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the italian immigrant in america
dreams and the harsh realities

By Deborah K. Millemaci
(return to genealogy)

I first became interested in Italian immigration about seven years ago when I took my first writing course. The research I did for the paper opened my eyes to the plight of people who came to this country hoping to make a better life for themselves and their families. I have made some modifications on my paper since then, but the message it conveys remains unchanged. The Italian immigrants that landed on the shores of America endured numerous injustices, but these never hampered the Italians' determination and spirit.

As with other immigrants, the Italian people came to America with aspirations of how dramatically their lives would change once they set foot on American soil. They were under the impression they would be entitled to steady work and pay, abundance of food and improved housing, their own land, and a government which offered freedom to its people. The Italians, many of whom were from the southern areas of Italy, were leaving their homeland to escape the severe and deteriorating economic conditions of that time. Little did they realize the travesties they would be subjected to.

Differences in religious beliefs, the language barrier, customs and traditions, discrimination, labor abuses, and deplorable living conditions, which resulted in numerous health problems, were all contributing factors which hampered the Italian immigrants' adjustment in the new world.

Italians coming to the new world were primarily of the Roman Catholic faith. They entered a country in which the people were predominately Protestant. Even within their own religion, Italians faced prejudice from the Irish-dominated Catholic Church. (1) The Italians brought their own version of Catholicism to America, and the Irish perceived the Italians as ignorant and superstitutious, while the Italians believed the Irish to be fanatical. The Italian people believed that a saint's feast day should be commemorated by holdings festivals which consisted of music, food, dancing, and fireworks.

To the Italians, this was their way of praying. These "rituals" annoyed the Irish who were more strict and self-sacrificing. Overcoming the language barrier was a difficult obstacle for the Italian immigrant. Many people assumed the Italian immigrant was illiterate because he did not have the forethought to learn English before coming to America. The only person the newly arriving Italian immigrant communicated with was the "Padrone" who was a man who spoke English and Italian, and whose job it was to recruit the new Italian immigrants to work.

This problem was especially difficult for the "more professional" worker, the barber, the tailor, and the shoemaker. Until they were able to have a basic knowledge of the English language, communication with others proved to be difficult. Adherence to Old World customs created hindrances for the Italian immigrant. The infrequent availability of work put a great strain on the immigrant family as a whole. This subsequently caused the immigrant wife to seek work where previously, she rarely ventured out of the home. This became a difficulty for the Italian male immigrant, because he, as the breadwinner, was now forced to stay at home and care for the children, and to him this was a form of dishonor and shame.

Many times, due to lack of work within his own community, the Italian immigrant was forced to travel long distances for employment, and these separations eventually strained the immigrant family as a whole. The "Americans" already settled in this country also made it extremely distressing for the Italian immigrant to socially and politically blend into society by openly exhibiting their hostility and hatred toward them. The Americans, unable to understand the differences in religious beliefs and customs, considered the Italian more of a liability than an asset to their community. As a result of this hostility toward them, the Italian immigrant became increasingly suspicious and distrusting against any outsider, and eventually regressed deeper into his own circle within his community.

(2) Upon entry into the new world, Italian immigrants were made to feel unwelcome as they were greeted with numerous discriminations. The American press printed cruel and biased remarks in their descriptions of Italian immigrants. Italians were labeled as ignorant, poor, unskilled and lazy. References often linking Italians to the Mafia were also included in these articles, and the Italian was portrayed only in the negative. (3) This caused residents in the community to view the Italian immigrant as a threat to their social and economic status. They saw Italian immigrants as inferior, illiterate, dirty, lazy, and unable to contribute positively to society.

Racism was another discrimination which plagued the Italian immigrant. According to Michael Novak, "Italians, along with other immigrants, were victims of the 'white racism' of that time--they were portrayed as socially disorganized and lacking in freedom and responsibility. Italians were also viewed as swarthy, unstable Mediterraneans, and part of a papist plot to control America." (4) Labor abuses also caused hardships for the Italian immigrant. Hours were long and wages were low. Italian immigrants were forced to work in severe weather conditions, and many of them lived in unsanitary labor camps, which consisted of run-down shacks or railroad cars. Most of the time they were made to sleep on cold, damp floors.

"Many people were under the misconception that an Italian possessed only limited abilities for unskilled labor. If only inquiries had been made! People would have seen the Italian worker as highly intelligent, perceptive, and endowed with many occupational skills." (5) On the average, the unskilled laborer worked only a few months of the year, due to more workers than jobs available. It was also difficult to stretch such low wages to cover the expenses of the large Italian families.

Overcrowded and unsanitary living conditions were contributing elements to illnesses of the Italian immigrant. Living conditions often consisted of unused storage areas and run-down abandoned buildings. In the 1880's, Buffalo, New York, once a prospering, thriving city, experienced the closing of many businesses, dropping of real estate prices and the moving of Italian immigrants into run-down homes that previously belonged to the Irish. (6) Many of the dwellings the Italians used as their living quarters were small in size, and it was not unusual for entire families to live in just one room. These "living quarters" lacked the warmth needed in the winter and coolness and proper ventilation needed in the summer.

The Italian immigrant thus fell victim to numerous health problems as a result of these conditions. At that time, tuberculosis was the most prevalent disease that afflicted the Italian immigrant. Italian women were particularly susceptible to illness. In the summer, the heat was stifling and often living areas lacked windows, and in the winter, heat was rarely available. As a result, Italian women developed serious health problems such as anemia, various stomach disorders, and a condition known as "chlorosis," or "greensickness," which was an iron-deficiency anemia characterized by a greenish cast of the skin, frequently found in young girls. This was a contributing factor to the high mortality rate of the Italian immigrants' children. Furthermore, children were highly susceptible to rickets and tuberculosis, resulting from improper nursing, lack of air and overcrowded conditions. And the harsh winters afflicted the children with bronchial ailments and, many times, pneumonia. Deadly infantile cholera was prevalent and took its toll among the children in the stifling summer.

(7) By subjecting Italian immigrants to these oppressions, it's not surprising they felt compelled to regress and stay within the confines of their own tight-knit little "community," where religious beliefs, language, and customs would not be scrutinized or challenged. They also felt safe and secure living in an area shared with other Italian immigrants. They turned to those within their own community for understanding and consolation to help them contend with and overcome the inhuman cruelties that embraced them upon their arrival to America, where they were led to believe that "All Men Are Created Equal."

  1. Giordano, Joseph ed. "Italian-American Catalog," Garden City, New York: Doubleday and Company, Inc., 1986 p173.
  2. Johnson, Leahy Coleen. "Growing Up and Old In Italian-American Families." New Brunswick, New Jersey: Rutgers University Press, 1985, p223.
  3. Tomasi, Lydio F. "The Italian In America - A Progressive View 1891-1914." Staten Island, New York: Center for Migration Studies, 1978, p123.
  4. Giordano, Joseph op. cit, p173.
  5. Musmanno, Michael Angelo. "The Story of Italians in America. Vol.2 of Your Ancestor Series." Garden City, New York: Doubleday and Company, Inc., 1965, p133.
  6. Yans-McLaughlin, Virginia. "Family and Community: Italian Immigrants in Buffalo," 1880-1930. Virginia Yans-McLaughlin. Ithaca, New York: Cornell University Press, 1977, p117.
  7. Tomasi, Lydio F. op. cit, p164.
©Deborah K. Millemaci - 2002
No part of this article may be reproduced in any form without written permission from the author.


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