How Villagers from the Mezzogiorno Became Italian-Americans
And how similar processes are at work today.
In today's America, the development of pan-ethnic identities like "Asian-Pacific American" and "Hispanic" seems novel. Only a few decades ago, these labels didn't even exist, at least not with their present meanings. Yet the process that has given rise to them is not new. In the early 20th century, many immigrant groups developed wider identities than they had maintained in their home countries.
|A graphic attempt to convey the geographical breadth and ethnic diversity of the flow of immigrants to America at the height of "Great Wave" immigration. From Howard B. Grose, Aliens or Americans. |
The Italian nation emerged largely through the unifying efforts of Giuseppi Garibaldi (1807-1882). In Italy's Many Diasporas, historian Donna Gabaccia recounts that when Garibaldi's partisans marched through Sicily, his men sought to rally local support for their leader and the cause of unification. They chanted, “Viva Garibaldi, Viva Italia!” The peasants mistook the second part of the chant as, “Viva Talia!”, thinking that Talia had to be Garibaldi’s wife (and their new queen?). Italy was to them a vague abstraction. They knew their village and region of origin. These were the loyalties that they carried with them to America, not some allegiance to a political idea.
The idea of campanalismo helps explain Italian identity at the time. It may help us understand what is happening with some of today's ethnic groups in America. Campanilismo derives from the Italian word campanile for “bell tower.” The term implies a sense of fellow feeling among those who lived within earshot of the village church bell. That bell would toll daily for morning Mass and evening vespers, as well as for baptisms, communions, weddings, funerals, feast days, and general emergencies. Each locality had its own church and campanile, as well as its own dialect, traditions, customs, foodways, and sometimes even distinct modes of dress.
|The local parish church and its belltower drew villagers together in small-town Italy and nurtured a sense of fellow feeling among them.|
Photo of San Gimignano (Tuscany) courtesy of Marco Lazzaroni
It has been said that only after arriving at Ellis Island did immigrants from Abruzzo, Catania, Messina, and other regions learn that they were Italian. Even then, they tended to recreate the home village by clustering together in their own neighborhoods. Americans used the term “Little Italy” to describe an Italian enclave, but each enclave typically consisted of regional blocs. A street or tenement would be dominated by people from a particular part of Italy. At first, these newcomers stuck to themselves. They found jobs through family and friends from the home, built churches devoted to local saints, took spouses from the same region of origin. Yet, over time in this strange new environment, they recognized commonalities with neighbors from different parts of Italy, commonalities not shared with immigrants from other countries or with mainstream Americans.
For their part, old-stock Americans rarely distinguished among newcomers from different Italian homelands. Instead, they lumped them all together as “Eye-talyin,” or worse, as “dagos” and “wops.” The immigrants were relegated to menial work and generally were looked down upon. The discrimination they experienced became a unifying force among them. The old home-based differences, once so important, now lost significance in the American urban environment. In sharing neighborhoods, parish churches, worksites, theaters, and schools, immigrants from the Italian peninsula became Italian-Americans within two or three generations. Similar processes worked among other immigrant groups from Europe, and they are at work among today’s newcomers. Mexicans come here with strong regional identities, as do many Asians, but these identities tend to weaken in the new American context.
Contemporary immigrants are generally less limited in cultural outlook than the peasant immigrants who passed through Ellis Island. American popular culture has become more pervasive with globalization. Through the Internet, social media, satellite television, and other advances in communication, today’s newcomers come here with greater knowledge of American culture, elements of which they have already absorbed. They may be racially more diverse than their European predecessors, but through a kind of cultural leveling, they are more cosmopolitan than the peasant ancestors of today's European-Americans.
The very term "European-American" projects into the past a coming together of distinct peoples (The map above labels them "races"). This convergence happened over the course of the 20th century. We are seeing a similar kind of streamlining in the 21st century with the development of new, broader multi-ethnic allegiances among previously distinct peoples. For example, several of the largest Asian immigrant groups come from countries that have historically fraught relationships. Think of Japan's occupation of Korea and Taiwan early in the 20th century, its invasion of China during WWII (e.g., the Rape of Nanking), or of China's recent territorial expansion in the South China Sea, which Japan, Vietnam, and the Philippines all dispute. These conflicts and rivalries had great relevance for first-generation immigrants, but they matter less to the younger generation who find it easier to identify as Asian-Americans. Recent anti-Asian violence has fostered this broader perspective, just as past discrimination helped make Italian-Americans.