mary; on the other hand, the Church was a large landholder, deeply involved in Italian politics in coalition with the upper classes, and opposed to unification. In contrast to Irish and Polish immigrants whose national identity was championed by the Church, Italian nationalists saw the Church as an enemy. The immigrants brought with them a certain anticlericalism, a casual attitude toward strict rules, and a devotion to folk practices including a belief in mal occhio (the evil eye). The establishment by Bishop Giovanni Battista Scalabrini of the Missionaries of St. Charles Borromeo in the 1890s was the first concentrated effort by the Catholic Church to minister to the needs of migrants. Over the century that followed, the order built and staffed hundreds of churches, schools, and hospitals in the United States, Canada, Latin America, and Australia. Among the disciples of Scalabrini was St. Frances (Mother) Cabrini.

The first Italian newspaper in the United States was New York's L'Eco D'Italia in 1849. Dozens of Italian American socialist, anarchist, religious, fascist, anti-fascist, unionist, and literary magazines have been published since then. Il Progresso Italo-Americano (New York, 1880–1989) was the most continuous mirror of Italian American history. Since its daily circulation was above 100,000, Generoso Pope, its editor during the 1930s and 1940s, was perhaps the most influential Italian leader of his time.

There was virtually no migration during World War I. General racism, the red scare, the anarchist bombings of 1919–1920, and pressure from organized labor led to the harsh immigration quotas of the Johnson-Reed Act of 1924. This law reduced the allowable number of Italian immigrants from over 200,000 to 6,000. Several events—America's harsh immigration policy, the policies of the Italian dictator Benito Mussolini that sought to keep Italians in Italy, the Great Depression of the 1930s, and World War II—kept Italian migration numbers very low between 1924 and the end of World War II.

By the end of the 1930s the number of American born surpassed the number of emigrants in the Italian American population. Although Mussolini's regime had been popular among both the elite and the general American public, the socialists and other Italian American elements waged a spirited but unsuccessful campaign to undermine immigrant support for Mussolini. When Italy joined the Axis, and when the war began, public opinion shifted drastically. In 1942, especially on the West Coast, suspected Italian Fascist sympathizers and fishermen were arrested and harassed. Though the scale of this maltreatment in no way compares to the incarceration of Japanese Americans, it became a sore point for modern-day Italian American activists.

The age cohort for the second generation of Italian Americans coincided closely with the age group most suitable for military service. More than 1 million Italian American males in their late teens and twenties served in the U.S. armed services in World War II. For many, it was their first experience beyond their own neighbor-hood. All of them were "Americanized" to one degree or another by the military and most of them subsequently benefited from military training and the educational/ home-loan benefits of the GI Bill. All of these forces worked to draw young people away from the old neighborhood, its culture, and the Italian language.

In World War II Italy experienced defeat abroad, the fall of the Fascist government, occupation by Germans, invasion by American forces, and what amounted to a civil war in many parts of the Italian peninsula. The devastation and poverty of the postwar period triggered another wave of migration out of Italy to Canada, Latin America, Australia, and the United States. Various provisions for refugees and for the relatives of Italian immigrants who had acquired claims to U.S. citizenship allowed for considerable migration that reunited families and continued the chain migration into the 1970s. The Marshall Plan helped create the Italian "economic miracle" of the 1960s and by the early 1990s the Italian Gross National Product surpassed that of England. These developments, the attainment in Italy of zero population growth, and the progress of the European Union, virtually ended outmigration of Italians.

Twentieth-Century Trends

The social mobility of Italian Americans was steady throughout the twentieth century. In the early years group members were likely to be the object of social work in settlement houses like Jane Addams's Hull-House. They were likely to be victimized by sharp politicians and labor agents. The 1920s were prosperous times for most Americans and many Italian American colonies received infusions of capital derived from the near-universal practice of breaking Prohibition laws. Hard hit by the Great Depression, Italian Americans reacted by becoming part of Franklin D. Roosevelt's Democratic coalition. The full employment of the war years and general prosperity of the 1950s and 1960s brought the vast majority of Italian Americans safely into the middle class. More precisely, a strategy of underconsumption, the pooling of extended family resources, hard work in small family businesses, and entry into unionized skilled and unskilled jobs earned middle-class status for the vast majority of Italian Americans. By the mid-1970s Italian American young people were attending college at the national average.

The public image of Italian immigrants has been a continuing source of conflict. Salvatore LaGumina's Wop: A Documentary History of Anti-Italian Discrimination in the United States (1973) enumerates and quotes a vicious race prejudice against Italian workers in the articles and editorial cartoons of the nation's finest magazines. Into the 1920s, social science professionals fabricated an elaborate pecking order that established the superiority and inferiority of the races and nationalities of the world. Italians turned up near the bottom. The fact that the earliest Italian neighborhoods were overcrowded, crime-ridden, and dominated by padroni (often unscrupulous labor agents) intensified the negative image. Sensational newspaper stories of cases of blackmail and vendettas among Italian immigrants gave rise to the mafia myth that has dogged Italian ethnics in the United States since the late nineteenth century.

This climate of public opinion played a role in the 1891 lynching in New Orleans of eleven Italians. There were more victims in this incident than in any other single lynching in U.S. history. The controversial execution in 1927 of anarchists Nicolo Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti for a murder-robbery in Braintree, Massachusetts, in 1920 haunted the headlines for over seven years. The flamboyance and style of Italian American bootleggers during Prohibition overshadowed the image of all other gangsters in that period and has since become the baseline stereotype of Italian Americans. The thousands of books and media productions on the subject of Italian gangsters include some of the best and some of the worst artistic expression in American culture. But whatever the quality of the art, in the eyes of the Italian American leadership the result was the same: the intensification in the public's mind of a negative image of Italians Americans.

In the world of pop culture, some of America's universally admired entertainers and sports figures were Italian: Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Liberace, Jimmy Durante, Joe DiMaggio, and Vince Lombardi. Sports celebrities Tommy Lasorda and Lawrence "Yogi" Berra were Italian. Moreover, the image of Italians as leaders in entertainment (consider Madonna), fashion (Donatella Versace), and cuisine was strong in the twenty-first century.

Statistics vary widely when discussing ethnicity in the third, fourth, and fifth generations. Many Americans can claim four or five ethnicities. Surnames can be confusing when there are married couples that change or hyphenate their last names. Ethnic organizations often exaggerate their numbers to further a specific agenda. And the statistical formatting of the U.S. Census makes it hard to discern exactly how many Italian Americans there are in the United States. The 2000 census estimated about 16 million Americans (or 6 percent of the total U.S. population) are of Italian ancestry.

The most heavily Italian American states are New Jersey (1.5 million, 18.5 percent), Connecticut (653,000, 19.8 percent), and Rhode Island (202,735, about 20 percent). The Italian American population of New York is about 2.7 million, or 14.8 percent; Pennsylvania, 1.4 million or 13 percent; Nevada, 142,658 or 7.3 percent; California, 1.4 million or 4.3 percent; and Massachusetts, 890,000 or 14.5 percent. Other states with significant Italian American populations are Illinois (706,000, 5.8 percent), Florida (1 million, 6.5 percent), Ohio (713,015, 6.7 percent), and Louisiana (360,333, 5.2 percent).

This ethnic concentration during the twentieth century resulted in the election of Italian American political leaders, including Fiorello LaGuardia, the mayor of New York City in the 1930s and 1940s; John O. Pastore of Rhode Island, the nation's first Italian American in the U.S. Senate; Mario Cuomo, governor of New York in the 1980s; Geraldine Ferraro, a New York congresswoman and Democratic nominee for vice president in 1984; Alphonse D'Amato, a U.S. senator from New York; Ella Grasso, the first woman to serve as governor of Connecticut; and Rudolph Giuliani, the mayor of New York City in the 1990s.

Contemporary Italian Americans rarely vote as a bloc. Their politics seem to be based on social class and income rather than ethnicity. There appear to be few overriding ethnic-based issues as there might be for African American or Jewish voters. Moreover, in many places on the East Coast, Italian-named candidates from diverse parties and philosophical camps often run against each other.


Alba, Richard D. Italian Americans: Into the Twilight of Ethnicity. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1985.

Alfonsi, Ferdinando, ed. Poeti Italo-Americani: Italo-American Poets, a Bilingual Anthology. Catanzaro, Italy: A. Carello, 1985.

American Italian Historical Association. Proceedings of Annual Conferences. New York: Author, 1970. 33 vols. Contains some 500 articles on all aspects of Italian American life. Available from

Barolini, Helen, ed. The Dream Book: An Anthology of Writings by Italian-American Women. 2d ed. Syracuse, N.Y.: Syracuse University Press, 2000.

Italian American Review: A Social Science Journal of the Italian American Experience. New York: John Calandra Institute, Queens College.

Italian Americana: A Cultural and Historical Review. Kingston: University of Rhode Island.

LaGumina, Salvatore. Wop: A Documentary History of Anti-Italian Discrimination in the United States. 2d ed. Toronto and Buffalo, N.Y.: Guernica, 1999. The original edition was published in 1973.

LaGumina, Salvatore, et al. The Italian American Experience: An Encyclopedia. New York: Garland, 2000.

Mangione, Jerre, and Ben Morreale. La Storia: Five Centuries of the Italian American Experience. New York: Harper Collins, 1992.

Tamburri, Anthony J., Paolo A. Giordano, and Fred L. Gardaphé, eds. From the Margin: Writings in Italian Americana. 2d ed. West Lafayette, Ind.: Purdue University Press, 2000. Anthology of contemporary Italian American poets, writers, and critics.

Tusiani, Joseph. Ethnicity: Selected Poems. Edited with two essays by Paolo Giordano. Lafayette, Ind.: Bordighera, 2000. Accessible poems that focus on the full spectrum of Italian American history and culture. Includes commentary by the editor.

VIA: Voices in Italian Americana, A Literary and Cultural Review. Lafayette, Ind.: Bordighera. Since 1990 has published cutting-edge poetry, short stories, nonfiction, interviews, and literary criticism.


See alsoItaly, Relations with .