The Italian American Experience
Authors: Michael Buonanno and Laurie Buonanno


 

 

Abstract: The Italian-American Experience examines the life of Italians in the United States from an interdisciplinary perspective. It explores the “push” and “pull” factors—what compelled people to leave Italy and what lured them to the United States--during the peak years of Italian emigration (1880-1920) when over four million Italians left their homeland for Northern Europe, South America, the United States, Canada, and Australia. In the course of our exploration, we study questions of identity, citizenship, family structure, social organization, politics, worldview, religion, and folklore. We employ case studies to illustrate the formative Twentieth Century experiences of Italian-Americans as mothers, fathers, sons and daughters, breadwinners, artists, mafiosi, anarchists and union organizers. For example, we present the Sacco and Vanzetti trials and executions in Massachusetts, the Albano-Ficarotto lynchings in Florida, the usually unknown sculptors whose work defined American national style both in the nation’s and many of the states’ capitols, Enrico Caruso’s meteoric rise from Neapolitan street corner singer--practicing his art both in Italy and the U.S.--to Puccini’s favorite tenor. Although the vast majority of immigration occurred between the late 19th and mid-20th centuries, the Italian-American experience continues to evolve and in the final section of the course we explore the signficance of this evolution.

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Who are we? Where did we come from? Where did we go to? In what numbers? What were the factors that pushed us away from our old homes and pulled us to our new? What impact did we have on the places that we left and the places that we settled? And, finally, where are we going? The Italian diaspora, though characterized by innumerable variations of language and culture, is characterized as well in all its various manifestations by a profound sense of ethnic identity. Even for those of us who don't speak the language, there is a particular reality born of Sunday dinners at Grandmother's, the sound of Italian--or more likely Sicilian or Neapolitan or another of the Italian dialects--at the kitchen table, and the innumerable stories that we heard there: stories of the people back home in Italy and stories of the people just down the street. There was the particularly gluttonous Benedictine back home who gave gnocchi (the particularly hearty potato pasta) its nickname, stranga lu prev, (strangle the priest) when he choked to death on it. And then there was the woman down the street who, upset at her husband's extravagance (indoor plumbing), nicknamed the unhappy man bagnarol (bathtub) only to discover one day that her own nickname was--and to this day is--moglia di bagnarol (wife of bathtub). There was the mythical Italian who crossed the Delaware at Valley Forge with George Washington; upon hearing Washington swear, "Che cazzu freddu," (roughly translated as, 'I'm freezing my nuts off,"), he joyfully exclaimed, "Ma, tu sei italiano!" ("Oh, but you're Italian!"). There are mysterious words that take on a different hue for the Italian-American: mal'occhio (evil eye) and, even that one that so follows us, mafia. And there is the peculiar recognition as well that these two words are not completely disconnected.

In my fieldwork with members of the Seneca Nation of Indians I have sometimes heard the complaint that when non-natives borrow Native-American religions, they oversimplify them, making them seem trivial or superficial. A person has to have grown up in the culture to really understand the nuances of the religion, some Seneca say, or, they claim that the culture is the soil which nurtures the religion and makes it bloom. These Seneca do make a point. There is a reality to being immersed in a singular cultural environment that places a stamp on one's life and the meaning that one finds there.

So, with that in mind, we explore the Italian-American experience. As with all immigrant communities, a shared history in another country, the stories of the migration itself (in the Italian case, the largest that the world has seen to date), the scramble to make a living and build communities in the host country, all become central features of Italian-American identity, wherever and whenever it develops.

 

 

Table of Contents

 

1: The Homeland

2: The Diaspora

3: Making a Living

4: Family and Community

5: Expressive Culture

6: Yesterday, Today, and Tomorrow

 

 

Copyright Renewed 2010