The Impact Of Italy And Italian-Americans On The United States Essay, Research Paper
The Impact of Italy and Italian-Americans on the United States
In January of 1999, I embarked on a quest to become more familiar with the Italian-American community and its rich heritage. As an aspiring Urban Planner, it is central to my goals to learn more about the many cultures that make up the wonderful mosaic that is New York City. To facilitate this journey, I enrolled in Italian-American Studies 304 at Lehman under the tutelage of Professor Anthony LaRuffa.
Professor LaRuffa provided us with the academic foundation necessary to capture the full essence of this vibrant and interesting community. The principal source of information we referred to was the ethnographic study written by Professor LaRuffa entitled Monte Carmelo: An Italian-American Community in the Bronx. This book captures the heart of the Italian-American community of Monte Carmelo and dispels the misconceptions that have long been ascribed to people of Italian descent.
This paper will seek to provide a topical analysis of Monte Carmelo and the selected readings from the Journal of Ethnic Groups. Particular emphasis will be place to note the impact of Italy and Italian Americans on the United States.
During a recent visit to Monte Carmelo, I can recall that the streets were decorated with streamers of red, white, and green; the smell of sausage and peppers in the air; the friendly atmosphere. All of which contribute to the festivals performed each and every year in Monte Carmelo.
On one of its most visible occasions, the Italian culture comes to center stage. Everyone enjoys themselves regardless of their heritage. And all are welcome, the revered generosity and hospitality associated with Italian culture as vibrant as always. It is at these times that everyone experiences and acknowledges all that Italian culture has contributed to the uniquely American culture. But what the average festivalgoer does not see is that this culture and joyous attitude is present most of the time inside Italian families.
Even though America was discovered by an Italian (Christopher Columbus), name for an Italian (Amerigo Vespucci) and explored by such Italian adventurers as Giovanni Verrazzano and John Cabot (born Giovanni Caboto), it wasn t until the late 19th century that Italians began to emigrate in substantial numbers.
Between 1880 and 1920, four million immigrants sailed to the United States from Italy. They came principally from the southern provinces, the heel and toe of the Italian boot. These areas had fallen behind the industrial region of northern Italy where agriculture had been modernized. Unification of the country raised hopes of bringing progress in the South, but that hope was never filled.
In addition to the economic and political factors mentioned above, there were other contributory reasons which moved millions of people to leave their homelands to seek out new life in the United States.
Natural calamities and diseases may have influenced one s decision. Malaria and Cholera were two diseases which enervated many of the people. La miseria was further exacerbated by the periodic earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, and tidal waves which killed tens of thousands of people and destroyed entire communities.
Many of the Italian-Americans came to the United States in the early 1900 s. As they saw the Statue of Liberty for the first time, they were invigorated by the prospect of success. Some intended to spend only a few months in America, earn as much money as they could, and the return home. Half did return home. After being processed at Ellis Island in Upper New York Bay and other immigration centers, many of these rural Italians found themselves in urban ghettos like Manhattan s Lower Eat Side, working at menial jobs and crammed into narrow railroad flats that lacked both heat and privacy. Others were westward bound, seeking their fortunes in the gold fields of California. But mostly, they settled in urban industrial areas – Boston, Newark, Philadelphia and Chicago where unskilled jobs were plenty. Italians had to work themselves to the bone for low wages. One public notice recruiting laborers in 1895 advertised the following pay rates for common labor:
Whites $1.30 – $1.50
Colored $1.25 – $1.40
Italians $1.15 – $1.25
It s hard to imagine America without the rich and varied contributions of the Italians. Living in the United States among so many cultures, one does not stop to ask who created or contributed the things that one benefits from. Many important items that Americans often take for granted came from Italy or were contributed by Italian-Americans. The contributions to the United States from Italy and Italian-Americans are so numerous that it is difficult to list them all. They vary from fashion and food to music and science.
The Italian designers have always been in the forefront of fashion in bringing new styles and customized clothing to the fashion conscious public. Armani, Gucci, Versace, Valentino are just some of the world renown clothing artists. Along with being well dressed, food is a passion for an Italian and in the United States it is almost impossible to find a town without an Italian restaurant. The Italian cuisine is a favorite among Americans. Each dish represents the unique region that it comes from. Each palate can be satisfied with an endless list of dishes to choose from. Spaghetti and Chicken Parmigiana have become as American as apple pie and hot dogs.
A great way to follow up an evening you have satisfied your appetite is to sit back and enjoy a variety of Italian music, from the opera to the many popular Italian tunes such as Che Sara Sara. The music of Italy brings, as the Italians would say, allegria , enjoyment of life. The famous Italian conductor, Arturo Toscanni, was among the finest and most admired musicians of his time.
He spent seven years of his illustrious career at Metropolitan Opera as well as being the principal conductor of the New York Philharmonic Orchestra and the NBC Symphony which was created for him in 1937. Another prominent Italian was Phillip Mazzei, who collaborated with Thomas Jefferson on several essays about political freedom. In the world of music, Italian immigrants played a significant part in our culture. Lorenzo da Ponte was Mozart s librettist for number of his operas. Pietro Mascagni, a gifted Italian composer, went west and provided classical music for frontier people in such places as Wyoming. Included among the many other Italian individuals who have contributed to the American mosaic are William Paca, who signed the Declaration for Independence; Francis Mugavero, the first Italian-American bishop of Brooklyn; John Pastore, Governor of Rhode Island and the first Italian-American in the U.S. Senate; Mario Cuomo, Former Governor of New York; Rudolph Guiliani current Mayor of New York City. The list is endless.
Monte Carmelo offers the reader a comprehensive look into the lifestyles, traditions and culture of the Italian-American. It also serves to clarify some of the stereotypes that have been held concerning Italian-Americans. As a reader who has experienced Monte Carmelo or Little Italy (as it is known to other ethnic groups) first hand, I stand as a witness to some of the events, attitudes and ideas presented in the book. It is often stated that it is difficult to objectively write about an ethnic group when you are a member of the group. Monte Carmelo written by Anthony LaRuffa who is himself Italian-American rises to the occasion and discredits this conception.
The true essence of Italianita is prominently conveyed as well as the efforts to protect its demise. I must state that one of the first conclusions I arrived at while reading Monte Carmelo was that the names of people, places and streets were changed. It didn t take me long to associate the streets described in Monte Carmelo with their actual names. For me this added a little fun to an already good read.
The other interesting revelation for me came as a result of knowing how similar the ways of Italian-Americans mirrored those that exists in other groups and specifically to my own. The concerns of the older generation that the ways of the past would be lost, the lost of the mother tongue and the Americanization and deracination of its youth are concerns that beset most foreign cultures. One also doesn t realize that the struggles faced as the result of discrimination from other more predominant groups could happened Inter-Racially. Certainly, in the 1990 s this problem has captured center stage with the reports emanating out of Kosovo. But, it was striking for me to know how difficult it was for the early Italian immigrants who arrived on the shores of the United States in the late 19th century as they faced a very hostile America. In Endearment or Antipathy?: Nineteenth century American attitudes toward Italians. Alexander DeConde writes As a result of this image (negative) and to a much greater extent and more openly than in the past, Italian settlers at the end of the nineteenth century encountered prejudice and hostility.
I must concede that it may be attributed to my own ignorance of this history, but this had a shocking effect upon me. I had always viewed Italian-Americans as whites and never imagined that they had been to subject to the same prejudices I have been exposed to. It wasn t until I entered college that I learned that prejudice towards Italians was so blatant in American History. And surely nothing could have prepared me for the information I was to be exposed to regarding this history. I would have never believed that the Italians in New Orleans where the victims of the most heinous mass lynching recorded in American history.
Probably no group has been vilified over the problem of crime than the Italian-American. The negative stereotypes portrayed by the media have fueled this misconception. In Media portrayals of Italian-Americans Professor LaRuffa discourses on the many negative stereotypes that the media has perpetrated at the expense of Italian-Americans.
In his concluding statement on the foregoing article, Professor LaRuffa writes Due to the scarcity of research data on the particular effects of media portrayals on individual Italian-Americans and on ethnic groups as a whole, I had to weave together an interpretation based on bits and pieces. Whatever little evidence is available suggests that the cumulative impact of multi-medium portrayals over a fairly long period of time has proven to be more deleterious than salutary for Italian-Americans.
Since the conclusion of World War II, the Italian-Americans have been making great strides within America. They have been gaining greater entry within the executive ranks of American business. More and more Italian-Americans have been entering the professions and in general their standard of living has improved significantly. In addition, the Italian-American, having a strong desire to run his own business has seen these businesses expand and prosper. Entrepreneurship has always been strong in the Italian-American community and the tradition has successfully continued into the last two decades of the twentieth century. This is evident when you stroll through Belmont and see that despite the significant decrease in the number of Italians who live there, the Italian-Americans remain the principal owners of all the businesses in the area. We learned from reading Monte Carmelo that much of this success was made possible, by the many associations who have vowed to keep alive the homogeneity of the area.
A culture is based on shared traditions created overtime that are reenacted regularly so that they become rituals. These traditions are transmitted through words and actions. In America, we often speak of Italian-Americans as having two languages, but do they have two cultures? What happened when Italian immigrant culture shifted from dialects into English is the work of a lifetime to figure out. The question that is face today is what do we need to do to preserve a cultural identity, one that will not only work for us today, but one that will insure that our distinct culture will preserve overtime.
This is a major concern of the many characters that are profiled in Monte Carmelo and before we can answer that question, we need to ask just what is it that needs to be preserved: our language, our folk traditions, and our history? We need then to determine just where this should be preserved: in our homes, our churches, our schools, our cultural centers? And finally how should we preserved these: through language courses for our children, Ethnic programs in our grade schools, high schools and colleges, or a greater presence of diversity and equality in our mainstream institutions?
In speaking with some of my Italian-American friends they share the concerns prefaced hereto and offered the following commentary. For many years, Italian-American culture has been preserved in the homes, and over the years, more likely than not, in the basement, where grandpa made wine, where grandma had a second kitchen, and now where we store our material legacies and memories. Outside celebrations such as religious feste became the most important public presentation of Italian-American culture, but these annual events were never frequent enough to protect Italian-American culture from the regular mass media bombardment of negative stereotypes.
The earliest Italian-American organizations were mutual benefit societies, which helped workers and their families get through tough financial times. As Italian-Americans improved their economic standing in the United States, those mutual aid societies gave way to insurance clubs and civic organizations that were occupied with fighting defamation. And while the efforts have, for the most part, paid off, Italian-Americans have fallen far behind in other areas.
Where Italian-Americans have never organized as a cultural group is in the mainstream institutions of education and government. The public programs that might have taught Italian-Americans the value of their own culture and subsequently fortified future generations, the public programs that would have challenged media-made impressions, were never created apart from some of the dynamic group of professors whom I have borrowed much from in the completion of this paper. Our heads for the most part have remained in the basements where Italian-American culture is safe inside family celebrations.
Now is the time to move beyond the basements of yesterday and out into the streets today. The romance and tragedy of early 20th century immigration can no longer serve as models of identity. The key to creating a meaningful sense of culture that means something to today s youth is to first insure that they have access to histories, of their families and their communities, that we must provide them with historical and contemporary models in the areas of arts, business, and education, that they can study, emulate and transcend. We have created scholarships for higher education, but we have done little to help those applicants understand what their heritage is. This would be my response to the characters, the priest and the many associations who fear the lost of their heritage through Americanization and deracination.
Since the mid-1960 s the Italian-Americans have been more active in fighting anti-Italian discrimination and in seeking to combat the derogatory stereotypes that are often portrayed in the American mass media.
These uncomplimentary stereotypes have without a doubt, hurt the Italian American community. The message it projects is clear as evidenced by the following statement by Professor LaRuffa:
Although it would be extremely difficult to demonstrate that certain media portrayals of Italian-Americans are responsible for specific attitudes and the pictures in the heads of the people who make the decisions about tenure and promotion, hiring and firing, etc., it would be virtually impossible to discount their impact altogether. Much of the message is subliminal, especially since it is constantly repeated in multi-media forms and over a long period of time.
However, there are changes for the better occurring and it is safe to say that Italian-Americans will continue to expand the positive contributions that they have made to the United States.
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