to Ethnic America
Italians have migrated to the United States than any other
Poverty, overpopulation, and natural disaster all spurred Italian
emigration. Beginning in the 1870s, Italian birthrates rose
death rates fell. Population pressure became severe, especially
in Il Mezzogiorno, the southern and poorest provinces of Italy.
As late as 1900, the illiteracy rate in southern Italy was
percent, ten times the rate in England, France, or Germany. The
Italian government was dominated by northerners, and southerners
were hurt by high taxes and high protective tariffs on northern
industrial goods. Southerners also suffered from a scarcity
cultivatable land, soil erosion and deforestation, and a lack
of coal and iron ore needed by industry.
the Irish Catholics, southern Italians suffered from exploitation
by people of the same nationality and religion. Rather than leading
to group solidarity, this situation led to a reliance on family,
kin, and village ties. Life in the South revolved around la famiglia
(the family) and l'ordine della famiglia (the rules of family
behavior and responsibility).
disasters rocked southern Italy during the early 20th century.
Mount Vesuvius erupted and buried a town near Naples. Then Mount
Etna erupted. Then in 1908 an earthquake and tidal wave swept
through the Strait of Messina between Sicily and the Italian mainland,
killing more than 100,000 people in the city of Messina alone.
had a long history of migrating to foreign countries as a
way of coping with poverty and dislocation. During the 19th
century, more Italians migrated to South American than to
The earliest Italian immigrants to the United
States were northern Italians, who became prominent as fruit
merchants in New York and wine growers in California. Later,
more and more migrants came from the south and the communities
and institutions they formed reflected the region's fragmentation.
Italian immigrants established hundreds of mutual aid societies,
based on kinship and place of birth.
Italian immigrants never planned to stay in the United States
permanently. The proportion returning to Italy varied between
11 percent and 73 percent. Unlike most earlier immigrants to America,
they did not want to farm, which implied a permanence that did
not figure in their plans. Instead, they headed for cities, where
labor was needed and wages were relatively high. Expecting their
stay in America to be brief, Italian immigrants lived as inexpensively
as possible under conditions that native-born families considered
immigrants were particularly likely to take heavy construction
jobs. About half of all late 19th century Italian immigrants were
manual laborers, compared to a third of their Irish and a seventh
of their German counterparts. Contracted out by a professional
labor broker known as a padrone, Italians dug tunnels, laid railroad
tracks, constructed bridges and roads, and erected the first skyscrapers.
As early as 1890, 90 percent of New York City's public works employees
and 99 percent of Chicago's street workers were Italian. Many
Italian immigrant women worked, but almost never as domestic servants.
Many took piece work into their homes as a way of reconciling
the conflicting needs to earn money and maintain a strong family
Italians, like other immigrant groups, politics, entertainment,
sports, crime, and especially small business served as ladders
for upward mobility. Italian American politicians, however, were
hindered by a lack of ethnic cohesiveness. Italian Americans achieved
notable success in both classical and popular music. Italian Americans
were particularly successful in areas that did not require extensive
formal education such as sales and small business ownership. They
tended to be under-represented in professional occupations requiring
many Italian immigrants, migration to the United States could
not be interpreted as a rejection of Italy. In reality, it was
a defense of the Italian way of life, for the money sent home
helped to preserve the traditional order. Rather than seeking
permanent homes, they desired an opportunity to work for a living,
hoping to save enough money to return to a better life in the
country of their birth.
use the phrase "birds of passage" to describe immigrants
who never intended to make the United States their permanent
home. Unable to earn a livelihood in their home countries,
they were migratory laborers. Most were young men in their
teens and twenties, who planned to work, save money, and return
home. They left behind their parents, young wives, and children,
indications that their absence would not be long. Before 1900
an estimated 78 percent of Italian immigrants were men.
of them traveled to America in the early spring, worked until
late fall, and then returned to the warmer climates of their
southern European homes winter. Overall, 20 to 30 percent
of Italian immigrants returned to Italy permanently.
same forces of population pressure, unemployment, and the breakdown
of agrarian societies sent Chinese, French Canadians, Greeks,
Japanese, Mexicans, and Slavs to the United States. Yet while
these migrants tended to view themselves as "sojourners,"
as temporary migrants, most would stay in the United States permanently.