Thursday, September 1, 2011

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

By Miriam B. Medina

In this, part 3 of a 4 part series that explores Italian immigration into the United States, we will explore the progression and ascension of Italian immigrants into American culture. In part 1 and 2 we discussed the background of various Italian immigrants and why they came to America, and the often poor treatment these immigrants received at the hands of both Americans themselves and their own countrymen.

Newly arriving Italian immigrants were much different from those who had previously arrived. These were mostly laborers and farmers looking for steady work. They only came to visit for a short time, a minimum of five years, just long enough to make a decent amount of money to take back to Italy to gain economic security. These Italians were called "birds of passage." Most were young men in their teens and twenties who left their parents, young wives, and children behind, determined to return as soon as possible. The ones that did decide to stay, taking occasional visits back and forth to their homeland, worked extremely hard to send money to their families or to bring their families to America. The Italian government stood to benefit from this exodus by $4 million to $30 million each year.

One of the first procedures at Castle Garden and Ellis Island that the immigrant had to face as they arrived in America was the medical evaluation. The second test was to determine mental deficiency. Immigrants who showed no signs of mental or physical deficiencies were asked questions by the immigration inspectors in the native tongue of the immigrant. The Italians who didn't have papers had tags hung on them with the letters W.O.P. (without papers).

Many of the immigrants arrived penniless, having exhausted their savings on the journey; those few with money soon fell prey to the waterfront sharper.

From the hills and vineyards of Lombardy and Tuscany, from the mountains of Abruzzi and the farms of Basilicata and the mines of Sicily, they all came with big dreams and great expectations. Upon release from Ellis Island, the new Italian immigrants would fan throughout New York City. New York consisted of crowded and neglected tenements in the lower part of Manhattan. Once in America, Northerners and Southerners were treated identically. They all had to find a way to survive. Since the majority of Italian immigrants expected their stay in America to be brief, they had to live as inexpensively as possible. This led to intolerable conditions. Large numbers of Italians were confined to a claustrophobic indoor life, existing in the worst tenement living conditions of the Mulberry bend of Lower Manhattan. They had to live in damp smelly cellars or attics, up to 6 or 10 people, men, women and children, packed into crowded single rooms where "filth for so many years reigned undisturbed and pestilence wiping out hundreds of lives annually." These tenement buildings were dangerous fire-traps, a breeding place for murderous rodents that would kill babies in their cribs. The poor did not have the luxury of water, especially if they lived on the upper level. Water had to be carted from the fire hydrant in the street all the way upstairs. The Italian immigrants would come to the dumps to search for rags. They would bring food with them, squatting down in the filth to eat their lunch. As they did not plan to stay long in America, assimilation was the furthest thing from their mind.

To be continued: Part 3 (b)

No comments: