Thursday, February 4, 2010

The Italian Niche: Immigration (2)

Assimilation: The Early Italian Immigrant's Dilemma (Continue from Page: 1)

Upon being released from the Ellis Island processing, the newly Italian immigrants would fan out to the areas of New York City that consisted of crowded and neglected tenements in the lower part of Manhattan. Immigrants had to live in damp smelly cellars or attics, or up to six or 10 people, men, woman and children packed into crowded single rooms where "filth for so many years reigned undisturbed and pestilence wiping out hundreds of lives annually.These tenement buildings were dangerous firetraps, as well as a breeding place for murderous rodents that would kill babies in their cribs. The poor did not have the luxury of water, especially if they lived on the upper level. Water had to be carted from the fire hydrant in the street and carted upstairs. The Italian immigrants would come to the dumps to search for rags. They would bring their food with them, squatting down in the filth to eat their lunch.

From the hills and vineyards of Lombardy and Tuscany, from the mountains of Abruzzi, from the farms of Basilicata and the mines of Sicily, they all came with the one common purpose of getting better paid work. Italian immigrants tended to do whatever they had to do, accepting the jobs that other Americans didn't want to do, just so they could support themselves. There were many that were not as fortunate to find steady work that returned back to their native Italy discouraged and with empty pockets. These Italian immigrants, tricked by the stories told to them in Europe about plentiful work and big wages, in America, were induced to leave their native land, only to find suffering and hunger as a result of the deception told by the steamship agents.

A reporter from the Brooklyn Daily Eagle gives the following description in his article "Italian Immigration" dated August 9, 1888.

"Three hundred and fifty disappointed Italians who came to this country with the expectation of obtaining steady work at high wages, left for home. Tricked on both sides of the water, it does not take them long to find out that America is by no means the labor paradise they expected to find it."

Another report is also given in the article "Coming Here To Suffer" dated January 24, 1900. "The old fable that the streets in America are paved with gold, which has lured many an immigrant here only to endure cold and hunger, is being repeated in a new form and is likely to throw upon our town an army of ignorant foreigners this summer, for whom there is no possibility of finding work. The new bait is not golden paved streets, but the prospect of work on the rapid transit tunnel."

The early Italian immigrants were not welcomed in America; they would be verbally abused by name calling such as "wop," "guinea," and "dago," which resulted in a widespread mutual climate of open hostility, suspicion and distrust. In some areas, the early Italian immigrants met with anti-Roman Catholic, anti-immigrant discrimination and violence such as the lynching in 1891 of eleven Italians in New Orleans, Louisiana, even after they were found not guilty of murder. These aspects of American life influenced an unfavorable American experience among the early Italian immigrants.. Most of them had no interest in Assimilation.

The Italian immigrants who had come from all parts of Italy, setting aside their pre-existing differences and deep divisions, found the need to band together and fend for themselves in this new hostile environment.Most of the Italian immigrants settled in cities, establishing their own neighborhoods according to their native province or village of origin, almost independent of the life of the great city. They possessed a fierce pride and loyalty to their provincial customs and dialects. In these neighborhoods, they could be free to speak their own language, eat their own ethnic foods, practice their customs and religion as if back in their homeland, without any hindrance. These communities were designated as "Little Italy".Here the people followed the customs and ways of their forefathers. They would put their savings into Italian banks, Italian newspapers were published for their benefit, Italian theaters and moving-picture shows would furnish them with recreation. The stores would display Italian names, Italian priests would minister to their spiritual needs.

A neighborhood, where an undaunted Italian community despite discrimination, hardships and suffering in adapting themselves to their new environment, has always worked diligently and consistently , preserving and promoting their cultural heritage. It was a neighborhood where life-long relationships never ceased to be formed. So powerful was this sense of neighborhood, that many families as well as their descendants till this day would spend their entire lives living within its confines.

To be continued: Assimilation: The Early Italian Immigrant's Dilemma (3)

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