Saturday, June 11, 2011

Celebrating An Italian Heritage In East Harlem, N.Y. Pt: (3a)

By Miriam B. Medina

In the conclusion to this 3 part article, we will examine the progression of the Italian heritage and community that began and grew from East Harlem as Italian immigrants migrated to New York and assimilated into the community. In part 1 we examined the neighborhood of Italian Harlem and it's people, in part 2 we examined the importance of family, birth of the Italian community and the church to this community, now we examine the all important heritage of religious celebration that so defines this community.

Settlement of Italian Harlem

The first Italian immigrants in East Harlem arrived as early as 1878, establishing their place in the vicinity of 115th street. They hailed from Polla of the province of Salerno. The first Italians in East Harlem were employed as strike-breakers for an Irish American Contractor, J. D. Crimmins. They worked on the First Avenue Trolley Tracks when strikes occurred, infuriating the Irish workers. As a result the striking Irish workers were all fired. Great tension existed between the fired workers and the newly arrived Italians. They coexisted within blocks of each other in East Harlem. There were also numerous instances of gang violence erupting between the Irish and the Italians over turf issues.

During the 1880's, East Harlem was of great interest to New Yorkers. Masses of Italian immigrants escaping the congestion of the legendary Mulberry Bend area, with its filthy overcrowded tenements, moved to East Harlem. Italians from the regions of Basilicata, Calabria, Campania, and Sicily bypassed the lower Manhattan area, establishing communities here during the last quarter of the 19th century. Italians from the same villages and towns would huddle together in niches, limiting their associations mostly to family and fellow villagers, laying down stakes all along the streets of East Harlem. On 112th street was a settlement from Bari; on East 107th Street between First Avenue and the East River were people from Sarno (near Naples); then on East 100th Street, between First and Second Avenues, were the Sicilians from Santiago. A small group of Genovese settled south of 106th street. Neapolitans settled in the space between 106th and 108th streets. Also, there were northerners from Piscento that settled on East 100th Street and Calabrians that settled on 109th Street. They were satisfied. In this new neighborhood they were allowed to use their own language, eat their own ethnic foods, and practice their customs and religion as they did in their homeland, though there were other nationalities that lived in the adjoining streets.

The Celebration Of Religious Feasts in East Harlem

1) The Feast of Our Lady of Mount Carmel

July 16 is the day of Italian Harlem's Feast of Our Lady of Mount Carmel. It has been the most attended feast in the entire United States. "Its popularity was ensured when in 1903 Pope Leo XIII awarded the statue a set of golden crowns (one for the Madonna and one for the child Jesus) and declared the church a basilica, a status which in the entire United States is shared only with Our Lady of Perpetual Help in New Orleans."

At the height, of the 1930's, Italian Harlem's population had reached approximately 100,000 or more. Even during the Depression years, this was the largest colony of Italian-Americans who had ever attended the festivities. Therefore, the combination of the local community along with people on pilgrimages from as far away as New Mexico, California, Florida and even Canada provided a total of circa 500,000 participants attending the Feast of Our Lady of Mount Carmel. This annual procession is the most prideful external expression of Italian Harlem's cultural identity.

Since the 1960's, there has been a steady decline in Our Lady of Mount Carmel's feast gathering, resulting from Italian people moving out of East Harlem. Nonetheless, the passion is still there, bringing back Italians year after year to worship together as they once did. Friendships are rekindled, long-lost neighbors are reunited, and neighborhood memories are revived in regards to an era that once existed. They not only come to the feast, but they come back to the church to attend the novenas which are prayed in Italian or to celebrate a particular Mass for the dead. Over the years, a new group of participants has given impetus to the "Our Lady of Mount Carmel" feast, which is sponsored and produced by Italian Americans. The Haitians have been coming in pilgrimage to East Harlem from many areas within New York and from other states. These Haitians are familiar with the location of the Church of "Our Lady of Mount Carmel." Many of them visit the Church because of their French Mass, held on the first Saturday of every month. They seek spiritual guidance and the Blessed Mother's intervention on their behalf. "Elizabeth McAlister, a graduate fellow at Yale University who has been studying the festival, says the growing number of Haitians who have been participating since the 1980's see the Madonna through the prism of both Roman Catholicism and Afro-Haitian traditions."

Last year was the 126th annual procession with many more to come.

To be continued: Part 3B

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