Friday, September 2, 2011

Once Upon A Time In America: The Early Italian Immigrant's Assimilation Experience Part 3 (b)

By Miriam B. Medina

Poverty forced the immigrants to take whatever work was offered, accepting the jobs that other Americans didn't want, just so they could support themselves. Since most of the Southern Italian immigrants were farmers or farm hands, the only jobs they could get were unqualified and dangerous with the lowest pay-scale possible. Many families would create sweat shops and bring projects into the home. Everyone participated. Even children were sent out to find work in factories, mines or on farms.

There were many that were not fortunate enough to find steady work. They returned to their native Italy, discouraged 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 of the steamship agents. The illusion that American streets were paved with gold and that there was steady work at high wages only added to their disappointment when they realized that America was by no means the labor paradise they expected.

There were others with an entrepreneurial spirit, armed with knowledge and skills. They were able to live a better existence. Northern men accepted tough jobs at lower wages just to survive and keep their families together. In 1912, the Northern Italian immigrant averaged $11.28 in income per week, while the Southerner earned a meager $9.61.

The early Italian immigrants were not welcomed in America; they were verbally abused with slurs such as "wop," "guinea," and "dago," which resulted in 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 though they were found not guilty of murder. They were disliked and treated harshly by Americans. They found themselves in a strange land where they were forced to adapt to an urban way of life, contrary to their own backgrounds. They were looked upon as ignorant and unworthy, living in crowded apartments where disease ran rampant. They were even associated with crime, namely with the Mafia.These aspects of American life influenced an unfavorable American experience among the early Italian immigrants. Most of them had no interest in assimilation.

The treatment they received from Americans gave the immigrants a greater wanting to keep to themselves. For the Italian, family was and still is extremely valuable. Anyone outside the blood line was treated with suspicion and indifference. Associations were limited to family and paesanos.

The early Italian immigrants from all parts of Italy set aside their pre-existing differences and deep divisions, banding together and fending 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. An Italian neighborhood, undaunted despite discrimination, hardships and suffering, 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 and their descendants till this day spend their entire lives living within its confines?

They possessed a fierce pride and loyalty to provincial customs and dialects. In these neighborhoods they could be free to speak their own language, eat their own ethnic foods, and 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 furnished them with recreation. The stores would display Italian names; Italian priests would minister to spiritual needs.

In the last part of this series, we will explore the importance of family to Italian-Americans in both the past and present-day.

With 13 years of research experience, history in all its manifestations is Miriam B. Medina's passion. She loves nothing more than sharing what she learns with everyone. For more insight on today's subject matter, please visit The History Box is a one-stop resource center for writers, journalists, historians, teachers and students.

To be continued: Part 4 (a)

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