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posted Nov 13, 2010, 5:49 PM by Tom Layton   [ updated Nov 13, 2010, 6:04 PM ]

November 2009

The Journey of the Italians in America

          by Janice Mancuso


The history of the Italians in America begins with the history of European interest in America. Cristoforo Colombo may not have stepped on the soil of what would become the United States, but by landing on the outlying islands of the Americas, Colombo opened the door between the Old World and the New World. With it came trade, immigration, plant migration, religious freedom, differing philosophies, a new society … and the Italians.


In The Journey of the Italians in America, Vincenza Scarpaci creates a pictorial account of the Italian immigrants and their assimilation into America. The photographs—collected through notices in Italian American newspapers and on the Internet—are mostly from Italian American families, but also include images from historical, government, university, and newspaper archives. Each picture includes a detailed caption explaining the photograph, and most include additional information about the sociocultural, political, or economic conditions of the time.


The photographs in the book are divided into nine chapters—OriginsSpanning the MilesFinding a HomeItalians and the LandReligion and the Rites of PassageBecoming AmericanItalian-American Issues, and Where is Our Heritage? Each chapter begins with an informative introduction that includes an historical overview of the photographs that follow, and most chapters are further divided into categories identifying an overall topic for each group of pictures.


The book’s Introduction provides an historical synopsis of the Italians in America starting with the explorers, Jesuit priests, merchants, and craftsmen. The political and economic environment of Italy during the 1800s is noted in regard to the effect it had on Italian immigration to America. The unstable atmosphere in southern Italy, after Italy became united in 1861, caused millions of Italians to migrate to America from the late 1800s to the early 1900s.


In America, the immigrants made many adjustments, and Vincenza discusses the evolution of the Italian immigrant to American citizen. She touches on their skills and work ethics, their determination, and the challenges they faced to achieve a better life. She mentions the establishments of the Little Italies and how they “provided for some a cultural continuity, and within these locales, the concentration of immigrants supported a way of life that maintained a cultural, economic, and social identity.”


Further elaborating on the sociocultural persona of Italian Americans, Vincenza addresses the conflicts between first and second generations, “In the public schools, Italian children … were encouraged by word as well as example to give up the traditions of their parents;” the hardships of “nativism, xenophobia, and discrimination;” substandard salaries and working conditions, and that “somehow crime became an ‘Italian thing.’”


The last few pages of the Introduction describe not only the progression of the Italian Americans in America, but also the interest that third generation Italian Americans now have in their past. “The desire of people to know about their past in an effort to better understand their present lives is as old as human society. … This has meant the ability to accept the wide range of Italian influence in American life, from the anarchists and the labor organizers to the pro-fascists and the bootleggers.”


The Introduction is an important prelude to the chapters that follow. In Origins, pictures of street scenes, various groups, and family members depict the Italian lifestyle, and photographs show the migration journey that starts in Italy and ends in the United States. Spanning the Miles is an assortment of photographs illustrating how the Italians in America maintained ties to Italy and how they brought their Italian traditions to America.


The photographs—homesteaders, planned communities, tenement homes, joint housing, ranchers, farmers, business owners, and more—in Finding a Home offer a look into the various residences that housed the Italian immigrants. Italians at Work provides a broad view into the variety of jobs held by Italians. From building the infrastructure of a nation, to providing essential goods and services, to enhancing American life, the pictures show that Italian immigrants worked in all types of trades and professions, greatly contributing to the American economy.


The chapter Italians and the Land is a collection of photographs centered on the agrarian nature of the immigrants. Many worked the land for a source of income, others to provide food for their large families. Migrant workers, sharecroppers, dairy farmers, produce purveyors, importers, and store owners are just some of the ways that Italians made their living from the land.


For Italians, the Roman Catholic Church and their public devotion to God and the saints were almost inseparable from everyday life.” This opening statement in Religion and the Rites of Passage is supported by photographs of churches, festivals, religious ceremonies, an elaborate nativity, an impressive St. Joseph’s Table, and more.


Becoming American is the largest chapter in The Journey of the Italians in America, and with good cause. It’s in this chapter that the Italian immigrant becomes American. Vincenza writes, “While immigrants’ lives reflected the customs and traditions they learned in Italy, they, and especially their children, learned the traditions of American society. Both parents and children dealt with cultural contrasts as native-born educators, social workers, labor leaders, and politicians encouraged the newcomers to adopt ‘American’ lifestyles.” Within this chapter, categories include Celebrating America, Responses to Events Here and Abroad, Wartime, Seeking Justice, Tragic Loss, American Life, Socialized Needs, Political Involvement, and Interaction.


In Italian-American Issues, Vincenza writes, “Current issues, such as the celebration of Columbus Day and the popularization of the Italian crime figure in the media, are troubling to those who feel that these images damage the reputation of the entire group.” This chapter includes photographs of Columbus Day celebrations and other events honoring Columbus, and pictures relating to crime and law enforcement.


The last chapter, Where is Our Heritage? features an assortment of photographs—the Little Italies created in America, Italian Americans visiting Italy, Italians visiting America, and ways that preserve heritage—that join Italy and America. Vincenza asks, “How do we connect with our story and which story do we acknowledge?” and mentions “the tendency of present-day Italian American organizations to look to Italy to establish identity … [that] veers away from the reality of Italian-American heritage.”


Vincenza’s observations on the plight of Italian Americans raise serious concerns; and she addresses issues that are prevalent among those who wonder about the future of the Italian American community. She does note that “Ethnic identity is closely intertwined with family; it persevered because of family, and will persist because of family;” and this is clearly substantiated by the hundreds of family photographs in The Journey of the Italians in America.


An extensive index makes it easy to find names and places mentioned in the captions and the text; and the Italian and American flag designs that border the page numbers are symbolic of the cultural relationship between Italy and America. 


The Journey of the Italians in America is more than the journey of the Italians. The book is a chronicle of the growth of a united nation with an emphasis on the Italians’ contributions. Every aspect of American culture is covered, and every aspect includes the influence of the Italians. The book is an excellent learning tool, as the pictures capture interest, enticing the viewer to read the captions and the accompanying historical overview. The pictures will also attract an older child’s attention, providing a parent with the opportunity to offer information not only about the photographs, but also about Italian American history, Italian heritage, and family traditions.


©2009 Janice Therese Mancuso