It was in the 1800’s that Italian immigrants first started landing on the shores of America, they came as rather unskilled laborers that was needed to help a booming fledgling economy. They were not the archetypal American immigrants, these Italians were young men, mostly from rural south Italy that held little or no opportunities for them.
Over half of these early immigrants returned home, but for those that remained they formed today’s Italian-American community. Once settled these early immigrants brought their families to join them and large enclaves began to spring up in America’s northern towns and cities, plus also the industrial towns around Ohio and Pennsylvania.
The Early Strategy
Each new enclave of these Italian immigrants had its own ideas for success in the new country. The Italian culture is based around two principals: family and work. And so Italian labor started to work where they were needed, down in mines, building roads and tunnels, and other labor-intensive work. This much needed civil activity provided them with both an economic and cultural foothold in American society which provided for their families which is the core of Italian life.
Italian-Americans learn authority from their parents and older members of their society, but they also have a strong distrust of wider authority like the church and politicians. This comes directly from their homelands where the church had so much power and the politicians were very corrupt. So Italian-Americans use the family as a buffer against similar large institutions. Respect was held for family members and suspicion for any authority that lay outside.
Holding such views against authority did not give these early Italian immigrants immediate acceptance in America. They were not included in civic and political life and it was not until the start of WWII that America started to naturalize these immigrants to fight in the war. But of course, as Italy was fighting against America non-naturalized Italians were branded as enemies of the state.
However, the war was the key to the foundation of acceptance and recognition, as Italians were seen in every Hollywood war movie leading the way of almost every combat platoon. The truth was that over five hundred thousand Italian-American troops served in WWII, and thirteen actually won the Congressional Medal of Honor. Italian-Americans were now fully accepted into American society with popular stars like Frank Sinatra leading the way.
The Post War Years
During the 50’s and 60’s the immediate post war euphoria waned and Italian-Americans began to suffer prejudice once more, but much of this was due to the crime organization – the Mafia. The truth actually was that the Italian-American community were the main people victimized by the Mafia, but it was their reputations that were being tarnished.
The classic Godfather books by Mario Puzo became box office giants, and in a way they upheld a level of corruption with honor which was not perceived as bad as the large American capitalists that were strangling America at the time. In part two of this blog we continue to delve into the culture of Italian-Americans and see how it has progressed since the 1960’s.