Nearly three-fourths of all Italian immigrants to the United States came from the southernmost provinces of Italy. Known as Il Mezzogiorno, it was the country’s most impoverished region, with the illiteracy rate at a staggering 70 percent in 1900, and longstanding oppression from Italy’s Northern-dominated government. Southern Italian economy relied on agriculture, but natural disasters of volcano eruptions and earthquakes in the early 20th century devastated what little cultivatable land there was (Mintz, 2007). Unable to sustain tolerable living conditions, most became migrant workers. Between the years of 1876 and 1924, nearly 5 million Italians arrived in the United States (Pozzetta, 2008). About one-fourth remained in New York City, while more than half settled in the middle Atlantic states and New EnglandMany Italian immigrants had no plans of establishing permanent homes in the United States. Most were young men who left behind their wives and children with hopes of brief absence-they would find employment, collect their pay, and return home. They lived prudently in conditions that were regarded as intolerable by ordinary American families (Mintz, 2007). Commonly working unskilled jobs in construction and public development, roughly half of the Italian immigrant population in the early 1900’s was made up of manual laborers (Microsoft Encarta Online Encyclopedia, 2009). Although the United States appealed to emigrating Italians as the best prospective destination to find work, Gambino (2002) asserts that American industry sought immigrants to replace the emancipated slave class. Many Italian immigrants in the North took positions in sweatshops and factories, while others were recruited to work on Southern plantations where slave labor had since been abolished (LaGumina, 1999). However, those in larger urban areas often found dominance in skilled artisan trades they had once practiced in Italy, such as shoemaking, tailoring, and barbering (Pozzetta, 2008). Though still generally confined to a lower class, many Italian immigrants found solidarity in highly concentrated ethnic neighborhoods (Mangione & Morreale, 1993).
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The emergence of “Little Italies” was prompted in large part by the intolerance and hostility that Italian immigrants faced in mainstream American society (Pozzetta, 2008). A working class minority that was defined by some as “not quite white” (Microsoft Encarta Online Encyclopedia, 2009), or the “missing link” between black and white (Borsella, 2005), they often faced discrimination in housing opportunities. Italian immigrants themselves were slow to seek assimilation because traditionally, la famiglia (the family) and l’ordine della famiglia (the rules of behavior and responsibility to the family) came before any affiliation with a larger-scale community (Mintz, 2007). This resistance began to fade as subsequent generations strayed from the strict codes of their parents. With the dawn of World War II, more than 500,000 Italian Americans served in the U.S. military, proving to many that their loyalties to the country were strong. By the 1950’s it seemed that Italian immigrants, now secure in identifying as Italian Americans, had found a true home in the United States (Pozzetta, 2008). Anti-Italian prejudice however, though less pronounced, still endured. Dating back to the early 20th century and the apex of the group’s immigration, society and popular culture have attached a number of stereotypes to Italian Americans. Arguably the most distinctive stereotype is that of association with La Cosa Nostra, or the American Mafia (Pozzetta, 2008). Released in 1972, the critically-acclaimed and wildly popular film The Godfather became the archetype of Hollywood’s “Mafia movie” industry, depicting Italian Americans as ruthless criminals, a label that had long vilified their ethnic identity. Many Italian Americans, after having fought the stereotype for decades, came to embrace the Mafia image that had captivated American moviegoers and provided a highly profitable new avenue for filmmakers. The 1990’s introduced the film Goodfellas (1990) and the television series The Sopranos (1999), both of which reinforced the hardcore gangster image (Borsella, 2005). Other predominant Italian American stereotypes in film and television often still include the feisty young woman with a taste for gaudy fashion, the lovable womanizer, and the overweight matriarch with excessive jewelry and a pot of spaghetti (Pozzetta, 2008).
Although I identify more with American culture in my everyday life, I do embrace my Italian American heritage.In some sense, I connect with my roots in an Americanized way, and I have no problem in laughing at the some of the stereotypes that accompany it. A few “mob movies” are actually among my favorites. Though I know authentic Italian cuisine, I do enjoy eating at Olive Garden and ordering deliveries from Pizza Hut once in a while.I still call my grandmother “Nonni,” which is short for nonnina, a term affectionately meaning “little grandmother.”
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