The Italian Immigrant Myth

Legal Italian Immigrants

If you are Italian American, you have probably seen the meme of Italian immigrant children circa 1900 in homespun clothes waving American flags. The image is captioned; Legal Italian Immigrants did not wave Italian flags coming into America, they did not riot and try to stop the legal election process. They learned English, they were proud to be American. It is meant to portray our forbears as American patriots who shunned their Italian past. This myth, the myth of the Italian immigrant uber patriot, is more a statement on a modern political ideology than a matter of historical fact. It is incorrect on multiple levels.

Beyond the specific claims of the meme, the core problem is an error common to much of the thinking about Italians and Italian Americans. It characterizes us as monolithic, all the same. We are not. If you were to tour Italy, you would quickly learn that Italian culture varies greatly from region to region. Simply look at the food customs. Compare saltless Florentine bread to sweet Venetian focaccia or the uniqueness of Sardinian casu marzu. It is the same in the United States. The East Coast, how-ya-doin, Italian American – pejoratively referred to as the guido – is very different from the Italian Americans you will find in San Diego or Sacramento. I have found that while both groups display the same Italian lust for life, Italian Americans in the west are less of the stereotype.

Diversity is also true for Italian American political views. There are Italian Americans who are liberal and there are Italian Americans who are conservative. For every Rudy Giuliani, there is a Mario Cuomo. For every Nancy Pelosi, there is an Antonin Scalia. This diversity in political thought is integral to Italian culture. It was just as true when our people first came to this country as it is today. It is, therefore, incorrect to say that Italian immigrants thought this or did that. Some embraced America as their new home, leaving Italy behind; others did not.

Bearing this in mind, we see that the assertions made by the meme are either misleading or simply incorrect. Let us begin with the idea that they were legal. In 1921 the Congress of the United States passed the Emergency Quota Act, establishing immigration quotas. Before this act there was no application process to get into the United States, you simply came. Of course, there is the infamous Ellis Island where many immigrants were sent back. However, Ellis Island was just one port of entry that did not even begin operation until 1892. By that time there were already vibrant Italian American communities across the United States, especially in New Orleans, San Francisco, Los Angeles, and San Diego. The concept of illegal immigration simply did not exist when most Italian immigrants came to the United States. Therefore, this is misleading at best.

The second claim made in this meme – Legal Italian Immigrants did not wave Italian flags coming into America – is also misleading. The waving of Italian flags is as common as beans in pasta fazool in most Italian communities. Go into any Little Italy across the United States. Italian Americans proudly display the Italian tri-color alongside the stars and stripes.  Of course, to give the statement any credibility the caveat “coming into America” was added.

The third claim in the meme I find to be the most egregious. They did not riot. These four words should anger not just Italian Americans, but anyone who has benefitted from the labor movement. The abuse and prejudice Italian Americans suffered when we first came to this country is well known. In response to these injustices, we were at the forefront of the American Labor Movement, often turning to riot when pushed too far. One example of this is the Campaign for Bread and Roses in 1912 when immigrant communities banded together to oppose unfair labor practices on the part of textile mill owners. With Italians in the lead, they rushed the factories, tore apart the machinery, and threatened death to anyone who dared attempt to start the machines again. Frequently Italians, especially Italian women – strong, brave, proud Italian women, took the lead in clawing from the hands of industrialists just compensation for their labor and humane working conditions. Conditions that we all take for granted today. Rather than deny the riotous past of my Italian forbears, I am proud of it. I am proud of their strength, their courage, their self-respect.

It is also claimed that Italians did not try to stop the legal election process. While it may be technically accurate, many Italian Americans supported the overthrow of our government. The Sovversivi, subversives, were a collection of socialists, communists, and anti-fascists that had immigrated to the United States. This included the Galleanists, for example, who believed in a violent response to what they saw as capitalist oppression. While it is difficult to determine what percentage of the Italian Americans were Sovversivi, they were more than just a fringe group. Sovversivi newspapers such as Il Proletario and Il Martello had a peak distribution of 10,000 copies while the anti-fascist papers Il Nuovo Mondo and La Stampa Libera had circulations between 25,000 and 35,000 copies. It is important to note that liberal Italian Americans always opposed Mussolini and fascism while the conservative factions supported him prior to the beginning of the war.

The final point, They learned English, they were proud to be American, does not match the facts. In 1911 the Dillingham Commission found that 23% of Italian men and a mere 5% of Italian women were able to communicate in English. This same report also found that of all immigrant groups Italians were least likely to become citizens. In 1920 New York, one of the largest Italian American communities in the United States, only 31% of Italian men and 27% of Italian women had become United States Citizens.

The intent is not to fall prey to the same misconception as those who created this meme, that Italian Americans were of one mind. Just as painting the Italian Immigrants as flag-waving American uber patriots denies the diversity of Italian American culture, it would be equally incorrect to characterize them as left-wing, bomb-throwing revolutionaries. If we are to truly embrace our Italian American heritage, celebrating its culture, we must do so with a clear vision of who our forbears were. We must see them for who they were, not who we want them to be. It does a disservice to those Italians who first came to these shores to force them into a mold to substantiate a political statement about a current political position.

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