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Italian Immigration

More Italians have migrated to the United States than any other Europeans. Poverty, overpopulation, and natural disaster all spurred Italian emigration. Beginning in the 1870s, Italian birthrates rose and 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 70 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 of cultivatable land, soil erosion and deforestation, and a lack of coal and iron ore needed by industry.

Unlike 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).

Natural 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.

Italians 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 North America. 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.

Many 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 intolerable.

Italian 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 life.

For 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 extensive education.

For 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.

Historians 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. Many 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.

The 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.

Copyright Digital History 2014