Friday, September 2, 2011

Once Upon A Time In America: The Early Italian Immigrant's Assimilation Experience Part 4 (a)

By Miriam B. Medina

"Whatever the individual does is recognized and American Democracy gives him a fair chance and reasonable opportunity." Assemblyman Chas. Novello of New York City 1921

In this final part of a 4 part series examining the history and heritage of Italian- Americans, we will explore the importance of the family unit and the neighborhood to the successful assimilation process of Italian immigrants. In the previous 3 parts, we examined the background of Italian immigrants, their reasons for coming to America and the hardships they overcame.

In America as well as in Italy, la famiglia is a tight-knit unit. Respect and support of the elderly is very important to Italian-American families. During the early days of immigration, the father was looked upon as head of the household. The women ran the household, influencing the social and religious lives of their children, as well as making important decisions with regards to the family. One of the most important aspects of the religion of the Italians that was brought to the New World was the celebration of a patron saint: the Madonna with processions, fireworks and worship, invoking protection for the village. In East Harlem there were 50,000 celebrating the Feast of Mt. Carmel at one point. The Feast of Sant' Antonio is celebrated annually in the same fashion as Italian ancestry did and still do today in Brusciano, Italy, by building a Giglio and dancing with it in the streets of Manhattan, N.Y.

Although the early Italian immigrants did not wish to pursue agriculture in America, many dedicated themselves to working the land as a form of economic survival. As they traveled throughout America in search of employment, some Italians would seize upon entrepreneurial opportunities. They converted swampy lands of Southern regions into fruitful soil. On the West Coast they grew lemons, oranges and other fruits. The wine industry was undertaken on a large-scale. The early Italian immigrants became suppliers of fruits and vegetables to large cities, making major contributions to the economic strength of America. Skilled Italians worked as masons, stone-cutters, mechanics, shoemakers, tailors, musicians and barbers, practicing their trades and crafts in the neighborhoods and cities in which they lived. Those who were not skilled during the early 1900s were forced to take jobs as common laborers and factory workers, finding employment in shipyards, mines, railroads and in construction.

Many became peddlers, selling fruits and vegetables. Some worked as waiters in restaurants and hotels. Little by little the familiar sight of Italian vendors displaying their wares from push carts were seen along the crowded streets of Little Italy and down by First Avenue in Italian Harlem. Small enterprises began mushrooming all over the United States within Italian communities becoming an important part of the settlement process. Not only did these small Italian enterprises play an important role in their own economic progress, but they also obtained key positions in the enterprise system that has made America what it is today, the financial center of the World.

As the Italian population increased, a leading Italian Newspaper, "Il Progresso Italo-Americano" in New York, was established. Its purpose was to help strengthen the immigrant's ties with Italy. This newspaper was an influential tool, assisting the Italian immigrant in their assimilation to American Society. One of the largest and most influential Italian organizations established in America commenced in New York City in 1905, the "Order of the Sons of Italy in America", which provided numerous benefits, meeting the needs of the Italians living in this country. The Sons of Italy were an immense help in softening the demeaning image of the "Wop," providing psychological compensation through their Italian-American program, keeping alive a love for Italy, retaining the Italian language and stressing Columbus Day as a symbol of solidarity between America and Italy.

To be continued: Part 4 (B)

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