Italian and Greek Immigration

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Italian and Greek Immigration

A bout thirty-five million people, mainly from southern and eastern Europe, arrived on U.S. shores between 1880 and 1920, changing forever the nature of American civilization. In southern Europe, the rise of the modern world made life difficult for some, particularly for the struggling farmers and workers. Two southern European countries responsible for a significant portion of the mass migration were Italy and Greece.

Between 1880 and 1920, an estimated four million people left Italy for the United States, making Italians the single largest European national group to move to America in the era when people throughout eastern and central Europe were making a similar voyage. The Italians were not simply pursuing dreams of economic prosperity; they were also bringing with them a culture and traditions that became a central part of American culture and tradition. Establishing outposts called Little Italy in cities like New York City; Providence, Rhode Island; and Boston, Massachusetts, it often seemed that Italian immigrants were not leaving Italy so much as bringing Italy with them to America in their search for a better life.

Most Greek Americans today are descended from immigrants who came to the United States during the migration of 1880 through 1920. The majority of Greek immigrants were young men from the southern peninsula of Greece, known as the Peloponnesus region. The young men hoped to work hard in the United States, save up a sizeable amount of money, and then return to Greece. By 1925 one out of every four Greek men between the ages of fifteen and forty-five had gone to the United States. About 40 percent of those who immigrated between 1908 and 1931 did return to Greece, but the rest stayed in America.

In 2000 the U.S. Census reported 15,725,555 people of Italian heritage, although these figures are low due to the intermarriage of Italian Americans with Americans of other ancestry. The estimated number of people in the United States with at least one Italian grandparent may be as high as 26 million. The census also revealed that Italian Americans are the nation's fifth largest ethnic group. In 2000 there were 1,153,307 people of Greek heritage.

The roots of Italian emigration

The large-scale emigration from Italy to the United States had deep roots in the physical features of the country, in Italian history, and in the nature of Italian society. About 75 percent of Italy is covered by mountains, ranging from the Alps in the north, where Italy adjoins Switzerland and Austria, to the Apennines, a mountain range that runs southeast down the spine of the Italian peninsula in the shape of a backwards C. Only about a fourth of Italian land area, primarily in the northern part of the country in the valley of the Po River, is flat, making it suitable for raising wheat (the source of flour used to make bread and pasta) and a variety of other food crops.

In the southern part of Italy—the portion that resembles a high-heeled boot jutting into the Mediterranean, with its toe pointing toward the large island of Sicily—there is relatively little flat land and the soil tends to be thin and relatively unproductive. The region is also arid (dry), receiving only twenty-four inches of rain annually—about half the rain that falls in the north. The little rain that falls in southern Italy tends to come in bursts that often cause flooding and that are not regular enough for successfully raising food crops. Agriculture in the south of Italy is concentrated on crops that grow on grapevines or trees, such as olives, oranges, and lemons. Both olives and grapes can of course be eaten, but primarily olives are squeezed to make olive oil for cooking and grapes are made into wine.

Italian and Greek Immigration: Fact Focus

  • Italians were the largest single nationality to have immigrated to the United States in the era of mass migration, with more than four million immigrating from 1890 to 1924.
  • Southern Italy was one of the poorest regions of Europe in the nineteenth century. The island of Sicily and the region around Naples, both in the south, accounted for over half the Italians who moved to the United States looking for a way to earn money.
  • About 70 percent of Italians from southern Italy could not read or write, and few spoke English upon arrival in New York. The lack of money and education often drove them into low-paying jobs, particularly in construction.
  • Between 1900 and 1920 about 350,000 Greek immigrants arrived in the United States. Many came hoping to earn some money and then return home.
  • A wave of Greek immigration began in the late 1960s when an oppressive regime took over the Greek government and many Greeks decided to flee.

Italian history and society in the 1800s

Before 1861, the Italian peninsula was divided into small states, often in turmoil and frequently dominated by surrounding countries such as France, Austria, and Spain. Among the independent states were the Kingdom of Sardinia, the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies, the Papal States (ruled by the pope, the leader of the Roman Catholic Church), and small republics (countries ruled by the people, rather than a king) centered around the cities of Venice, Milan, Parma, Modena, and Florence. For four decades before 1861, a string of leaders had struggled to free Italians from the rule of other countries and

establish a unified nation of Italy. They finally succeeded in 1861, bringing most of modern Italy under the government of King Victor Emmanuel II (1820–1878). It took another six years for Venice to be brought under Italian control (after a war with Austria), and it was not until 1870 that Rome was occupied by the Italian army, taking control from the pope.

Despite the formal unification of the country, Italy continued to be pummeled by political turmoil. The population did not immediately think of themselves as Italians, rather than say, Sicilians (residents of Sicily in the southwest) or Venetians (residents of the region around the city of Venice in the northeast). The period from 1878 to 1900 saw widespread political violence, government corruption, bank scandals, and political conflict brought about by the rise of modern industry.

In an atmosphere of political uncertainty and instability, and in the absence of a strong national identity, the

Italian and Greek Immigration: Words to Know

A person who is not a citizen of the United States.
The way that someone who comes from a foreign land or culture becomes absorbed into a culture and learns to blend into the ways of its predominant, or main, society.
Unfair treatment based on racism or other prejudices.
Leaving one's country to go to another country with the intention of living there. "Emigrant" is used to describe departing from one's country—for example, "she emigrated from Ireland."
A distinct cultural or nationality unit within a foreign territory.
Relating to a group of people who are not from the majority culture in the country in which they live, and who keep their own culture, language, and institutions.
Extended family:
A family with several generations all living together or acting as a unit. An extended family usually includes grandparents, their sons or daughters, and their children. The term is used to differentiate the extended family from the nuclear family, which is only a married couple and their children.
Relating to ancient Greek and Roman civilizations.
To travel to a country of which one is not a native with the intention of settling there as a permanent resident. "Immigrant" is used to describe coming to a new country—for example, "she immigrated to the United States."
The historic change from a farm-based economy to an economic system based on the manufacturing of goods and distribution of services on an organized and mass-produced basis.
To move from one place to another, not necessarily across national borders.
A set of beliefs that centers around favoring the interests of people who are native-born to a country (though generally not concerning Native Americans) as opposed to its immigrants.
New World:
The Western Hemisphere, including North and South America.
An Italian or Greek immigrant who was established in the United States and acted as a professional labor broker for more Italian or Greek recent immigrants. The padrone was usually paid by both employer looking for workers and the employee.
Papal States:
Political units ruled by the pope, the leader of the Roman Catholic Church.
Abusive and oppressive treatment.
A country ruled by the people rather than by a king.

family and the village took on greater importance in the lives of many Italians, especially in the southern part of the country and on the large island of Sicily. An Italian family household typically included at least three generations—grandparents, parents, and children—as well as brothers and sisters, aunts and uncles, and cousins living nearby. In a society in which couples tended to have a large number of children (five to ten was not unusual), a so-called "extended family" could include several dozen relatives, all living in the same village and looking out for one another's economic interests. In small rural villages, where 90 percent of the population of southern Italy lived in the nineteenth century, a small number of families shared dozens of relatives, knitting together the entire town.

Southern Italy was one of the poorest regions of Europe in the nineteenth century. The Industrial Revolution—which had enriched countries like Britain, Germany, France, and the United States with the introduction of mass-production of goods in factories using steam-or oil-powered engines—came very late to Italy, and then only to the northern part of the country. Part of the reason was that Italy lacked deposits of coal or petroleum, used to provide energy to industrial machines. In southern Italy and on the island of Sicily, the social and economic structure had not changed for several hundred years. Many families tried to live on the agricultural output of about five acres, usually rented from a large landowner. (By comparison, immigrants to the United States in the nineteenth century worked farms of about 160 acres.) It was common in Italy for a landowner to supply the land, farm animals, tools and seed, and even a house, in exchange for virtually all the crop raised on his land—a system that barely fed the tenants and offered little chance to improve their lives.

Economic crisis

In the last third of the 1800s, a series of seemingly unrelated events resulted in an economic crisis in southern Italy that made it even more difficult to earn a living. These events led to large-scale emigration.

First, southern Italy's two major crops were seriously hurt by disease and insects. A plant disease attacked grapevines, greatly reducing the size of a crop that was sold both as fruit and to be squeezed to make juice for wine. Farmers who raised grape vines were further hurt by a decision by the government of France to impose new tariffs (taxes) on imported grapes, which made it harder for Italians to sell their grape crops there. Separately, an insect infestation attacked olive trees, reducing the yield of the region's other important crop. Two other crops of southern Italy, lemons and oranges, encountered new competition from citrus fruits grown in the United States, where production of those fruits was rapidly expanding in both Florida and California.

The new government of unified Italy, in order to raise money to pay its debts, imposed a series of new taxes, including one on ground grain, such as flour, used to make both pasta and bread. The tax on flour had the effect of making food more expensive for everyone. The tax hit the poorest Italians especially hard.

At the same time, Italy's population had started growing rapidly, which meant more mouths to feed at a time when crop failures and higher taxes were already squeezing poor farmers. The population of Italy grew from about six million in 1861 to about twelve million in 1900 and to about eighteen million by 1916. The rise in population was helped by the introduction of new medicines, such as a vaccine (drug) to prevent smallpox, a disease that often proved deadly, and by improvements in disposing of sewage, which was also a cause of deadly diseases.

Emigration begins

The combination of crop failure, a tax on basic food, and population growth, coming on top of an economic structure barely able to support many people in the best of times, led many Italians in the late 1800s to decide that their best, and perhaps only, solution was to immigrate to another country. Two of the poorest regions of Italy, the island of Sicily and the region around Naples, also in the south of Italy, accounted for over half the Italians who left their land and moved to the United States. Unlike people who left their native lands at the end of the nineteenth century to escape persecution—for example, Jews leaving Eastern Europe at about the same time the Italians were leaving Italy—the over-whelming majority of Italian emigrants were looking for a way to earn money in order to support their families. Many Italian emigrants saw their voyage to the United States as a temporary solution to their economic problems. They planned to find a job in the United States that would provide money to tide over their family in Italy until better times. About one fourth of the Italians who moved to the United States between 1880 and 1920 eventually did return home. In some cases, Italians worked outside Italy for part of the year, then returned home to live with their extended families for the rest of the year. Other Italians left for the United States with the intention of returning after a few years, but they ended up staying a lifetime.

Far from being a rejection of their life in Italy, emigration was viewed as a way of preserving it. Just as tourists do not automatically change their eating habits and learn the language of a country they are visiting, many Italian immigrants did not feel a strong need to fit into their new culture, since they planned to remain in the United States only temporarily. Rather, whenever possible, Italian immigrants connected with people to whom they were related. They preserved their native culture by setting up Italian communities, often called Little Italy, in the United States.

When an Italian man, frequently alone but sometimes with his immediate family of wife and children, went to the United States, it was customary to look for a relative from the same village or region for help in getting settled and finding work. The traditional extended families of Italy carried over to the United States, encouraging Italian immigrants to live near relatives, or friends of relatives, in the same neighborhoods of American cities. Even inside Italian ethnic neighborhoods, residents from the same village or region stuck together. Often, it was only after immigrants found themselves living in cities filled with people who did not speak Italian and had no relationship to Italy that Italians developed a sense of being the more general term "Italian," rather than relating to a more specific region, such as Sicilian or Neapolitan (from Naples). In cities like Boston and New York, neighborhoods called Little Italy continue to exist in the twenty-first century, more than a century after the first large wave of Italian immigration in the 1880s.

Help wanted

Just as economic circumstances were making life difficult in Italy, rapid economic growth in the United States created a strong demand for immigrants. New factories needed workers, and the U.S. government wanted to populate land west of the Mississippi with Europeans as a means of spurring economic growth. Three factors in particular made the United States a magnet for Europeans, including Italians, looking for economic relief in the last third of the nineteenth century:

  • The American Civil War (1861–65) had killed over six hundred thousand young men, which created a labor shortage in some areas.
  • Building a railroad link between the East and West Coasts of the United States symbolized the country's desire to populate all of its territory, especially the region between the Mississippi River and the Rocky Mountains, which was still largely empty of Europeans. The companies that built railroads linking east and west encouraged farmers to move into states like North and South Dakota, Nebraska, and Montana. The farmers grew crops and raised livestock (mostly cows) for shipment by rail to cities back east. The railroad companies also needed the farmers to serve as customers for manufactured goods shipped from factories in the east.
  • The United States was in a period of rapid industrial economic growth, especially during the 1880s. The growing number of factories in industrial centers such as New York, Cleveland, and Chicago needed workers, not necessarily highly skilled, to carry out extremely physically challenging work. The new factories caused a rapid increase in the population of cities in which they were located. The population increase in turn created the need for laborers to build housing and urban transportation systems as well as for workers to provide basic government services such as trash collection.

Leaving for America

Economic crisis in Italy and opportunity in the United States began to coincide around 1870, which is when a trickle of Italians started arriving in the United States. After a period of economic slowdown in the United States that began in 1873 and lasted for the next seven years, the stream of Italians coming to America turned into a flood during the 1880s. From 1880 to 1920, about four million Italians immigrated to the United States, becoming the largest single national group making the move. During the same period, many other Italians went to France, Switzerland, Austria, and Germany looking for jobs; others went to Brazil, Argentina, and Uruguay in South America for the same reason. By 1900, about 40 percent of emigrating Italians went to the United States, with the rest going to Europe or South America.

Initially, many Italian immigrants came from northern Italy, especially the region around Genoa on Italy's northwest coast. A significant number of these early Italian immigrants went to northern California, where they helped found and promote vineyards and wineries. Many of their names are still famous as brand names of wine in the twenty-first century: Gallo, Martini, Rossi, Guasti, Petri, and Cribari. Other Italians in the 1870s traveled to New York, where they specialized in selling fresh fruits.

After 1880, Italians from southern Italy joined the emigrant stream and eventually accounted for about 80 percent of Italians moving to other countries. Most southern Italian emigrants took the shortest, cheapest route to the United States, landing in New York. They settled in New York City, New York; Boston, Massachusetts; Providence, Rhode Island; and other cities of the Northeast.

Just as southern Italy was one of the poorest areas of southern Europe, so Italian immigrants were among the poorest people to come to the United States during a period of large-scale European migration around the turn of the twentieth century. Figures collected from a U.S. government survey in 1901 showed that people from southern Italy brought an average of $8.67 (equivalent to about $177 in 2001) with them, only nine cents above the very poorest group, the Eastern European Jews. On the other hand, immigrants arriving in the United States from northern Italy in 1901 brought, on average, $23.53 (worth about $480 in 2001), which was among the highest amounts of any immigrant group.

Rather than engage in farming, which implied a permanent move, Italian immigrants tended to take work as laborers in cities of the northeastern United States. Landing with very little money, Italian immigrants needed to find a job as soon as possible, which meant settling near the American port where they landed, especially New York City. About 70 percent of Italians from southern Italy could not read or write, and few spoke English upon arrival in New York. The lack of money and education often drove Italians into low-paying jobs, like shining shoes, or jobs that no one else wanted, such as sweeping streets or collecting garbage. By 1890, about 90 percent of New York City's public works employees (workers responsible for street cleaning, garbage collection, and street repair) were Italian. About half the Italian immigrants between 1880 and 1920 found jobs in construction, a far greater proportion than any other single immigrant group. The tunnels of New York City's subway system, the bridges linking the island of Manhattan to New Jersey on the west and Long Island on the east, and the first generation of skyscrapers in New York all were built with the help of Italian immigrants.

Coping with life in America

Starting out in America with practically no money and forced to work for low wages, Italian immigrants often lived in miserable conditions. Italian men who arrived in New York alone with plans to send money home to support their families endured a meager existence. Italian immigrant families were often crammed into one or two rented rooms that lacked adequate plumbing, had little fresh air, and were built with thin walls that deprived families of privacy. Italian immigrants were not the only ones subjected to low living standards. Other immigrant groups arriving about the same time lived and worked under similar conditions. Miserable, unhealthy living conditions became a political scandal in New York during the 1890s as a result of photographs taken of immigrant housing and families by journalist Jacob Riis (1849–1914), himself an immigrant from Denmark (see chapter 11 on Scandinavian immigration).

Newly arrived Italian men were able to use an employment system that revolved around a padrone, which means "boss" or "master." The padrone was an Italian already established in the United States who acted as a professional labor broker. Employers came to him to find workers, and Italian immigrants came to find jobs. The padrone was paid by both employer and employee. The padrone system contributed to a concentration of Italian workers in certain industries, such as construction, where the padrones had contacts. Padrones also served other roles for immigrants, including acting as bankers to send money back to Italy and writing letters home from workers who were illiterate. Italian women immigrants tended to take a different path, often taking work into their homes, such as sewing. Other young Italian women worked in garment factories manufacturing clothing.

Italians often joined one of dozens of mutual protection societies. These groups served as a social club, sometimes grouped around people from the same region of Italy. The mutual protection societies provided such benefits as unemployment insurance and education for both children and adults. The largest Italian mutual protection society was the Order of the Sons of Italy in America, founded in New York City in 1905. It had three hundred thousand members in the 1920s.

It was common in the last decade of the nineteenth and first decade of the twentieth centuries to find several families from the same Italian town living next to each other on the same street in New York or Boston, maintaining the same social ties they had in Italy. In Italian culture, the family was the overriding social relationship. It was normal for three generations of a family—children, parents, and grand-parents—to live in the same house, which was on the same block as brothers and sisters, aunts, uncles, and cousins. Strong family ties and enduring links to villages back in Italy helped Italians form one of the strongest and most distinctive ethnic groups (people from similar national backgrounds) in the United States.

Because Italians in the United States tended to remain together as a community, for many of them being in the United States was like living in an Italian village that happened to be across the Atlantic Ocean from Italy. Little Italy made it possible to maintain a culture and lifestyle that was familiar and distinctly Italian rather than American. The tradition of extended families contributed to keeping together Italian enclaves (distinct social groups existing within a foreign territory) that lasted longer than many others. While people of other nationalities who immigrated to the United States in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries became widely dispersed around the United States, the 1990U.S. census showed that 86 percent of Americans of Italian ancestry were concentrated in New York, New Jersey, Connecticut, Rhode Island, and Massachusetts.

Prejudice and a change in policy

Beginning just after World War I (1914–18), the United States began to be more hostile toward and less accepting of immigrants. Large numbers of newcomers from southern and eastern Europe (of whom Italians constituted the largest number) did not fit the image of Americans held dear by many of the older stock in the United States. The new arrivals had darker skin than people whose ancestors came from England or Germany; they were not Protestants; and they tended to live in large cities instead of on farms or in smaller towns. In a larger sense, antiimmigrant feelings reflected a reaction against changes in American society that had been occurring for many years. Since the end of the American Civil War (1861–65), the United States had been changing from a largely rural or small-town society based on farming into an urban, industrial society based on manufacturing. The new industrial cities, with factories emitting smoke and streets crowded with people who did not speak English, seemed distinctly foreign and somehow "un-American" to people from small towns or cities in the South or the Midwest.

In addition to a general discomfort felt by some Americans with new immigrants, prejudice against Italians in particular had two other roots, one economic and the other religious. Many Italians had entered the country on the bottom rung of the social ladder, and they were often looked down upon by earlier arrivals. Italians continued to live in close-knit communities where they spoke Italian and preserved their native customs. Many Italian immigrants sent their children to church-run schools, instead of public schools, which reinforced the sense that Italians were not part of the American mainstream. Just as Italians were slow to accept American ways, they were also slow to gain acceptance as equals in the eyes of other ethnic groups. Many southern Italians had relatively darker skin than Americans with ancestors from northern Europe, which fed into a widespread American prejudice in the early twentieth century against dark-skinned people.

That the overwhelming majority of Italian immigrants were Catholics was another barrier to acceptance. Fear or dislike of the Roman Catholic Church was a long-standing tradition in the United States, dating from the time the Puritans had arrived in the seventeenth century in order to practice a religion that was "purified" of Catholic influence. Although the U.S. Constitution guaranteed freedom of religion, up until the mass migrations of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, Protestants had constituted the overwhelming majority in the United States. Their feelings toward Catholics were often hostile. Some American Protestants feared that the Catholic Church would try to influence the government through the immigrants, who became Catholic voters. Italians were not the only group of immigrants to experience religious prejudice; it had also been applied against Catholic immigrants from Ireland, Germany, Poland, and other countries of southern and eastern Europe, as well as against Jews.

An official reaction against immigration

It was in this atmosphere of rising popular sentiment against newly arrived immigrants that Congress passed the Emergency Quota Act of 1921, which restricted the number of immigrants based on nationality. The law temporarily limited the number of people admitted to the United States each year from any single country to the number equal to 3 percent of the number of people from that country who were already in the United States in 1910, based on the census for that year.

Three years later, Congress passed the Immigration Act of 1924, which was a defining moment in the story of Italian immigration. The 1924 law made national quotas (assigned proportions) permanent. It radically reduced the maximum number of immigrants from any single country to a number equal to 2 percent of the number of that particular nationality that had resided in the United States in 1890—before the arrival of many Italians, Jews, and other southern or eastern Europeans. The intent of the law was to preserve the United States as a country dominated by people with northern European, Protestant ancestors. The practical result of the law was to end forty years of mass migration from southern and eastern Europe. The impact fell hardest on Italians simply because they had been the largest single nationality to have immigrated into the United States in the period from 1890 to 1924.


The 1924 Immigration Act marked the end of large-scale immigration from Italy and a transition in the history of Italian Americans. Ties with family members still in Italy remained, but the flow of people who immigrated temporarily and then returned to Italy was largely cut off. Gradually, the Italian community in America became less of a North American outpost of Italy and more integrated with American culture.

The Godfather

In the early twenty-first century, The Sopranos, a cable-channel (HBO) drama revolving around the family life and work of a Mafia gangster, was one of the most popular and acclaimed shows on television. Many Italian American associations and commentators condemned the constant focus of American fiction and movies on gangsters from the Italian American community. Although no one denies that organized crime groups such as the Mafia carry on corrupt and often violent business in the United States, the Mafia is certainly not in any way representative of the Italian American community as a whole. Because many American viewers may associate Italian Americans with the gangster movies they have seen, there is a fear that these shows will lead to ethnic stereotyping.

Historically, powerful, corrupt, and violent gangs have arisen among many of America's immigrant groups. Irish Americans, Chinese Americans, Vietnamese Americans, Mexican Americans, and many other national groups in the United States have had a small element of powerful people manipulating people and wielding power outside the legal government, often with the use of violence. These gangs have operated in a variety of ways, both for and against the interests of their communities. The Godfather, both the novel and the film series, is one of the most renowned stories of organized crime out of the complex American past, depicting at once the ethnic richness in the early generations of immigrant life as well as the corruption and violence that were a part of the heritage.

The author of the novel The Godfather (1969), Mario Puzo (1920–1999), was the son of Italian immigrants and grew up in the Hell's Kitchen area of New York City. In 1965 Puzo was struggling as a freelance writer when a publisher asked him to write a novel about the Italian underworld. Puzo's story of the Italian gangster organization provides an intimate look at how five powerful Mafia families managed to wield immense power in the Italian American community in the New York-New Jersey area in the 1940s. The head of the most powerful family is the aging Don Vito Corleone, who must transfer power to one of his three sons: Sonny, Fredo, and Michael. The Godfather became the best-selling novel of the 1970s, remaining on the New York Times best-seller list for sixty-seven weeks.

Puzo went to work with director Francis Ford Coppola (1939–) on a screenplay for The Godfather, in what would eventually be an Academy Award–winning film trilogy. Coppola was attracted to the project in part because of Puzo's emphasis on an American family, depicted over a period of more than seventy years.

The Godfather trilogy may be viewed in several contexts: as a gangster story, a mystery thriller, a period piece, an ethnic study, and a social commentary. Critics have complained that the series romanticizes criminals. Unlike most gangster films, though, the trilogy celebrates the domestic life and ethnicity of its characters. Some observers felt that since the gangsters were neither stereotyped nor demonized, the viewer sympathized with their home life, loyalty, and Sicilian honor, yet at the same time watched in horror as they viciously murdered, robbed, and cheated. The Godfather was popular among many American ethnic groups. Part II particularly explores the Corleone family's European roots with a respect for ethnicity rare in gangster movies.

Ties to Italy remained close for the immigrant generation of Italians because they had family members living in Italy. For their children, the ties were weaker, since they likely had not met many of their relatives in Italy. (Before the advent of jet airplane travel across the Atlantic in the 1960s, trips between Italy and the United States were usually by steamship, which was slow and expensive.) The grandchildren of immigrants were even less likely to feel close kinship to someone in Italy. For the great-grandchildren of original immigrants, Italy was often just a foreign country from which their ancestors came.

At the same time, prejudice against Italians steadily declined after the 1920s, aided in part by the widespread adoption of features of Italian culture such as food and music. The process of assimilation (integration) with the dominant American culture accelerated after World War II (1939–45), when Italian Americans joined millions of other Americans in moving from older cities to new suburbs. For the first time, the suburbs brought people from many different ethnic groups and religions into the same neighborhoods. Suburban children became more likely to attend public schools and become friends with children of other ethnic groups. At the same time, Italian Americans who were two, three, or even four generations removed from Italy had no thought of returning to Italy. Italian Americans were becoming less Italian and more American. Italy had become part of their heritage rather than part of their everyday life.

The "Americanization" of Italian Americans did not take place overnight, nor did it entirely wipe out memories of earlier experiences. Americans of Italian ancestry still carried distinctive last names that quickly identified their heritage. The tradition of close family ties over several generations helped keep their ethnic identity intact, as did the fact that Italian Americans remained concentrated in the northeast United States.

On the other hand, Italian culture, especially food, became commonplace. A pizza shop no longer signaled an Italian neighborhood; it was typical of all American neighborhoods. Americans of all backgrounds were fans of Italian American performers like Frank Sinatra (1915–1998) and Dean Martin (1917–1995), or Italian American baseball stars like Yogi Berra (1925–) and Joe DiMaggio (1914–1999).

By the 1960s, although newspapers still occasionally reported a "first" for an Italian American—such as the first Italian American congressman or the first Italian American astronaut, etc.—the descendants of Italian immigrants had been thoroughly assimilated into American life and had taken leadership in politics, business, and the arts. The story of Italian Americans had become thoroughly integrated with the story of the United States.

Italian culture in America


Italian cuisine has become an American mainstay. Pizza, for example, originated as a kind of sandwich enjoyed by Italian workers on the job. Instead of two slices of bread surrounding meat or cheese, the Italian approach was to spread tomato paste and cheese on a flat, round piece of

dough and cook it in an oven. Pizza remains one of the most popular informal meals for Americans of all backgrounds.

Pasta is another Italian contribution to popular American food. Noodles rolled from flour and eggs are not limited to Italian cuisine—they are also a vital part of many kinds of Asian cooking—but in no other national cuisine have noodles achieved the rich variety they have in Italian cooking. Covered with a sauce enriched with meat, cheese, mushrooms, or olives, Italian pasta is known by the names of the distinctive shapes of the noodles: spaghetti, lasagna, ravioli, and ziti are just a few. Italian restaurants often specialize in the cuisine of northern Italy, which is similar in many respects to French cuisine. Northern Italian foods feature meat or chicken with rich sauces made with wine or cream enhanced with spices.


Opera (a play in which the parts are sung instead of spoken) is not unique to Italy, but Italian immigrants were in the forefront of making opera popular in the United States. The Italian contribution to opera comes both in the form of composers, such as Gioacchino Antonio Rossini (1792–1868), Giuseppe Verdi (1813–1901), and Giacomo Puccini (1858–1924), and performers such as singer Enrico Caruso (1873–1921). The most prominent classical opera house in the United States, the Metropolitan Opera of New York City, has long been the home of such world-famous Italian performers as Caruso, conductor Arturo Toscanini (1867–1957), and tenor Luciano Pavarotti (1936–), among others.

Like many other ethnic groups, Italian Americans have become popular stars in films, starting in the first movies during the 1920s, when Rudolph Valentino (1895–1926) was a leading romantic character, to film stars of the early twenty-first century including Al Pacino (1940–) and Robert DeNiro (1943–).


Italian Americans have also succeeded in politics, especially in large cities. Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia (1882–1947) was highly popular in New York during the Great Depression (economic slowdown) of the 1930s, as was Mayor Rudolph Giuliani (1944–) in the months following the terrorist attack against the World Trade Center in New York City on September 11, 2001. Other prominent Italian American politicians include former New York governor Mario Cuomo (1932–);U.S. Representative Geraldine Ferraro (1935–), who ran for vice president as a Democrat in 1986; and Thomas Menino (1942–), who in 1993 became the first Italian American elected mayor of Boston, a city long dominated by another immigrant ethnic group, the Irish Americans. In 1950 John Pastore (1907–2000) of Rhode Island became the first Italian American in the U.S. Senate. Antonin Scalia (1936–) became the first Italian American Supreme Court justice in 1986.

Greek Americans

The first Greeks who decided to immigrate to the United States in the late nineteenth century were farmers who suffered from poverty due to an unstable Greek economy and a population explosion that had been the result of improvements in sanitation and medicine. By the turn of the twentieth century, many farmers could not raise enough food to feed their families and pay their rent and taxes, and there were not enough jobs to sustain the lower classes through the bad times. Most who decided to emigrate were uneducated and illiterate. Many, like the Italian immigrants at that time, wished to come to the United States only long enough to earn some money to bring home to their families.

Like the Italians, the Greek immigrants had a system in which padrones in the United States helped new immigrants find jobs. The Greek padrones developed a system in which they recruited workers from Greece to come to the United States under the terms of a contract. This worked much like the indentured servant system: the employers would pay for the worker's passage to America, and in return the worker would agree to work for a number of years at an agreed-upon, but very low, wage. Many Greek families who could not make ends meet sent their teenaged sons under these contracts. The terms of employment were very difficult for these young workers, but many desired to venture out into a new world of possibilities and were glad to go, at least at first. Young men and boys under the padrone system often worked as shoe shines or as helpers to grocers and other shopkeepers. Most intended to return home to Greece with enough money to buy farmland for their families.

In 1912 war broke out between Greece and Turkey. The ties to home were still very strong for the mainly male Greek American population at that time, and about forty-five thousand Greek Americans returned to Greece to defend

their country in the Balkan Wars. Although many of these young men had always planned to return to Greece, after the war they found little opportunity there. Many decided to return to the United States and settle there instead.

Life and work in America

Most Greeks had little experience with the industrialized work world of the United States. They tended to avoid farm work, but took other unskilled jobs, usually for very low wages. New England's textile industry attracted many Greek immigrants. Many of the newcomers were exploited by the padrone system, but most managed to survive and tuck away bits of money to build up their savings slowly. The majority of Greeks tended to settle in the cities of the Northeast and the Midwest, such as Boston, New York City, and Chicago. However, significant numbers went West to become miners or railroad workers in California, Colorado, Utah, or Nevada. Some became fishermen in Florida.

Many Greek immigrants eventually opened their own businesses. They tended to specialize in shoeshine stands, florist shops, grocery stores, candy stores, fruit stands, and restaurants, particularly diners. Many of these businesses still exist today, as a high percentage of Greek Americans continue to own their own businesses.

Often when a Greek male who had come to the United States had become settled in a business, he began to seek a wife. In an immigrant's first years in the country, he might decide to have a marriage arranged for him back in Greece. He would become engaged to a young woman from his home village who was known to his family, communicating with her through the mail. Then the woman would immigrate, and the couple would marry soon after she arrived.

Greek Americans suffered discrimination at first, which could at times turn violent. For the most part, however, they had a slightly easier time becoming assimilated than other immigrants at that time. Some observers believe that this is because Americans have strong ties to ancient Greek ideals. Although the values of modern Greeks differ greatly from those of ancient Greece, the values of democracy, hard work, and independence have remained constant. Among the educated elite of the United States, a number of Hellenic (relating to ancient Greek and Roman civilizations) societies celebrated the virtues of Greece and welcomed Greek immigrants to the shores of the United States.

To provide a sense of community and mutual support, early Greek Americans formed cultural associations. More than sixty of these associations existed in the United States in 2003. Greek cultural associations have helped many Greek Americans adapt to life in America.

Migration era ends

Between 1900 and 1920 about 350,000 Greek immigrants arrived in the United States. The Immigration Act was passed in 1924, and it severely restricted the numbers of immigrants allowed into the United States from countries that had not had a big population there in 1890. The Greek immigration slowed significantly. World War II and the Greek Civil War (1947–49) that almost immediately followed, further reducing Greek immigration until about 1950. After World War II, the United States, in return for its allies' support, passed the Refugee Relief Act to allow refugees from countries devastated by the war to immigrate. Many Greeks took advantage of this opportunity, and the number of Greek immigrants rose dramatically. Another wave of Greek immigration began in the late 1960s when an oppressive regime took over the Greek government and many Greeks decided to flee. The Immigration Act of 1965 had ended the quota system, making entering the country much easier. In the first decade after the act, more than 142,000 people immigrated to the United States from Greece. Most of the Greek immigrants to the United States since World War II have stayed there, and many are women and professionals.

Like many other national groups, Greek Americans sometimes become divided between those who have been in the country for several generations and those who have arrived more recently. Conflicts between these two groups came to a head in 1967 when the U.S. government backed a military takeover in Greece and supported the resulting oppressive dictatorship there for seven more years. The U.S. government also supported Turkey's controversial invasion of the island republic of Cyprus, which had both Greek and Turkish inhabitants, in 1974. Those Greek Americans who had lived in the United States for generations and considered themselves more American than Greek were less likely to question U.S. policy. More recent immigrants, however, strongly opposed the U.S. support of the military dictatorship and the Turkish invasion of Cyprus. Political shifts in Greece since then have kept alive the disagreement among Greek Americans.

The Greek American population

Although Greek Americans are spread across the United States, over one-third live in the Northeast. Massachusetts and New Hampshire have the highest percentage of Greek Americans in their total state populations. The five states with the largest numbers of Greek Americans are (in descending order) New York, California, Illinois, Massachusetts, and Florida. Greek Americans tend to cluster in cities, especially New York, Boston, and Chicago. Only a few of the original Greektowns still exist, including Astoria in the Queens borough of New York City, and Greektown in Detroit, Michigan. Formerly, Greektowns were located in Lowell, Massachusetts; Salt Lake City, Utah; Tarpon Springs, Florida (where Greek Americans ran a profitable sponge-diving business); St. Louis, Missouri; Chicago, Illinois; and New York City; as well as others on Long Island and across New York. The populations of these enclaves have scattered as most Greek Americans have assimilated into the U.S. mainstream.


The Greek and English languages differ from each other significantly in both spoken and written forms. Most early Greek Americans were illiterate in Greek, however, so the written differences between the languages did not pose a problem for them. Many recent Greek immigrants to the United States are well educated and already have some English proficiency when they arrive. Therefore, English language ability has not presented a serious obstacle to Greek Americans for the most part. First-generation Greek Americans worked hard to acquire English language skills, and subsequent generations grew up speaking English as their native language. Most second- and third-generation Greek Americans, in fact, never learned Greek.

For many decades, traditional Greek customs and culture have been taught to American-born Greek American children at Greek afternoon and day schools in an attempt to preserve the culture in the United States. Although there are currently some four hundred afternoon schools with a total of twenty-seven thousand students, and twenty-four day schools (mostly kindergarten through eighth grade) with a total of sixty-five hundred students, attendance is declining rapidly.

Early Greek American college students formed intellectual societies, such as the Plato Society founded in Boston in the early 1900s. The first university club in the United States was Helicon, established at Harvard in 1911 by Greek American students. These students were members of an elite minority, however. Most Greek Americans in the early decades of the twentieth century were not well educated and did not encourage their children to pursue secondary or higher education. Although attendance rates for Greek Americans at all levels of education are improving, Greek Americans are still among the least formally educated of all ethnic groups in the United States.


Despite low levels of education upon arriving in the United States, Greek Americans are now among the wealthiest of all ethnic groups in the United States. Their average income is considerably higher than other groups and their rate of unemployment is much lower. Fewer Greek Americans than any other ethnic group live below the poverty line and very few are on welfare. With each succeeding generation, more Greek Americans pursue higher education, are able to enter more skilled professions, and earn higher wages. Therefore, the average income of Greek Americans continues to go up.

Social structures

Greek Americans take marriage and family very seriously. Although recently on the rise, the divorce rate among Greek Americans is still quite low compared with that of other ethnic groups. First- and second-generation Greek Americans usually marry other Greek Americans, but later generations have begun to marry outside their ethnic boundaries. Traditional Greek families are quite close and often live in extended family groups. Today's Greek American families are becoming less closely bonded and are more likely to live in nuclear family units (including only the parents and their children). Elderly Greek Americans are also more likely these days to be admitted to a nursing home rather than be cared for at home by family members.

Many Greek Americans anglicized (made English-like) or shortened their names, particularly those with long surnames. Michael Anagnostopoulos (1837–1906), a Latin and Greek teacher at Perkins Institute for the Blind in Boston, for example, came to be known simply as Anagnos. Traditionally, Greek children are named after their grandparents, and a large number of Greek Americans continue this tradition.

Greek Independence Day and "No" Day

Greek Independence Day. On March 25 each year, Greek Americans celebrate Greek Independence Day, commemorating that date in 1821 when Greece declared its independence from Ottoman rule. Annual Greek Independence Day parades take place in some of the areas with high Greek American concentrations, such as the Greek Town of Chicago and of Tarpon Springs, Florida. In 2001 in the Greek-town area of Detroit, Michigan, members of Greek Orthodox churches and Hellenic associations from Michigan and Ohio gathered to sing, dance, and eat in traditional Greek manner, hoping to establish an annual event. In a 2003 statement, President George W. Bush (1946–) said:

Ancient Athenians created a Greek culture that valued human liberty and dignity, and modern Greeks have demonstrated that preserving freedom is a powerful motivating force. Today, on Greek Independence Day, we recognize the ancient Greek influence in framing our own Constitution and celebrate the Greek American heritage that continues to strengthen our communities and enrich our society.

"No" Day. Greek Americans also celebrate Ochi or "No" Day on October 28, the day in 1940 when the Greek government said "no" to the Italians during World War II (1939–45), entering the war on the Allied side with the United States, the Soviet Union, Great Britain, and other countries.

One of the first things early Greek American immigrants did when they settled in communities was to raise money to build a church. Greek Americans are almost exclusively Eastern (or Greek) Orthodox. Their community life centers around the church, which serves cultural and social, as well as religious, purposes. Greek Americans generally follow Eastern Orthodox birth and death rituals, such as bringing a baby to church forty days after birth to be blessed and having the child christened within a year after that. When a Greek American dies, a wake is held, with the funeral the following day.

Easter is the most important holiday for Eastern Orthodox Greek Americans. (So that Easter will always come after the Jewish Passover, the Eastern Orthodox Church sometimes celebrates it one week later than the Western Christian Church. It always occurs sometime in early spring.) Good Friday and Great Saturday services build up to the joyous celebration of Easter Sunday.

Arts and entertainment

Greek food is quite popular among the general population of the United States. Gyro (lamb) sandwiches, pita bread, feta cheese, and baklava (a honey-flavored pastry) are enjoyed by Greek and non-Greek Americans alike. Many American cooks are learning the art of baking with phyllo dough (paper-thin sheets of pastry dough). Greek restaurants and diners serve traditional Greek foods (which emphasize lamb and goat meats) with the addition of beef, which is more plentiful in the United States and more familiar to American tastes than is goat meat. Food is important to Greek Americans and symbolizes friendship, love, and human connection. Traditionally, it is considered an insult to the host if a guest does not eat.

Early Greek Americans spent much of their leisure time in coffeehouses, which were given names like Acropolis or Parthenon. These coffeehouses sometimes had live entertainment and almost always offered different forms of gambling. The gambling got so out of hand in Chicago in the early twentieth century that the mayor closed down the coffeehouses. From then on, Greek American coffeehouses had to be much more cautious about their activities.

Greek architecture, with its massive simplicity and soaring columns, has greatly influenced American building construction. The wings of the U.S. Capitol building in Washington, D.C., were designed in the Greek Revival style by Thomas Walter (1804–1887) in 1865. Greek American artist Constantino Brumidi (1805–1880) then painted Greek-style frescoes on the ceilings and walls of the Capitol building.

Dancing is a favorite pastime for Greek Americans. Although in Greece girls are not allowed to lead or to perform the more difficult, fast folk dances, Greek American girls can both lead and perform any Greek folk dance, fast or slow. Folk dances are performed at cultural festivals as well as at outdoor parties called glendi. Traditional Greek foods and music are also enjoyed at glendi.

James L. Outman and Sonia Benson

For More Information


Ciongoli, A. Kenneth, and Jay Parini. Passage to Liberty: The Story of Italian Immigration and the Rebirth of America. New York: Regan Books, 2002.

Clark, Jayne. The Greeks in America. Minneapolis, MN: Lerner Publications, 1990.

Monos, Dimitris. The Greek Americans. New York: Chelsea House, 1996.

Petrini, Catherine. The Italian Americans. San Diego, CA: Lucent Books, 2002.

Phillips, David, and Steven Ferry. Greek Americans. Tarrytown, NY: Benchmark Books/Marshall Cavendish, 1996.

Tonelli, Bill, ed. The Italian American Reader: A Collection of Outstanding Fiction, Memoirs, Journalism, Essays, and Poetry. New York: William Morrow, 2003.

Wepman, Dennis. Immigration: From the Founding of Virginia to the Closing of Ellis Island. New York: Facts on File, 2002.


Peck, Ira. "How Three Groups Overcame Prejudice." Scholastic Update 6, no. 17 (May 6, 1998): 12.

Rose, Jonathan. "Organized Crime: An 'Equal-Opportunity' Employer; Every American Ethnic Group Has Had Its Fingers in Organized Crime—a Fact That the Dominance of Italian-American Crime Rings Tends to Mask." Scholastic Update 118 (March 21, 1986): 12.

Web Sites

"Italian Immigration." Spartacus Educational. (accessed on March 3, 2004).