Thursday, September 1, 2011

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

By Miriam B. Medina

This article is part 2 of a 4 part series that explores the history and assimilation of Italian immigrants into American society. In part 1, we explored the importance of immigration to America and the background of Italian citizen's lives as they existed in Italy, exploring reasons that led to immigration. In part 2, we will finish examining the background of the Italians and continue into the immigration process.

In Southern Italy you had the nobles, the large land owners, the artisans, the peasants who owned or leased small plots of land, and the day laborers who were always in transit and looking for work. Many of the clergy controlled the political life in the villages.

Even though the inhabitants of Italy were all considered Italians, the Southerners would condemn the Northerners as not being true Italians. They felt that the Northerners became too European, adapting to the European culture, not adhering to the family tradition which has always been the primary focus of the Italian culture. Family, Southerners felt, provided status and security as an individual. Thus, they felt that they were true Italians. On the other hand, the Northerner considered himself better off, looking down at the southerner, condemning them for not working hard enough to call themselves Italian. Thus, the contention existed between both Northerners and Southerners.

"A statewide educational system has been in existence in Italy since 1859. The Casati Act passed in 1859 bestows educational responsibilities on individual Italian states. In 1861 the Italian unification took place." Through the Casati Act, primary education became compulsory in Italy. This law was actually not enforced.

On July 15, 1877 the Coppino act was introduced, establishing compulsory education for all children age's six to nine. Even children up to ten years old should attend school.

According to this Act, the subjects of instruction for the three compulsory years of schooling included elements of civics, reading, penmanship, the rudiments of the Italian language, arithmetic and the metric system.

The Southern Italians were not impressed by this type of education. They felt it only reflected the values and traditions of the elite ruling class and therefore rejected it.

The Northerner was of a much taller standing with a lighter complexion than the Southerner. He was intellectually prepared and was able to read and write. This made them more acceptable by the Anglos in America, thus making the assimilation into the American mainstream an easier transition. He usually had skills in some trade with a definite purpose, not having to depend on a padrone, who was a labor broker. The Southerner was of a shorter stature and was dark-complexioned. A large number of Southern Italians could not read or write and were unskilled farm laborers. They were considered a suitable candidate for exploitation by the padrone, whom they had to depend on in America to find jobs and to understand the language.

Prior to the mass immigration to the United States from the 1880s through 1924, Northern Italian artists, mostly educated professionals, had come to America seeking a new market to capitalize on. Many contributed to American cultural society as musicians, artists, educators and businessmen. Less than 25,000 came between the years of 1820-1870.

To be continued: Part 2 (b)

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