At a time when immigration reform is again challenging this immigrant nation, this time involving the Hispanics, it is useful to be reminded of another group that, like the Hispanics, first met with a less-than-warm welcome but eventually earned a seat and voice at the American table: the Italian-Americans.
Explorers Emigrants Citizens: A Visual History of the Italian American Experience provides that reminder, with a rich assemblage of archival photos, maps, posters, and letters culled from the vast holdings of The Library of Congress, along with text that sets the settings of various chapters of the Italian-American story. A multi-author work, the lead authors are Linda Barrett Osborne, a former senior writer and editor at the Library and a fourth-generation Italian-American, and Paolo Battaglia.
Like the excellent mini-series Latinos broadcast earlier this year on PBS, Explorers Emigrants Citizens steps way back to tell the Italian-American saga from first contact with the Americas, with Christopher Columbus being only one of many explorers. These explorers forged their way for imperial and commercial gain but also out of the questing spirit of the Renaissance. Beautiful archival maps accompanying the text give a sense of the unknown reaches the explorers faced and had to fill in.
The book then focuses on the huge waves of immigration in the late 19th and early 20th century, when Italian laborers came to these shores to do the arduous work of building this country's cities, roads, bridges, churches. At one time half of all stone masons in the U.S. were Italian-Americans. But the newcomers were not always welcome, seen instead as competition by earlier immigrant groups who preferred that the ranks of labor be replenished by their own British and North European stock. Thus the "clannishness" of the newcomers, as they sought solace in their own neighborhoods, mutual aid associations, social clubs, and the Roman Catholic church; ultimately, an estimated forty percent of the newcomers returned to Italy.
The authors do not shrink from addressing this harsh reality, when Italians were openly called "wops," "dagos," and "guineas," not only by the larger public but also in the media. After African-Americans, Italians suffered the most number of lynchings of any population group in the U.S. The hurt of stigma was conveyed by the newcomers in letters home to the old country. Nor do the authors shy from addressing the mobster reputation attached to Italian-Americans that began with the real Al Capone during Prohibition and prevails today, with the fictional Tony Soprano in the popular TV series The Sopranos.
But the authors' higher purpose is to show the rich tapestry of the entire Italian-American experience, beyond stereotype, and here the book shines, especially as visual history. Filmmaker Martin Scorsese introduces the book, a somewhat anomalous choice, given that some of his films (Mean Streets, Good Fellas) reinforce the lawless stereotype; he does write movingly of growing up in New York's Little Italy, which today is much reduced in size, crowded out by a growing Chinatown.
What compels the reader are the human beings in the hundreds of photos -- waving to loved ones on the pier in Genoa; crowded in steerage on transport ships to America; being processed at Ellis Island. There are the teeming street scenes of Little Italy, with immigrant vendors and shopkeepers; the teeming slums; and the teeming tenement flats, with a bed only feet from the stove, as whole families had to be accommodated in one room. There are the parochial schoolrooms; the night classes where adults still in their work clothes learned English; the religious processions and fiestas. Hard work is the main impression of these images: strong hands and wiry bodies engaged in heavy construction and factory work in the city, and beyond the city, in coal mining, farming, orchard work. Because of the need to contribute to the family's survival, children were forced to work, often in harsh conditions.
Exemplary figures in this early period include Sister Cabrini, later canonized, who established throughout the country an astonishing number of medical facilities, schools, orphanages, and other helping institutions -- sixty-seven in all. Lesser known is New York City detective Joe Petrosino, who led the Italian Squad that fought the "Black Hand" extortion racket and who was key in integrating more Italians into law enforcement.
After World War II, the assimilation process eased and Italian-Americans began participating in public life on a massive scale. How do we count the ways? In sports, there's DiMaggio, Rizzuto, Berra, Marciano, Graziano, Montana. In popular culture there's Sinatra, Como, Bennett, De Niro, Pacino, Coppola, and Scorsese. And in politics, Italian-Americans finally contended for power -- for mayor (LaGuardia and recently de Blasio in New York City); for governor (Pastore, Rossellini, the Cuomos); and for Congress in increasing numbers, including women (Ferraro, Pelosi).
It was in the world wars that Italian-Americans made their patriotic point to the larger public, documented in a photographic section that is especially moving. Large numbers of Italian-American men joined American troops in World War I. World War II forced a more painful choice, when the old country and Mussolini aligned with Hitler. Italian-Americans fought gallantly for the Allies, with 24 earning the Congressional Medal of Honor, usually in the Pacific theatre and often at the cost of their lives. Stirringly, the authors note the 120 Italian-American firefighters, police officers, and rescue personnel who died on 9/11.
For those who know and love Italy, Explorers Emigrants Citizens does a wonderful job of demonstrating how Italy's capacity for "humanistic regeneration" has been transplanted in the New World. More a family album than scholarly tract, this volume belongs in the home library. Uncle Vito would love it, certo.
For more information, click the "see the book" link here.
Carla Seaquist's forthcoming book of commentary is titled "Can America Save Itself from Decline?: Politics, Culture, Morality." Her book "Manufacturing Hope: Post-9/11 Notes on Politics, Culture, Torture, and the American Character" came out in 2009. Also a playwright, she published "Two Plays of Life and Death," which includes "Who Cares?: The Washington-Sarajevo Talks" and "Kate and Kafka," and is at work on a play titled "Prodigal."
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