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Giovanna & Pietro DeGregorio, Patti's Grandparents

Giovanna & Pietro DeGregorio, Patti's Grandparents

October is Italian Heritage Month

There can be no doubt that Italians have integrated fully into the life and culture of America and that America has adopted some of their culture as its own.  

Italians came here in two major waves of immigration.  Northern Italians came first during the 17th century.  Italians from the south, including the islands of Sicily and Sardinia, came in the second wave in the late 19th century.  In the former, Italian craftsmen, renowned the world over, came and helped to build our American institutions.  Thomas Jefferson had a particular affinity for Italian culture, recruiting Italian stonemasons to work on his home at Monticello and bringing musicians from Italy to form the core of the Marine Band.  The second group were farmers and laborers seeking to escape the dire poverty and hardships in their own country, recently brought under one flag but by no means unified or in any condition to aid its people.  At the same time, transatlantic travel was becoming more affordable and word of American prosperity from returning immigrants and U.S. recruiters lured them to America in search of steady jobs to earn money and send to their families back home.  Many hoped to stay only for a short time.

Once this second generation cleared Ellis Island, they made their homes in and around New York City. They settled in Brooklyn, the Bronx, and nearby towns in New Jersey with the greatest concentration in Manhattan.  The streets of Lower Manhattan, particularly Mulberry Street, quickly became heavily Italian in character, with residents, store owners, street vendors, and even vagrants all speaking the same language (or some dialect of it) and preserving many of the social institutions, habits of worship, even grudges, and hierarchies from the old country.  One distinctive event that caught the attention of outsiders was the festa—a parade celebrating the feast day of the patron saint of a particular village.  Hundreds, if not thousands, of residents would follow the image of the saint in a procession through the streets of the neighborhood.  To this day, the Feast of San Gennaro, begun by immigrants from Naples in 1926 to keep their tradition of celebrating Saint Januarius, the Patron Saint of Naples on September 19, has grown from a one-day celebration to an 11-day street fair, an annual celebration of food and drink and a major tourist attraction.

Faced with the same dismal living conditions in cramped, poorly-lit, under-ventilated tenement houses, usually without indoor plumbing and hotbeds of vermin and disease, as other immigrants, and deprived of the outdoor lifestyle in their home country, the Italian immigrants pursued work opportunities.  Because their prior experience as farmers qualified them for only unskilled labor, the majority found work in the growing city's municipal works projects, digging canals, laying paving and gas lines, building bridges, and tunnelling out the New York subway system.

Beyond New York, as the great surge of immigration continued into the 20th century, Italian communities blossomed across the country and the Italian immigrants took on a wide variety of jobs.  They became fishermen and stevedores on the docks in San Francisco, home of a longstanding Italian enclave, coal and ore miners in the pits and mines in Appalachia and the mountain West, stoneworkers in the quarries of New England and Indiana and farmers and ranchers in every corner of the country.  

Yet others chose the entrepreneurial route in their new home.  In upstate New York, a small group formed the Contadina food company in 1918.  Andrea Sbarbaro of Genoa helped establish the California wine industry.  In turn-of-the-century San Francisco, a Neapolitan American, A.P. Giannini, began offering small loans to his fellow Italians.  As his operation grew, he rented an office in the North Beach neighborhood, then bought a building.  Today, Giannini's Banca D'Italia is known as Bank of America.

Many thousands of other Italian immigrant workers found themselves prisoners of the padrone (patron), system of labor in which labor brokers, sometimes immigrants themselves, recruited them for large employers and served as overseers on the work site, in practice acting more like slave holders than managers.  They confronted discrimination from major unions that barred foreign workers from membership as well as a wave of virulent prejudice and nationalistic hostility.  In the late 19th century as immigration in general neared its crest, the U.S. found itself in the grip of its own economic depression, and immigrants were blamed for taking American jobs and anti-immigrant sentiment soared.  Xenophobic articles also circulated in the press, advancing pseudo-scientific theories that "Mediterranean" types were inherently inferior to people of northern European heritage.  (Sounds familiar?)

Attacks on Italians were not limited to the printed page.  The most notable, a particularly bloody episode, took place in New Orleans in 1891 when the chief of police was found shot to death on the street one night and the mayor blamed "Sicilian gangsters".  More than 100 Sicilian Americans were rounded up; 19 were put on trial eventually; none were found guilty for lack of evidence.  Before they could be freed, however, a mob of 10,000 people broke into the jail and dragged 11 Sicilians from their cells and lynched them.  This is still the largest single mass lynching in U.S. history.  Italians worldwide were outraged, but the U.S. press generally approved of the action.

Italian Americans, however, continued their march to advancement in the U.S. workforce, moving into a wider range of careers and becoming business owners and managers in greater numbers.  For the next decades, especially due to World War II and the post-war explosion of mass media, Italian Americans stepped permanently into the center of U.S. cultural life and left their indelible mark on it. After serving in the armed forces and in war industries in record numbers, the children of Italian immigrants gained a higher profile in the nation's popular imagination and moved into every career and every walk of life across the country.  In New York City, Italian American culture soon became a major component of the city's personality and for many Americans, the city's longtime mayor, Fiorello LaGuardia, served as an ambassador for both his city and his heritage.  Elsewhere, Italian Americans became prominent in every aspect of American life.  In the arts, the poet Lorenzo da Ponte built the first opera house in the U.S. and almost single-handedly established Italian opera in the United States.  Starting in the mid-1850s, painter Constantino Brumidi spent decades creating the paintings and frescoes that adorn the U.S. Capitol, including the spectacular images on the building's great dome.  In science, physicist Enrico Fermi created the world's first nuclear reactor, the Chicago Pile-1, and earned the Nobel Prize-for his work on the atom.  In show business, crooners Perry Como and Dean Martin, and the undisputed rulers of the airwaves, Frank Sinatra and Tony Bennett, topped the charts and names like Martin Scorsese, Robert De Niro, Al Pacino were hits in the movie industry.  In sports, boxer Rocky Marciano and baseball player Joe DiMaggio, of New York Yankee fame, dominated their fields.  Today, Italian Americans continue to be represented throughout U.S. society, from the Supreme Court to the National Academy of Sciences to the bakers, fruit vendors and restaurateurs in every city and town.

I am proud of both the rich Italian heritage of my country and my family history as an Italian American.  Family is the center of who we are and hospitality is our trademark, welcoming anyone to our home and table.  (And, for the most part, we are very good cooks.)  My maternal grandmother and grandfather were both born in a small fishing village in Castellammare del Golfo in Sicily. They lived on opposites sides of town and only met when they came to New York and settled in Bensonhurst, Brooklyn.  Continuing their professions in Italy, my papa owned a shoe shop and my nana was a seamstress, working very hard and living in the back of the shop.  

Growing up, Sundays were always special because we went to Brooklyn to visit nana and papa and sometimes aunts, uncles and cousins would join us, especially on the holidays.  We would have to put two or more tables together so that we could fit everyone, and kids would have their own table close by.  Dinners, always at 2 o’clock in the afternoon, consisted of pasta with meatballs, sausage, beef braciole, and as a special treat, pigs’ feet or pigs’ skin added to the sauce.  On holidays we would have lasagna or baked ziti.  My mom would make little meatballs to put in the lasagna.  On Christmas Eve we followed the tradition of the feast of the seven fishes.  We started with antipasto and calamari or a scungilli salad and then lobster sauce with bucatini along with other fish dishes of fried scallops and shrimp, flounder, eel, octopus, clams, and baccala and lemon broccoli as a side.  For dessert, there would be sfogliatella, cannolis, Italian cookies and pastries, Italian cheesecake and tiramisu.  Guests would bring dessert, an Italian custom of a guest bringing something to contribute to the meal.  Afterwards, the men would watch sports and the women would clear the table and do the dishes.  The men back then never helped in the kitchen. Today, thankfully it is different.  I really enjoyed our tradition of family dinners, whether on Sundays or during the week, a tradition my dad insisted on, as family time together.  

By 1920, when immigration began to taper off, more than 4 million Italians had come to the United States. Today that number is over 26 million.  New York continues to have the largest population of Italian-Americans, although Rhode Island and Connecticut have the highest overall percentages of their respective populations and Fairfield, New Jersey boasts being “the most Italian place in the U.S.” with 50.3 percent of its residents claiming Italian ancestry according to the most recent census. 

The intermingling of Italian and American cultures and customs may not be as American as apple pie but they definitely complement each other like pasta and sauce.

Finally, on a lighter note, have you heard the Italian American immigration joke?  Why are so many Italian men named Tony?  Because when they arrived at Ellis Island, their suitcases were stamped “to N.Y.” 

Patti Aliperti
(in collaboration with Heather G. Kress)
for the RR&SJM

(Note: In the 1920s Prohibition era the American Mafia, a separate entity from the Sicilian Mafia, came to power in the booming bootleg liquor business but that is a story for another day.)