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Once Upon A Time In America: The Assimilation Experience Of The First Italian Immigrants Part 4 Of 4

“Everything the individual does is recognized and American Democracy gives him a fair chance and a reasonable opportunity.” Assemblyman Chas. New York City Novello 1921

In this final part of a 4-part series examining the history and heritage of Italian Americans, we will explore the importance of the family unit and the neighborhood to the successful assimilation process of Italian immigrants. In the previous 3 parts, we examined the backgrounds of Italian immigrants, their reasons for coming to the United States, and the difficulties they overcame.

Both in America and in Italy, the family it is a very close-knit unit. Respect and support for the elderly is very important to Italian-American families. During the early days of immigration, the father was considered the head of the family. Women ran the household, influencing the social and religious life of their children, as well as making important decisions regarding the family. One of the most important aspects of the religion of the Italians that was brought to the New World was the celebration of a patron saint: the Virgin with processions, fireworks and adoration, invoking the protection of the people. In East Harlem there were 50,000 people celebrating the Mount Carmel Festival at one point. The Feast of Sant ‘Antonio is celebrated annually in the same way that Italian ancestry did and continues to do today in Brusciano, Italy, building a Giglio and dancing with it on the streets of Manhattan, NY.

Although the first Italian immigrants did not want to dedicate themselves to agriculture in the United States, many dedicated themselves to working the land as a form of economic survival. While traveling across the United States in search of employment, some Italians had sixteen years in business opportunities. They turned the swampy lands of the southern regions into fruitful soil. On the west coast they grew lemons, oranges, and other fruits. The wine industry developed on a large scale. The first Italian immigrants became suppliers of fruits and vegetables for large cities, making important contributions to the economic strength of the United States. Skilled Italians worked as bricklayers, stonemasons, mechanics, shoemakers, tailors, musicians, and barbers, practicing their trades and crafts in the neighborhoods and cities in which they lived. Those who were unskilled in the early 1900s were forced to take jobs as common laborers and factory workers, finding employment in shipyards, mines, railroads, and in construction.

Many became street vendors, selling fruits and vegetables. Some worked as waiters in restaurants and hotels. Gradually, the familiar sight of Italian vendors displaying their wares in pushcarts was seen along the busy streets of Little Italy and down First Avenue in Italian Harlem. Small businesses began to proliferate throughout the United States within Italian communities, becoming an important part of the settlement process. These small Italian companies not only played an important role in their own economic progress, but also obtained key positions in the business system that has made the United States what it is today, the financial center of the world.

As the Italian population increased, a major Italian newspaper, “Il Progresso Italo-Americano” was established in New York. Its purpose was to help strengthen the immigrant’s ties with Italy. This newspaper was an influential tool, helping the Italian immigrant in his assimilation into the American Society. One of the largest and most influential Italian organizations established in America began in New York City in 1905, the “Order of the Sons of Italy in America,” which provided numerous benefits, meeting the needs of Italians living in this country. . The Sons of Italy were immensely helpful in softening the degrading image of the “Wop”, providing psychological compensation through their Italian-American program, keeping the love for Italy alive, preserving the Italian language, and emphasizing Columbus Day as symbol of solidarity between America and Italy.

Let’s not forget the founding of “NIAF,” the Italian American National Foundation, which not only preserves the rich history of Italian-Americans, but also commends their countless contributions to American society. NIAF’s efforts have enabled many Americans of Italian descent to realize their dreams academically, artistically, and culturally, while contributing to the tradition of their great heritage. It also supports education by offering scholarships and research awards for Italian-American students.

The Great Depression hit Italian Americans hard, especially men who worked in the construction industry. It was difficult to get a regular job to support and feed their large families. Then the wives had to do homework just to keep their family afloat. It was easier for women to find work. Even the children needed to help. If the wife was lucky enough to find work outside the home, she still had to continue to do her housework, cooking, washing dishes, washing clothes, and taking care of the children. At the end of the day, the exhausted wife sometimes fell asleep at the table until she left for work the next day. One thing is for sure, as a general rule, unemployed men would never take over household chores. The role of wife, mother and worker was not an easy task during the early years of immigration and the depression. As Italian women became more Americanized, “She assumed the dominant values ​​and fought for education and equality.” In the 1920s and 1930s, Italian Americans were beginning to assimilate into the American way of life. In the 1940s, there were still a lot of unemployed Italians, but then the economy started to improve. In the 1950s, Italian-Americans were able to move to better living and sanitary conditions. World War II was a major turning point for Italian Americans when it came to acceptance in American society. The improvement in the American economy, the expansion of higher education, suburbanization, and government assistance to veterans occurred in the years after World War II. These conditions provided opportunities for the second generation of Italian-Americans. They made rapid progress in achieving home ownership success, which gave them respectability and independence. Of all the immigrant groups in the United States, they were known to have the highest percentages of homeownership. Owning a home was also a step toward assimilation.

Since the 1890s, the term “mafia”, along with crime and violence, has been unfairly associated with Italian Americans. This negative image has prevailed as public prejudice. The percentage of Italian-Americans who have been involved in organized crime is small compared to the vast majority who are hardworking, law-abiding, patriotic, and civic American citizens.

After the great era of Italian immigration, which began in the late 1800s and early 1900s, Italian immigrants have gradually drifted into the mainstream of American society by watching their children grow up as Americans. Many have moved out of poverty and working-class jobs to higher educational attainment, resulting in great achievement and economic success. Italian Americans have become respected members of their communities, contributing their talents and knowledge to America as a whole in the fields of arts, entertainment, politics, and much more.

The early Italian immigrant, rooted in the customs and traditions that were considered sacred in the old world culture, in his attempt to transfer these same family values ​​and traditions to America, created divisions and conflicts between both generations. The second generation found themselves straddling two cultures while developing their own identity. They Americanized too quickly, undergoing a substantial degree of change. They did not preserve the language, traditions or customs, nor did they accept the way of thinking of their immigrant parents. As the second generation became fully absorbed into the American mainstream, their lifestyle practices, their way of dressing, and their options for recreation and entertainment created a schism between the two generations. This culminated in much irritation, friction, and unhappiness. Interest in old world culture became minimal or non-existent. However, the flip side of the coin is that there have always been Americans of Italian descent who would experience the best of both worlds, proudly preserving aspects of their culture and celebrating the heritage that their ancestors once brought to their newly adopted home. while enjoying the best. that American culture has to offer. Today we are all Americans, but Italian-Americans occupy a unique place in the foundation building of the American Society, proudly celebrating both the heritage that helped them earn their place in this great melting pot and the position they occupy in modern America. !

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