Thursday, September 1, 2011

Once Upon A Time In America: The Early Italian Immigrant's Assimilation Experience Part 2 (b)

By Miriam B. Medina

Between 1881 and 1917, four million Italians, mostly males, entered the United States. Many intended to return to their homeland after making enough money to establish a higher standard of living in Italy for themselves and their families. The industrialization of Northern Italy, which established a higher standard of living, slowed the exodus from this area. In contrast, the people from Sicily and the Southern provinces struggled economically at the end of the 19th century. The land was not looked after properly; little was done to make the earth productive. Parasites destroyed most of the vineyards in Southern Italy. The Sicilians did not have the opportunity to climb any financial ladder. Instead, they were reduced to being sharecroppers and they were obligated to wait until they paid off their debts.

Labor agents, the notorious 'padroni,' enriched themselves at the expense of the "immigrants." The padroni [loan sharks or flesh peddlers] hired gangs of workmen, charged a heavy commission for their service, and advanced passage money for the journey from Italy at a fancy price. The padroni hooked up with railroad companies, factories, farmlands, etc., providing work for the gangs of immigrants while charging an exorbitant commission for supplying labor here in the United States. Since the ignorant Italian laborer was in a strange country and not able to speak English, he couldn't find employment on his own, or even look after himself, so he would depend with a blind belief on the "Boss" for all his needs. These "Bosses" were ignorant men themselves, trying to make as much money as possible from the ignorance of others. It was this lack of knowledge and dependence that gave the padrone power. Of course, the unscrupulous padrone was more than willing for a sizable sum to help his fellow countryman. The padrone would find employment, and while he was working he would find a place for the immigrant to stay, write his letters and 'take care' of his finances. The Camorritti of Naples was members of a secret organization, at one time more powerful than the police. They subsisted largely by extorting money from the peasants. "The majority of Italian immigration came from the southern and perhaps least favorably known provinces, Abruzzi, Avelliuo, Basilicata, Sicily, Naples, and Calabria. Most of them were of the peasant class and accustomed to hard work and meager provisions, illiterate, but of a childlike mind and imagination, quick to forget, and easily led astray by schemers. "

These early immigrants were hired out to whoever was willing to pay the padrone's inflated prices. The padrone would pay the laborer the least amount of money for his hard work. If anyone dared to complain, he would be discharged, threatened with stiff penalties, or severely abused. The women suffered the most; some were placed in houses of prostitution and never seen again. Even the children were sent out to the streets to find work to add to the coffers of the "Boss." The Italian laborer submitted to such extortion only because there were no other choices as he was in a strange country with a strange language. To protest was useless. Besides, who would he complain to? Did anyone care? They had a choice to either work for the "Boss" or starve.

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 3 (a)

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