Multiculturalism in the United States

A Comparative Guide to Acculturation and Ethnicity
John D. Buenker and Lorman A. Ratner


Dominic Candeloro

Though sometimes referred to as the Children of Columbus, Italian Americans as a people played only a minor role in American history prior to the 1880s.  1 Columbus did trigger intellectual, economic, and social revolutions with his discovery of the Western Hemisphere for Europe. Though his heroism endures as a symbol for Italian Americans, the gap between Columbus’ time and when Italians became present in significant numbers in the United States spanned almost four hundred years. On the other hand, there were reports of Venetian glassblowers among the early settlers in Virginia, Italian-named missionaries such as Father Eusebio Kino and Father Samuel Mazzuchelli operating in what is now Arizona and in the Wisconsin-Michigan area, respectively, and Enrico Tonti leading the LaSalle explorations.

The Founding Fathers and educated Americans of that time held Italian art and culture in high esteem. Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin were familiar with the Italian language and with Roman history. Jefferson was a sponsor of Filippo Mazzei in the early 1770s and encouraged him to bring Italian vintners to Virginia. Though not successful in that venture, Mazzei became actively involved in the colonists’ struggle with England. Writing in the Virginia newspapers under the name Furioso, he was one of the first to urge Americans to declare independence and form a unified constitution to govern all thirteen colonies. Some of his phraseology later found its way into Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence.  2 Italian-named William Paca, an early governor of Maryland, was one of the signers of the Declaration of Independence.

Though the presence of Italian individuals in the United States was sparse before 1850, the historian Giovanni Schiavo has documented the accomplishments of scores of Italian clerics and musicians active in that period.  3 Lorenzo da Ponte, librettist for Mozart, taught Italian language and literature at Columbia University. In 1825, he produced his Don Giovanni in New York. Music teachers, architects, and the artists who embellished the capitols built throughout the United States were imported from Italy in that period, and Italian was one of the most frequently studied foreign languages in America. A few of these figures achieved the kinds of things that sometimes merit brief mention in survey textbooks.  4 The design of buildings in Washington, D.C., was heavily influenced by Italian style and Italian artisans. Costantino Brumidi painted the splendid frescoes in the U.S. Capitol between 1855 and 1880.

There was a modest migration of Italians to California during and after the Gold Rush. Many in this group became prosperous farmers, vintners, and business leaders, including Domenico Ghirardelli, (the chocolate maker), the Gallo and Mondavi families (wine producers), and Amadeo Giannini (the founder of the Bank of America). Most historians consider the experience of Italians in California to be exceptional because immigration there was early and agricultural. This combination made possible relatively fast entry into the middle and upper classes of California society. The California Italian experience is also characterized by the relative intensity with which the government sought to repress and relocate Italians as “enemy aliens” in the early stages of World War II.  5

The 1850 census reported a total of 5,000 Italians in America, mostly in and around New York City. During that period, the Italian revolutionary Giuseppe Garibaldi resided briefly on Staten Island with Antonio Meucci, an inventor of the telephone. St. Anthony’s, the first Italian church in America, was founded in New York in 1866. When the Civil War began, Garibaldi approached President Lincoln and volunteered to become the Commander in Chief of Union armies but was turned down.

In the 1880s, Italian migration to the United States began in earnest and continued until immigration restriction in the 1920s. As refugees from an overpopulated rural nation, Italian emigrants joined millions in Western Europe and North America in experiencing the rough transition to modernization. Estimates of the number of Italian immigrants are made murky by individuals’ repeated crossings, the undocumented entry of untold thousands, and inconsistencies in the spelling of names. The Ellis Island Web site provides fascinating primary source documentation of each immigrant who passed through. About 4.5 million Italians made the trip to the United States in that forty-year period. With some notable exceptions, they came for economic reasons, looking for pane e lavoro (bread and work), and often depended on padroni (labor agents) to find them any kind of work.  6

America needed the immigrants as much as the immigrants needed America. Between 1900 and 1910, 2 million Italians emigrated. The numbers peaked at 285,000 in 1907, 284,000 in 1914, and 222,000 in 1921.  7 After 1900, Italian immigrants began in earnest to bring their families to join them, and Italian neighborhoods in large cities became more stable. In this “chain migration,” paesani (townspeople) from a particular town in Italy, transferred, over varying time periods, to specific neighborhoods and suburbs in the United States. In this manner, they created a near-replica of their home town, adhering more or less to the social customs, dialect, and family patterns of the old country, even while beginning their journey toward Americanization.

Italians brought with them an agrarian, Catholic, and family-based culture. Hard work and self-sufficiency were facts of life. Of all the social institutions in Italian society, the family was the only one that could be relied on consistently, even though the early immigrants had to leave their families in order to save them.

Italian immigrants were ambivalent toward the church. On the one hand, they were all baptized Catholics, they believed in the saints, and were devoted to the Blessed Virgin Mary; on the other hand, the church was a large landholder, deeply involved in Italian politics in coalition with the upper classes, and opposed to unification. In contrast to Irish and Polish immigrants whose national identity was championed by the church, Italian nationalists saw the church as their enemy. As a result the immigrants brought with them a certain anti-clericalism, a casual attitude toward strict rules, and a devotion to folk practices.

Although southern Italy and Sicily sent the most immigrants, all parts of Italy contributed to the migration. The early migrants were mostly illiterate, unskilled male workers, birds of passage, many of whom returned to Italy several times before they decided to stay in America permanently and to bring their wives and families with them. A good number returned to live in their native villages. The impact of these rimpatrioti (returnees) on Italian social mobility and culture is a fascinating aspect of the unexpected consequences of emigration. These men often served as unofficial agents, expediting the chain migration process and helping to revitalize it in the post–World War II period. Sometimes the rimpatrioti successfully advanced their family fortunes by investing savings accumulated in the United States in small businesses or farms. Occasionally, aspects of Italian modernization can be traced back to emigrants who returned from industrialized America.  8

Restrictive immigration laws, Benito Mussolini’s policies, the Depression of the 1930s, and World War II reduced Italian migration to a trickle from the 1920s to the late 1940s. A second wave of migration to the United States followed World War II, as residents of war-torn sections of Italy used every possible connection to find opportunities to migrate to the United States and other countries, such as Canada, Argentina, and Australia. Waiting lists for migration to the United States were lengthy. Through all the periods of the Italian exodus there developed chains and networks of migration from Italian clans, towns, and regions to specific states, towns, and urban neighborhoods in the United States. For instance, many from the Abruzzi region ended up in the Philadelphia area, and a good percentage of the New Orleans Italians are of Sicilian origin. There are dozens of U.S. towns and neighborhoods whose population of descendants from an Italian town far exceeds the current population of that town of origin. With the exception of New Orleans; Tampa, Florida; and parts of West Virginia, Italian immigrants tended to avoid the South. Because they were sojourners without capital and because most of the good agricultural land was spoken for, most of these agrarian migrants ended up in the industrialized northeastern and north-central cities. A significant segment also settled in the West as a result of work on the railroads and in the mines of that region.  9 Perhaps the most established Italian Americans today are the descendants of the Piedmontese vintners who migrated to California shortly after the Gold Rush. The Italian experience in America was influenced by the mix of ethnic groups, class relationships, and economic structure of the geographic areas where they settled. Thus, Joseph Bernardin (later Cardinal Bernardin) had a different experience growing up in rural North Carolina, where there were few Italians, than did former New York State governor Mario Cuomo, who grew up in New York City. And Italians in Chicago have played a lesser role in politics than those in New York or Rhode Island, where Italian ethnics make up a larger portion of the population.

Like other immigrant and minority groups, Italians suffered discrimination. They were poor, illiterate, considered a problem, and stereotyped as criminals, radicals, and buffoons. The largest single lynching in American history took place in New Orleans in 1891 and had as its victims eleven Italians.  10 More subtle discrimination persists into the twenty-first century, in the form of negative stereotypes in the mass media, and is the only significant deprivation of sorts of this well-heeled group that has moved from urban slums to middle-class status in barely three generations.  11 An analysis of the nature and completeness of that transformation—of five million immigrants into sixteen million ethnics—is the subject of this chapter.

Italians brought with them a lively rural-paesani culture that, though imbued with class distinctions, lent itself to cooperative survival strategies in their New World. And the failing agricultural economy from which they were fleeing gave them the habit of hard work. The class consciousness of Italians who participated in strikes in Paterson, New Jersey; Lowell, Massachusetts; and Tampa, Florida is additional evidence of their inner-directedness. The establishment by Bishop Giovanni Battista Scalabrini of the Missionary Fathers of St. Charles Borromeo in the 1880s was the first concentrated effort by the Catholic Church to minister to the needs of Italian migrants. Over the century that followed, the Scalabrinians have built and staffed hundreds of churches, schools, and hospitals in the United States, Canada, Latin America, and Australia. Among the disciples of Scalabrini was Mother Cabrini, who led the Chicago Italian American community in building their own local institutions, like hospitals and schools. This mix of forces developed a substantial cultural base that belies the too-sympathetic notion espoused by the historian Oscar Handlin that the immigrants were hapless victims of the brutal process of migration.  12 Moreover, it is that very strength of the Italian cultural base that goes far toward explaining the retention of ethnic identity by Italians and other groups.


Like other ethnic groups, Italian immigrants developed a range of self-help organizations. Their mutual-benefit societies were based on their towns of origin and provided the early immigrants with minimal sick and death benefits before Medicare and before Social Security. These Societé di Mutuo Soccorso (Mutual Benefit Societies) often hired a physician on retainer and provided modest benefits to survivors in case of a death.

Their neighborhoods, their extended family, paesani networks, leisure clubs, church groups, and unions also helped them cope with the challenges of urban life in the new country. Various national groups, such as the Order of Sons of Italy of America (OSIA), tried to combine or federate the thousands of small lodges (those with an average membership of 250) but experienced only moderate success. Heavy involvement by the OSIA in Mussolini’s Fascist propaganda campaign in the 1920s and 1930s had obvious disastrous consequences for the organization after the outbreak of World War II, and any hope of organizational unity through OSIA was dashed.

The Italian American press can also be considered a self-help organization. From the time of the founding of the first Italian newspaper in America by Francesco Secchi De Casali in 1849 (L’Eco d’Italia), the immigrant press was there, providing the news of the day in the immigrants’ own language, promoting local political bosses, providing advice for learning English and coping in the New World, preaching fascism, preaching socialism, pushing Protestantism, and acquiescing in Americanization. Dozens of Italian American Socialist, anarchist, religious, Fascist, anti-Fascist, unionist, and literary magazines have been published in the period since then. Il Progresso Italo-Americano, (New York, 1880–1989) and the L’Italia (Chicago, 1888–1940s) in particular, because of their longevity, provide continuous coverage of Italian American history. Since Il Progresso’s daily circulation was above 100,000, Generoso Pope, its editor during the 1930s and 1940s, was perhaps the most influential Italian American leader of his time. These newspapers depended on an Italian-speaking public, and the radical newspapers also depended on a sizeable Socialist following. By the 1930s, the monocultural Americanization policy had begun to have its effect. The second generation preferred their newspapers in English. This same phenomenon hit radio broadcasting about twenty years later.

Current Italian American journalism reflects continued changes in the marketplace. The Italian Tribune of Newark, New Jersey, is an English-language weekly founded in 1931, and America Oggi is an Italian-language daily that serves the New York–New Jersey area. On the West Coast, the weekly bilingual L’Italo-Americano, founded in 1908 by Gabriello Spini, continues to serve the Los Angeles community. Fra Noi (Among Us) is a monthly founded in 1961 by Father Armando Pierini to promote his senior citizens’ home, Villa Scalabrini, in suburban Chicago. Slick magazines launched in the 1980s, like Attenzione, I-AM, and Identity, could never quite decide whether their target constituency was upscale Italophiles or second- and third-generation old-neighborhood types. Though they served a purpose in enhancing the awareness of Italian ethnicity, those slick magazines are gone now. The current selection of Italian American magazines includes the monthly Primo published out of Pittsburgh, the Order of Sons of Italy’s Italian America, and the National Italian American Foundation’s Ambassador.

Much has been written about Italian radicals.  13 This is both because their story is exciting and because they were by far the most literate element in Italian American society, and the most literate are always overrepresented in history. Those few Italians who left Italy for reasons other than economic ones tended to be Socialists and “anarchists,” (perhaps better described by the term “radical democrat”). Leaders of these movements, such as Carlo Tresca and Arturo Giovannitti, had a respectable following in a series of clothing-workers strikes in Paterson, New Jersey, and Lowell, Massachusetts, around 1910. The Italian section of the American Socialist party was one of the strongest prior to the Russian Revolution (1917) and the Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti executions (1927).

The controversial trial of Sacco and Vanzetti for a murder-robbery in Braintree, Massachusetts, in 1920 haunted the headlines for over seven years. Their execution in 1927 was a dark day in Italian American history, because it proved to Italian Americans that the system was so prejudiced against Italians that even their most righteous causes could not get a fair hearing in this country. The execution of the pair crippled Italian-American radicalism and many of the Italian-language publications that espoused that philosophy.

The flamboyance and style of Italian American bootleggers during Prohibition helped shape the image of gangsters of that period and has since become the baseline stereotype of Italian Americans. The thousands of books and media productions on the subject of Italian gangsters include some of the best and some of the worst artistic expression in American culture. But whatever the quality of the art, in the eyes of the Italian American leadership, the result was the same: the intensification in the public’s mind of a negative image of Italian Americans.

In addition to mutual-benefit societies and newspapers, Italian American organizations cover a wide range of activities. Italian American self-help organizations abounded in the post–World War II era to the point of excess. The Center for Migration Studies in the 1980s published the National Directory of Italian American Organizations and a New York City directory listing almost a thousand organizations of every imaginable size and scope.  14

Each new group presented itself as the one that would bring the elusive unity to the community. One of the roots of Italian American disunity can be traced to campanilismo, an intense loyalty to one’s Italian town of origin. This feeling often undermined national allegiance. Italians who were never really unified in Italy should not have expected unity within their immigrant colonies. From a group that had to stretch itself to develop loyalties beyond family, it would be too much to expect a well-developed sense of national patriotism. Moreover, from 1922 to 1941, the two most articulate elements among Italian Americans, the Fascists and the anti-Fascists (mostly Socialists), were at each others’ throats.  15 Flashes of unity appeared during and after World War II in the relief efforts toward the war-torn old country and in later relief efforts following major Italian earthquakes. Since 1960, however, Italy has been prosperous. There is no need for Italian American groups to jump to its defense or to lobby the U.S. government on behalf of its survival, as Jewish Americans do for Israel and as Polish Americans did for many years to pry their homeland away from Soviet domination.

In the past two decades, however, thanks to the creation of the National Italian American Foundation (NIAF), based in Washington, DC, the brainchild of Father Geno Baroni (former undersecretary of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development), bankrolled by Jeno Paolucci (of Jeno’s Pizza Rolls), and promoted by Italian American political figures such as John Volpe (former governor of Massachusetts), and Chicago congressman Frank Annunzio, there has been an established national representative for Italian Americans. As always, Washington politicians are delighted to have only one entity to deal with in satisfying the desires of an ethnic group, especially one that is perceived as an emerging and complex one. By remaining bipartisan, by creating alliances with existing Italian American organizations, and by developing a broad program of scholarships and cultural endeavors and links to Italy, the NIAF has gone further toward achieving a genuine, unified voice of Italian Americans than any previous organization. During each U.S. presidential election campaign, the appearance of Democratic and Republican presidential and vice presidential candidates at the NIAF banquet demonstrates the prestige of the organization. Moreover, NIAF’s apparent ability to play a role in the nomination and appointment of high-ranking political figures such as congresswoman and one-time Democratic vice presidential nominee Geraldine Ferraro, Clinton chief-of-staff Leon Panetta, Supreme Court justice Antonin Scalia, and secretary of defense Frank Carlucci adds to the self-fulfilling process of image building.

Founded in 1908, the Order of the Sons of Italy in America continues to be a major voice for the ethnic group. The organization recovered in the postwar period and today claims 600,000 members in 700 chapters across the nation. Some observers believe that the OSIA’s large membership and wide geographic penetration make it a sleeping giant. The traditional orientation of OSIA has been toward the ceremonial, although their lodges also provide social programming and group life insurance. In recent years, its Committee on Social Justice and its publications have generated a sophisticated defense against defamation and an interest in promoting Italian-language education and the popularization of Italian American culture. The success of these national institutions will reinforce the retention of ethnic identity among Italian Americans far into the future and will act to counterbalance such antiretention trends as ethnic intermarriage.

The Italian government’s attempts to organize the Italian American community have been confused and ineffective. In the 1980s, complicating the organizational scene among Italian Americans was the establishment Co. Em. It. (Commitato d’Emigranti Italiana), an elective group devised to advise the consul general in each of a half-dozen major U.S. cities. Created by a vote of the Italian parliament, Co. Em. It. was clearly an effort to keep recent Italian immigrants to the United States in the Italian sphere, both legally and culturally. Co. Em. It. focused on those who continue to hold Italian citizenship. Though often ignored by older Italian American groups, the post–World War II immigrants consider themselves to be the natural leaders of Italian Americans because of their close ties with contemporary Italian culture. The 1980s efforts were marked by a counterproductive, heated political scramble. The recent establishment of the Italian Ministry of Italians Abroad under the leadership of Mirko Tremaglia, combined with the passage of laws allowing Italian citizens abroad to vote in some Italian elections, indicates both a cultural and political interest in Italian Americans. Italian consulate officers and local Italian-language and culture support groups like Italidea in Chicago and WisItalia in Wisconsin have had success in lobbying state government to expand the teaching of Italian in public schools.


The relationship of Italian Americans to their religion is a complicated one. Italians are implicitly Roman Catholics. Rome is the seat of the church. Evidence of the role of Catholicism in Italian culture and Western culture has been pervasive in the architecture, literature, and folkways of the Italian people for almost 2,000 years. The church has also been a political entity, with the popes of Rome scrambling and competing with local strongmen and foreign potentates for political domination of central Italy.

This kind of activity kept Italy from being unified as a modern nation until the latter part of the nineteenth century. The papacy was the last holdout, the final stumbling block to unification. When its temporal power was stripped away in 1870, the church withdrew not gracefully but with a curse of excommunication on all the leaders in the unification movement. Thus, to be an Italian patriot was to be anticlerical. It was not until 1929 that the papacy recognized the legitimacy of the Italian government in return for the government’s guarantee of papal sovereignty over the Vatican City and the establishment of Catholicism as the official state religion.

Just as important was the role that the church played in the social and economic structure of the woebegone towns from which the emigrants fled. The church was a landlord allied with the establishment, and had no motivation to encourage reform. Moreover, until the Scalabrini movement, few priests joined the waves of migrants to the New World. When Italians reached American cities in the 1890s and after, they found a Roman Catholic Church dominated by the Irish, who sent them to the church basement to pray. This proverbial insult was probably due more to their differences in style of worship than to their language differences. Italians didn’t care about church rules so much; they didn’t take to the catechism and puritanical bent of Irish Catholicism; and they were not in the habit of tossing their hard-earned cash into the collection basket. Anticlericalism was strong among the Socialists and others. Since large numbers were virtually unchurched, a variety of Protestant denominations targeted Italian immigrants for their brand of salvation. Yet, for the most part the considerable effort by American Protestants to convert Italians failed.

Probably the most important reason for this failure is that the Italians brought their folk religion with them. The cult of the virgin, devotion to patron saints of each village, and even the superstitious practices associated with the mal occhio (evil eye curses) constituted a virtually indestructible imported core culture.

Religious street festivals have been the most outstanding characteristic of old Italian religiosity in America. Italians parading the graven images of saints and madonnas laden with money pinned to their garments as a way of supporting the church was shocking to Protestant Americans and not a little disturbing to the Irish hierarchy and even some Italian priests. The San Rocco feast in the movie Godfather II was a masterly portrayal of the tradition. One would have thought that such maudlin folk practices would have been an early casualty to the Americanization process.

Twenty years ago the number of such feasts had dwindled to a mere handful, but in recent times there has been a resurgence in the number and intensity of these celebrations. For instance, in Chicago in the 1920s you could attend a different festival each Sunday at the Sicilian St. Philip Benizi Church. In the twenty-first century in the Chicago area you can still attend a festa each Sunday, but you have to travel to different parts of the metropolitan area to do so. Although they are promoted as religious events, these clan-oriented activities also have strong charitable and commercial aspects that keep them viable. In the Chicago area, and especially Milwaukee for the past few decades, the commercialized Festa Italiana has featured big-name Italian American entertainers, food, art, merchandise, rides, and Sunday mass on the lakefront. The organizers have attracted hundreds of thousands of people and have used the proceeds to encourage and support Italian American culture and charitable activities—thus intensifying and perpetuating the identification of all participants and beneficiaries with things Italian. Ethnicity is nothing if not symbolic, and the festivals themselves, laden with both ancient and modern symbolism, proclaim a convincing challenge to all who would dismiss the importance of Italian ethnicity in the United States.

The anticlerical, superstitious, unchurched aspects of Italian American religiosity were tempered by the presence in Chicago, New York, and New England of the Scalabrini order. Officially known as the fathers of St. Charles Borromeo, the order was founded in 1887 by Bishop Giovanni Scalabrini of Piacenza, who was moved by the church’s insensitivity to the needs of the immigrant masses. Scalabrini is credited with inspiring Mother Cabrini to shift her attention from Chinese missionary duties to work with Italian immigrants in the Americas.

In the first quarter of the twentieth century, Scalabrini priests led the Italian immigrants in the establishment of approximately one hundred schools and churches. The process of organizing to build churches and schools contributed mightily to the development of a sense of community within the Italian sections of larger cities. In Chicago, the term Italian community would have been inconceivable without the leadership of the Scalabrini fathers, especially Armando Pierini, who established a seminary, a senior citizens’ home, and a newspaper (Fra Noi), which today form the centers of the Chicago Italian community. Gary Mormino, in Immigrants on the Hill, credits St. Ambrose Church and its priests with maintaining the community identity of St. Louis Italians.  16 In short, the Scalabrini fathers did for the Italians what other religious orders have done for other ethnic groups: they preserved and strengthened Italian national culture and language through religion. Though the forces of suburbanization have scattered Italian Catholics, and though the Scalabrini dedication to the immigrants in America has now extended to Mexican Americans, the Scalabrini fathers and their five hundred members around the world continue to play an important role in the maintenance and advancement of Italian ethnicity.


Formal education was not an important part of the experience of the early Italian immigrants. Well over 50 percent of the immigrants from Italy at the turn of the century were illiterate in their own language. And their own language was not likely to be standard Italian, but one of its hundreds of dialects. Illiteracy and the isolation created by Italy’s mountainous geography encouraged the development of local dialects significantly different from standard Italian. Even today in Italy, with its mass media and effective universal education, differing language patterns are a means of social distinction. The illiteracy of Italian immigrants and their sojourner mentality retarded their mastery of American English and blocked easy access to education as a stepping-stone to social mobility. The need of parents to supplement their own incomes with those of their children was often crucial.

The immigrants valued hard work and family solidarity, and many of them had no intention of remaining long in the United States. They distrusted the conscious and unconscious messages sent back through their children by the middle-class, Anglo-oriented school system. The kids got the message, too. Seventy-five years ago Italian American kids dropped out of and caused trouble in the schools at rates that today plague other minority teens.  17 This disconnection with the school system was compounded by conflicts between the immigrant generation and their children. The second generation was Americanized enough to understand the cult of success at any price. This and the opportunities presented by bootlegging help to explain why some Italian American youth turned to gangsterism.  18

Italian American achievers are divided on the attitudes of their parents toward education. Leonard Covello, a New York City educator, and Helen Barolini, a New York writer, both report that their parents discouraged them from “wasting time reading books.”  19 On the other hand, many successful Italian Americans report that their parents respected education and scrimped and saved and vowed that their kids would not have to do the heavy manual work that they themselves were condemned to do. While the attitudes are debatable, the results are not. Italian immigrants were not very successful at passing their language on to their children and grandchildren. In addition, few Italian Americans attended college before the late 1940s, when the GI Bill began to take effect. Many Italian American veterans chose to use GI benefits to get vocational training. College attendance by Italian American youth was far below average well into the 1970s.  20 And while the ethnic group made inroads into the professions of law, medicine, and dentistry in the post–World War II era, the majority of Italian Americans who reached middle-class status in the 1960s did so by means other than higher education.

Hard work at steady, unskilled jobs in an America that needed unskilled labor, long hours in small family business, and underconsumption of material goods were the elements crucial to Italian American success in the first two generations. Upwardly mobile Italians turned to small businesses such as groceries, barbershops, shoe-repair shops, fruit vending, and restaurants because they required little capital, and could be established near home and staffed by family members. Capitalizing on the role of foodways in Italian culture, Italian Americans are overrepresented in food-related businesses. In common with other immigrant groups, early on Italians focused on achieving home ownership. Paychecks of all family members were turned over to the mother, as portrayed in Mario Puzo’s book Fortunate Pilgrim, and the welfare of individual family members was subordinated to that of the family. Gardening skills and construction skills applied to two flats or duplexes over time yielded modest accumulations of capital. Mutual assistance within the extended family meant never having to buy in-season produce, to pay for a haircut, hire a plumber, or call a cab. Reciprocity in doing favors and in giving money gifts at birthdays, christenings, confirmations, weddings, and funerals gave extended family members access to cash at critical moments in the life cycle.

The other side of the coin is that family solidarity might be stifling. Young people, especially girls, were either subtley or directly discouraged from going away to school. Parents and relatives often pressured the upwardly mobile to refuse promotions that might take them out of town and out of their lives. Perhaps second-generation Italian Americans, as the children of migrants who had split from their families in order to survive, were especially sensitive to the psychic costs of migration. Many were survivors of the Depression who valued security above all else. In any case, until the 1970s Italian Americans did not use higher education as their major tool of social mobility into the middle class, and, consequently, the group was underrepresented in the ranks of corporate leadership, for example.

Times have changed. The statistics show Italian Americans attending college at a rate roughly proportional to their presence in the general population.  21 While there might be some variation in their majors and the relative prestige of the schools they are attending, modern Italian Americans are worshipping at the shrine of higher education. Upward ripples in the number of students enrolled in Italian-language classes reflect a sensitivity on the part of Italian American students and their parents to the importance of the maintenance of their ethnicity.  22 It also reflects the fact that instruction in the Italian language is no longer available in the homes and neighborhoods of Italian Americans. The language, the culture of Italy, and even the immigrant heritage are available only in the classroom and from cultural institutions. The migrating generation of the first wave is gone. The semighettoized Italian neighborhoods and their institutions, such as athletic clubs, settlement houses, candy stores, and churches, which shaped the lives of second-generation Italians, have disappeared or been gentrified. It is ironic that many of the keys to the content of Italian American ethnicity are no longer in the hands of the ethnics themselves but in the possession of educational and formal cultural institutions.

Like other ethnic groups, Italians have formed an historical association, the American Italian Historical Association (AIHA), to promote the study and dissemination of information about the Italian American experience. In 1967, Leonard Covello, the first Italian high school principal in New York City, and a hardy group of academics organized the group in New York. The founding president was Rudolph J. Vecoli, who went on to become one of the most important scholars in the field of ethnic/migration history, as director of the Immigration History Research Center at the University of Minnesota. The AIHA transposed Italian and American in its name to emphasize the continuity of Italianitá. The name suggests that the immigrants and their descendants constituted an American brand of Italians rather than a hyphenated American group on the verge of melting into nondescript Americans. AIHA membership has grown to four hundred college professors, students, and community researchers in various fields of the humanities and social sciences. The organization holds annual conferences, publishes its proceedings, maintains a Web site ( and a listserv (H-ItAm) and has been directly or indirectly involved in almost all of the scholarship on the subject of Italian Americans in the past thirty-five years. But to say that it is a household name to the sixteen million Italian Americans in the United States would be a gross exaggeration. The Calandra Institute at Queens College, the Italian Studies program at State University of New York at Stony Brook, and several other university centers in the United States also focus on Italian American studies.


Another indication of a lack of development among Italian Americans of an intellectual curiosity about themselves is the plight of Italian American literature. Aside from Pietro di Donato, Jerre Mangione, and Helen Barolini, few Italian Americans have become self-sufficient by writing on authentic Italian American themes other than the Mafia. Mario Puzo himself was nearly destitute before writing The Godfather, having previously written critically acclaimed but commercial failures like Fortunate Pilgrim. Fred Gardaphe’s essay “In Search of Italian American Writers,” in the spring 1997 issue of Italian America summarizes the work of more recent Italian American writers. Yet, even the exquisite poet laureate of Italian Americans, Joseph Tusiani, is almost unknown among his compatriots.

Beginning with the publication of From the Margin: Writings in Italian Americana, edited by Anthony Tamburri, Paolo Giordano, and Gardaphe, an appreciation for the standard Italian American writer and second-, third-, and fourth-generation writers began to flourish. Another breakthrough publication was Dream Book: An Anthology of Writings by Italian American Women, edited by Helen Barolini, brought to light dozens of women writers. Other developments included establishment of the Italian American Writers Association and the awakening of Italian American feminism. This same growing circle of literati supported the emergence of outlets like Bordighera Press, Guernica Publishers (Canada), and VIA: Voices in Italian Americana and Italian Americana, which have provided a vast increase in the quantity and diversity of publications by and about Italian Americans. Lawrence DiStasi and the Western Regional Chapter of the American Italian Historical Association’s documentation of the federal government’s violation of the rights of Italian Americans in World War II has also stirred up the kind of interest that might create demand for books on Italian American subjects.

In 2003, the publication by Morrow of The Italian American Reader, edited by Bill Tonelli, offered hope that the market was changing. Finding an audience for these writers and bringing their writings to the mass media are continuing challenges. Especially when compared to Jewish Americans and African Americans, Italian Americans, even the college educated, cannot claim a body of literature that has led them to a learned and sophisticated appreciation of their ethnic history or the humanistic heritage of their nation of origin. Whether this will change among the current generation of Italian American students is yet to be seen.

Some of the most creative and successful literary products of Italian Americans have emerged from film and television. Unfortunately for the Italian American image, the bulk of these productions, like The Godfather, Goodfellas, and The Sopranos, have reinforced the stereotype of the Italian American connection to organized crime. The Mafia mystique has become so pervasive in the mass media that many Italian American activists find themselves spending the vast majority of their energy and resources in fighting against the stereotype rather than devoting themselves to the positive task of preservation of authentic Italian American culture. One immediate response to The Sopranos in New Jersey, however, was the funding in 2003 of a modest state-supported Italian American studies program in the public schools.


Italian Americans have had considerable success in the labor movement. Though unions no longer represent radical class-consciousness as they did ninety years ago, union membership and leadership have added to the welfare and security of a good part of the American population, including Italian Americans. Italian Americans have played prominent roles in a number of major unions. The International Laborers’ Union (LIUNA) has a membership of 500,000 and was dominated by the Fosco family of Chicago (formerly of Molise, Italy) for several decades. Peter Fosco served as president from the 1960s to the 1980s and was succeeded by his son Angelo until Angelo was removed by federal authorities in the 1990s. Though the national and local leadership of the LIUNA often handled business affairs in a scandalous manner, damage to individual members was limited. On a basic level, LIUNA got the job done, improving wages and working conditions and providing pensions.

In the field of music, James “Caesar” Petrillo (1892–1984) emerged in the 1920s on the Chicago scene. In 1940, Petrillo was elected president of the American Federation of Musicians (AFM), a position he served in until 1958. Petrillo was tough. He protested to Chicago politicians and even to Mussolini when events that they sponsored failed to use union musicians. His campaign against “canned music” and the strike actions he took against NBC and the Boston Symphony, for example, drew a lot of criticism from the public. For a period in 1942, he banned union musicians from making recordings until the record industry would agree to his demand to create a Music Performance Trust Fund (derived from record sales) to pay musicians to give free concerts. Twice Petrillo’s image graced the cover of Time magazine. He has earned a place in the history of Italian Americans because of his feisty defense of his interest group—the musicians—a sizeable number of whom were Italian Americans.

It appears that ethnic, even regional, Italian considerations were important in the recruitment of membership and the growth of leadership in the unions. Italians have shared leadership with the Jews in the Amalgamated Clothing Workers Union and in the Garment Workers Union (ILGWU). One of the most effective and yet one of the most notorious unions in the nation is the Teamsters’ Union. Italians have played a prominent role on both the local and national level. Jimmy Hoffa became the president of the International Brotherhood of the Teamsters in 1957.

Both New York and Chicago boast Italian American Labor Councils, which are composed of the ethnic group’s leaders from a wide range of unions. While they are not always the most prominent among ethnic organizations, unions are among the best financed and organized of the Italian Americans support organizations. Thus, the backing of Italian American union leaders for a fund-raiser is often the key to success. This association has a darker side, however, because many of the union leaders have image problems that are even more severe for Italian Americans.  23


Francis B. Spignola, a Civil War officer from Brooklyn, became the first Italian American congressman (1886–1892), and Andrew Houston Longino, a native of Virginia, was the first Italian American governor (Mississippi 1889–1904). The immigrants after 1880 participated in politics as pawns of the big-city bosses who got to the immigrants before social workers did. By giving out food baskets to the needy, attending wakes, helping youth out of scrapes with the police, and finding jobs for the immigrants, the bosses won their confidence, helped them apply for citizenship, and saw that they voted the right way. A key Italian American political hero is Fiorello LaGuardia, who represented Italians and others as a New York City congressman for a decade before becoming mayor of New York in the 1930s. His ethnic-coalition brand of politics was a model for all who followed. John O. Pastore of Rhode Island was the first Italian American elected to the U.S. Senate, in 1950, based on his popularity in what is now the most ethnic Italian state in the Union. Michael Di Salle served as governor of Ohio in the post–World War II period.

Italian Americans appear to be well represented in politics today. The most heavily Italian American states are New Jersey (1.5 million, or 18.5 percent of the total population), Connecticut (653,000, or 19.8 percent) and Rhode Island (202,735, or about 20 percent). The Italian American population of New York is about 2.7 million, or 14.8 percent; Pennsylvania, 1.5 million, or 13 percent; Nevada, 142,658, or 7.3 percent; California, 1.4 million, or 4.3 percent; and Massachusetts, 890,000, or 14.5 percent. Other states with significant Italian American populations are Illinois, 706,000, or 5.8 percent; Florida 1 million, or 6.5 percent; Ohio, 713,015, or 6.7 percent; and Louisiana, 360,333, or 5.2 percent. (National Italian American Foundation, “Italian Population in all 50 States.”)

This ethnic concentration during the past century has resulted in the election of Italian American political leaders, including LaGuardia, Pastore, Mario Cuomo, Geraldine Ferraro, U.S. senator from New York Alphonse D’Amato, Connecticut governor Ella Grasso, and former New York City mayor Rudolph Giuliani. A partial list of political achievers continues with Justice Antonin Scalia, the first Italian American on the U.S. Supreme Court, Frank Carlucci, Leon Panetta, poet Dana Gioia, head of the National Endowment for the Arts, and Anthony Principi, secretary of Veterans Affairs.

Contemporary Italian Americans rarely vote as a bloc. Their politics seem to be based on social class and income rather than on ethnicity. There appear to be few overriding ethnic-based issues as there might be for African American or Jewish American voters. Moreover, in many places on the East Coast, it is not uncommon to see Italian American candidates from diverse parties and philosophical camps running against each other for political office at different levels.

Italian American voting strength in New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and some New England states is significant. Politically speaking, it appears that Italian Americans have arrived. Yet when compared to other ethnic groups, Italian Americans lack unifying issues. They have not been the persistent victims of racist oppression, as have been African Americans, and they lack the forces of unity that motivate Jewish American and Polish American activism in the political arena. Earlier in the century, Italian Americans had some working-class solidarity, and Italians were part of the Roosevelt Coalition that made the Democratic Party dominant from the 1930s through the 1960s. They voted for fellow Catholic John F. Kennedy. Increasingly prosperous, middle-class, and small-business-oriented Italian American voters most recently backed Ronald Reagan in the 1984 presidential election, snubbing their own Geraldine Ferraro, who was on the Democratic ticket as Walter Mondale’s vice presidential running mate. Catholic leaders balked at supporting Ferraro because of her pro-choice stand on abortion. And, perhaps because she was a woman running in a hopeless race, grassroots and midlevel activity on her behalf by Italian Americans was surprisingly absent.

Ferraro’s experience in dealing with allegations that her husband and a long-dead relative had some connection to organized crime demonstrates another unique aspect of Italian American political participation. Although organized crime is a multiethnic industry, and only a minuscule percentage of the sixteen million Italian Americans could possibly be part of the organized crime network, the specter of Al Capone and his ilk casts a shadow over the public perception of Italian Americans, especially politicians. This image is reinforced by the exciting media images of gangsters that, ironically, are often created by Italian American writers, actors, and filmmakers. And the image is further intensified by the very real infiltration of organized crime into the political establishment in order to gain protection against strict law enforcement.

The result is the popular perception that politicians, especially Italian American politicians, are “connected.” Even a seasoned and well-meaning journalist like Sam Donaldson lent credence to thoughtless Mafia stereotyping when he stated on the Oprah Winfrey Show that, of course, investigative journalists would look for Mafia connections in the past of any Italian American candidate for high office. Perhaps the most vicious aspect of this phenomenon is that Italian Americans distrust each other. Politically ambitious Italian Americans are often satisfied to settle for appointed judgeships rather than subject themselves to the ordeal of Mafia innuendoes. The NIAF has been successful in encouraging higher ambitions among Italian Americans by promoting Italian Americans without regard to political philosophy to see “some of their” in high government positions. Even the NIAF has been frustrated, however, in trying to develop among Italian Americans a habit of contributing substantial amounts to the political campaigns of their coethnics. For the foreseeable future, the group will not come anywhere near the political funding patterns of Jewish Americans and Greek Americans.

Aside from power considerations, the chief reason for Italian Americans to enter the political arena appears to be the desire for respect. Italians are not poor, not unemployed, not grossly discriminated against, or significantly disadvantaged in any other way except for the negative or trivialized image that the larger society has of them and that they sometimes have of themselves. The major task of Italian American organizations is to get the general society to take an objective look at them, free of the easy stereotypes.

Many people inside and outside of the Italian community are convinced that if only they had an Italian American president like Mario Cuomo or Lee Iaccoca, unfair stereotypes would disappear as they did with the election of our first Catholic president. This is the miraculous solution that would make unnecessary the slow process of building positive self-images based on solid cultural knowledge.


Modernization has definitely assaulted Italian American ethnicity. Suburbanization destroyed the ethnic neighborhoods. They no longer exist as self-perpetuating enclaves but, where they have partially survived, as ethnic theme parks. Ethnic retention can no longer be geographically based. Ethnic newspapers, metropolitan-based ethnic professional organizations, radio and TV broadcasts, and the teaching of the Italian language in schools and universities are the only basis on which ethnicity can rely if it is to survive. Though still the best carrier of ethnicity, the Italian American extended family is not immune from the effects of divorce, birth control, exogamy, and fragmentation.

Some aspects of modernization might strengthen Italian American ethnicity. The growing fascination of yuppie America with food and travel leave them with a positive attitude toward Italian food customs, language, and lifestyle. And Italian Americans stand tall in the reflected light of the mother country. Easy international travel and satellite television will keep post–World War II Italian immigrants bound more closely to Italian culture than were previous generations of immigrants. The spectacular success of the direct broadcast via satellite of Italian soccer matches to Italian American sports clubs is hard evidence of the potential of satellite communication for keeping Italy’s immigrants in all parts of the world in touch with their culture. And since it is clearly in the commercial, political, and cultural interest of Italy (population 57 million) to maintain cultural links with its perhaps 50 million immigrants and their descendents in the United States, Canada, Argentina, Australia, and elsewhere, modernization can be expected to facilitate the maintenance, and perhaps even growth, of Italian culture among Italian Americans.

What will be lost through modernization are the Italian American ethnic neighborhood folkways that played such an important role in shaping previous generations of Italian Americans. In short, modernization can help us conquer the geographic space between America and Italy, but it has the opposite effect on our ability to conquer time and link up with the ethnic neighborhoods of fifty years ago. Popularized ethnic history and the blockbuster authentic Italian American novel or motion picture are the only ways of recapturing the “old neighborhood” for the modern Italian American consciousness.

Italian American ethnicity has come a long way from the time when upwardly mobile immigrants routinely changed their names to avoid identification with the wretched refuse. Italian American identity has survived the ignominy. Third- and fourth-generation Italians seem fairly comfortable with—if not terribly knowledgeable about—their ethnic identity. They are thoroughly American and only part-time consumers of their Italian American ethnicity. A small minority are Italian American activists who can gain entry to the larger social arena through their leadership in ethnic organizations or who have support in their professions from fellow Italian Americans. The latest emigrants, through organizations sponsored by regional governments, satellite-television links, and airplane travel back to Italy, may achieve a kind of émigré status.

An idyllic vision of Italian ethnicity in the United States is projected for a third- or fourth-generation, college-educated group. This group would learn the Italian language in high school and college. They would gain an appreciation for their roots in the migration process and of the ethnic neighborhoods through Italian American cultural institutions, which would give them a creative and tolerant understanding of all ethnic groups. Their education would be punctuated by early and frequent trips to Italy. They would approach biculturalism, and their contacts with Italians all over the world would give them a global perspective.

The range of Italian American modalities is wide, but there are few indeed among them who would deny their identity. American policy on ethnicity seems to have settled into a halfhearted acceptance of the harmless aspects of multiculturalism. For most Italian Americans, that is all the approval they need. Italian American ethnicity is formed by the sociopsychic needs of individuals and groups to create a comfortably scaled arena for their lives and the current positive image of Italy in American public opinion.


1.  Erik Amphiteatrof, The Children of Columbus: An Informal History of the Italians in the New World, 3–38 (Boston: Little, Brown, 1973).

2.  Margherite Marchione, Selected Writings and Correspondence of Philip Mazzei (Millwood, NY: Kraus International Publication, passim, 1982).

3.  Giovanni Schiavo, Four Centuries of Italian American History (New York: Vigo Press, 1952).

4.  Alexander DeConde, Half Bitter, Half Sweet: An Excursion into Italian American History, 1–76 (New York: Scribner, 1971).

5.  Lawrence Di Stasi, ed. Una Storia Segreta: The Secret History of Italian American Evacuation and Internment during World War II (Berkeley: Univ. of California Press, 2001).

6.  George Pozzetta, ed., Pane e Lavoro: The Italian American Working Class (Toronto: Multicultural History Society of Ontario, 1980).

7.  Luciano Iorizzo and Salvatore Mondello, The Italian Americans (Boston: G. K. Hall, 1980), 17–163.

8.  Betty Boyd Caroli, Italian Repatriation from the United States (New York: Center for Migration Studies, 1974), 23–50, 91–100.

9.  Andrew Rolle, The Immigrant Upraised (Norman: Univ. of Oklahoma Press, 1968), 89–292.

10.  Richard Gambino, Vendetta: A True Story of the Worst Lynching in America (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1977).

11.  Stephen Hall, “Italian Americans: Coming into Their Own,” New York Times Magazine, May 15, 1983.

12.  Oscar Handlin, The Uprooted: The Epic Story of the Great Migrations That Made the American People, 203–299 (Boston: Little, Brown, 1951).

13.  Rudolph Vecoli, “Pane e Giustizia,” La Parola del Popolo (September–October 1976).

14.  Silvano Tomasi, Italian Culture in the United States: A National Directory of Research Centers, Repositories, and Organizations of Italian Culture in the United States (New York: Center for Migration Studies, 1979); and Andrew Brizzolara, A Directory of Italian and Italian American Organizations and Community Services in the Metropolitan Area of Greater New York (New York: Center for Migration Studies, 1980).

15.  Gaetano Salvemini, Italian Fascist Activities in the United States (New York: Center for Migration Studies, 1977), Philip Cannistraro, “Generoso Pope and the Rise of Italian American Politics, 1925–1936,” The Italian Americans: New Perspectives in Italian Immigration and Ethnicity, ed. Lydio Tomasi (New York: Center for Migration Studies, 1985), 264–288.

16.  Gary Mormino, Immigrants on the Hill: Italian Americans in St. Louis, 1881–1920 (Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1986), 56–194.

17.  Leonard Covello, The Social Background of the Italia American School Child (Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1967).

18.  Humbert Nelli, The Business of Crime (New York: Oxford Univ. Press, passim, 1976).

19.  Leonard Covello, The Heart Is the Teacher (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1958), 92– 275.

20.  Richard Gambino, Blood of My Blood: The Dilemma of Italian Americans (Garden City, New York: Doubleday, 1974), 223–342.

21.  Nampeo McKenney, Michael Levin, and Alfred Telia, “A Sociodemographic Profile of Italian Americans,” in Italian Americans: New Perspectives (see note 15), 3–31.

22.  Edoardo Lebano, “Report to the Conference Lingua e Cultura Italian negli Stati,” Rome, March 30–April 1, 1987.

23.  Schiavo, Four Centuries.


The best brief introduction to Italian Americans is Humbert S. Nelli, “Italians,” in Harvard Encyclopedia of American Ethnic Groups, ed., Stephan Thernstrom et al. (Cambridge, MA: Harvard Univ. Press, 1980), 545–560. The most impressive collection of exhaustive and authoritative factual information about Italian Americans is Salvatore LaGumina, Frank Cavaioli, Salvatore Primeggia, and Joseph Varacalli, editors, The Italian American Experience: An Encyclopedia (New York: Garland, 2000). Also covering a broad scope is the work of Giovanni Schiavo, especially Schiavo’s, Four Centuries of Italian American History (New York: Vigo Press, 1952). During the past few decades, there has been a significant outpouring of reference works on Italian Americans, beginning with Wayne Moquin and Charles Van Doren, eds., A Documentary History of the Italian Americans (New York: Praeger, 1974), which includes documents originating from a range of people from Columbus to Vince Lombardi, organized around the topics of the age of discovery, the period of mass migration, making a living, organized crime, discrimination, and the emergence of the Italian American. The record made and the institutional structure developed by generations of Italian Americans was captured by Silvano Tomasi, Italian Culture in the United States: A National Directory of Research Centers, Repositories, and Organizations of Italian Culture in the United States (New York: Center for Migration Studies, 1979). The ongoing interest of those remaining in the old country in understanding the immigrant experience has led to the publication of Fondazione Giovanni Agnelli, The Italian-Americans: Who They Are, Where They Live, How Many They Are (Turin: Fondazione Giovanni Agnelli, 1980). Andrew Brizzolara, A Directory of Italian and Italian American Organizations and Community Services in the Metropolitan Area of New York (New York: Center for Migration Studies, 1980) graphically illustrates the significant impact of Italian American culture on the country’s largest city.

The impressive outpouring of literature can best be apprehended in a number of bibliographies. C. M. Diodati et al., Writings on Italian-Americans: A Bicentennial Bibliography (New York: Italian-American Center for Urban Affairs, 1975) reflects the ethnic revival of the 1970s. Francesco Cordasco, ed., Italians in the United States: A Bibliography of Reports, Texts, Critical Studies, and Related Materials (New York: Oriole Editions, 1972) is an unannotated compilation designed to present a sufficient representation of Italian American literature to afford both orientation and resources for further study. His The Italian-American Experience: An Annotated and Classified Bibliographical Guide, With Selected Publications of the Casa Italiana Educational Bureau (New York: Burt Franklin, 1974) contains a list of bibliographies and archives, as well as a bibliography of works dealing with Italian immigration to America, general and regional studies, and analyses of social, political, and economic structure and institutions. His Italian Mass Immigration: The Exodus of a Latin People: A Bibliographical Guide to “Bolletino dell Emigrazione,” 1902–1927 (Towata, NJ: Rowman and Littlefield, 1980) focuses directly on studies dealing with the peak migration years.

Single-volume overviews of Italian immigration and ethnicity date from the publication of Robert F. Foerster, The Italian Emigration of Our Times (New York: Harvard Univ. Press, 1919, repr. Arno Press, 1968), primarily a detailed examination of the causes of emigration that is highly critical of the Italian government. Michael Musmanno, The Story of the Italians in America (New York: Doubleday, 1965), stresses the socioeconomic successes of Italian America in a highly uncritical manner. Two books by Andrew F. Rolle, The Immigrant Upraised: Italian Adventurers and Colonists in an Expanding America (Norman: Univ. of Oklahoma Press, 1968) and The American Italians: Their History and Culture (Belmont, CA: Wadsworth, 1972), both focus on immigration to the western states before the onset of the twentieth century. Silvano Tomasi and Madeline H. Engel, eds., The Italian Experience in the United States (Staten Island, NY: Center for Migration Studies, 1970) is a collection of essays by ten scholars dealing with settlement patterns, institutions, political activity, religion, and return migration. Joseph Lopreato, Italian Americans (New York: Random House, 1970), investigates settlement patterns, the impact of continuing immigration on social institutions and intergroup relations, and the process of adaptation and achievement. Luciano J. Iorizzo and Salvatore Mondello, The Italian Americans (New York: Twayne, 1971), survey the varieties of Italian American experience on farms, small towns, and large cities, focusing on politics, occupations, crime, religion, and reaction to Mussolini. Alexander De Conde’s Half Bitter, Half Sweet: An Excursion into Italian-American History (New York: Scribners, 1971) explores the paradoxical relationship between the Italian and the American peoples, institutions, and cultures, in both the Old World and the New. Jerre Mangione and Ben Morreale’s, La Storia (New York: HarperCollins, 1992) presents the saga with a broad sweeping literary flair. Erik Amphiteatrof, The Children of Columbus: An Informal History of the Italians in the New World (Boston: Little, Brown, 1973), stresses the rich diversity of Italian Americans, as well as their sense of “being looked down upon.” In a highly personalized blend of scholarship and experience, Patrick J. Gallo attempts to correct many myths and stereotypes in Old Bread, New Wine: A Portrait of the Italian-Americans (Chicago: Nelson Hall, 1981). Gallo has also thoughtfully explored the causes of Italian American discontent in Ethnic Alienation: The Italian Americans (Rutherford, NJ: Fairleigh-Dickinson Univ. Press, 1974) and edited the proceedings of the eighth annual conference of the American-Italian Historical Association under the title The Urban Experience of Italian Americans (Staten Island, NY: American Station Historical Association, 1976).

An appreciation of the importance of locale to the formation of Italian American identity and culture can be gained from a collateral reading of some of the many works on specific communities. Robert F. Harney and Jean Vincenza Scarpaci, eds., Little Italies in North America (Toronto: Multicultural History Society of Ontario, 1981) includes essays on New York, Toronto, Montreal, Philadelphia, Baltimore, Tampa, St. Louis, and Oswego, New York. The Federal Writers Project of the Works Progress Administration produced a detailed study of the country’s largest Little Italy in The Italians of New York: A Survey (New York: Arno Press, 1969). Almost a half century later, armed with insights from the new social history, Donna R. Gabaccia, From Italy to Elizabeth Street: Housing and Social Change among Italian Immigrants, 1880–1930 (Albany, NY: State Univ. of New York Press, 1984), explored the changes in family, housing, customs and living conditions of Sicilians immigrating to the same metropolises. Farther north in the Empire State, John W. Briggs, An Italian Passage: Immigrants to Three American Cities, 1890–1930 (New Haven, CT: Yale Univ. Press, 1978) compares and contrasts the communities formed in Utica and Rochester, as well as their counterpart in Kansas City, Missouri. In Mount Allegro: A Memoir of Italian American Life (New York: Columbia Univ. Press, 1981), Jerre Mangione describes the phenomenon of growing up Sicilian in Rochester, New York, where the immigrant generation either gradually displaced Italian solutions with American ones or retained the former while allowing their children to make a free choice. Their counterparts in Buffalo, according to Virginia Yans-McLaughlin, Family and Community: Italian Americans in Buffalo, 1880–1930 (Ithaca, NY: Cornell Univ. Press, 1977), resisted outside pressures toward independence and individualism and maintained strict sex-role definitions and adult-centered family structures. The Lombards and Sicilians who immigrated to St. Louis built an enduring community by combining extensive ethnic clustering, physical and social isolation, and deep roots with limited geographical and social mobility, according to Gary Mormino, Immigrants on the Hill: Italian Americans in St. Louis, 1881–1920 (Urbana: Univ. of Illinois Press, 1986). Joseph J. Barton, Peasants and Strangers: Italians, Rumanians, and Slovaks in an American City (Cambridge, MA: Harvard Univ. Press, 1975), contends that Italians and Slovaks perpetuated particular cultural values that kept them in the working class for two generations while the Rumanians experienced much greater upward social mobility. Carlo Bianco, The Two Rosetos (Bloomington: Indiana Univ. Press, 1974), chronicles the migration of an entire village in southern Italy to southeastern Pennsylvania and analyzes their efforts to keep much of their culture, folklore, and dialect intact. Finally, Humbert S. Nelli, Italians in Chicago, 1880–1930: A Study in Ethnic Mobility (New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 1970), explores settlement patterns, economic and political life, community institutions, crime, and assimilation, and a dissertation and a series of articles by Rudolph Vecoli focused on cultural retention and Italian radicalism in Chicago.

Other scholars have focused their attention primarily on the Italian American social structure and on the mores that underlie it. Edward C. Banfield, The Moral Basis of a Backward Society (Glencoe, IL: Free Press, 1958), generalizes from his own experiences in a small southern Italian village that an “amoral familialism” prevents the development of “public-regarding” civic consciousness among Italian Americans. That same familial bond, according to Francis A. J. Ianni, A Family Business: Kinship and Social Control in Organized Crime (New York: Russell Sage Foundation, 1972), accounts for the marked similarity in crime families that leads outsiders to see a nationwide network of organized crime. By the same token, Humbert S. Nelli, The Business of Crime: Italians and Syndicate Crime in the United States (New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 1976), insists that the syndicate is really a loose, multiethnic federation. Similarly, according to William F. Whyte, Street Corner Society: Social Structure of an Italian Slum (Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1955), the kinship bonds formed in street gangs in the “Cornerville” section of “Eastern City” carry over into careers in the rackets and in politics. Francesco M. Cordasco and Eugene Bucchioni, The Italians: Social Backgrounds of an American Group (Clifton, NJ: Augustus M. Kelley, 1974), examine chain migration patterns, responses to American life, employment, health, social needs, and the educational experience of Italian children in American schools. Herbert J. Gans, The Urban Villagers: Group and Class in the Life of Italian Americans (Glencoe, IL: Free Press, 1962), examines Boston’s West End, its internal social structure, and its relationship with the larger metropolis. Lawrence Frank Pisani, The Italians in America: A Social Study and History (New York: Exposition Press, 1957), stresses the role played by Italian Americans in labor, religion, arts, science, and the urban scene.

The place of community institutions in the adaptive process of Italian Americans has also received increasing attention. Silvano Tomasi, Piety and Power: The Role of Italian Parishes in the New York Metropolitan Area, 1880–1930 (Staten Island, NY: Center for Migration Studies, 1975), contends that the Italian national parish was the primary building block of the ethnic community and the main conservator of culture. Tomasi and Edward C. Stibili, Italian Americans and Religion: An Annotated Bibliography (New York: Center for Migration Studies, 1978), provide an organized guide to numerous parish histories and to over 800 books and articles on religion. In two related works, The Heart Is the Teacher (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1958) and The Social Background of the Italo-American School Child (Leiden, Netherlands: E. J. Brill, 1967), Leonard Covello provides the historical background and the technical analysis to understand the conflict between Old World culture and public education faced by young Italians. Edwin Fenton, Immigrants and Unions, a Case Study: Italians and American Labor, 1870–1920 (New York: Arno Press, 1975), argues that while union membership accelerated acculturation and assimilation, Italian workers also forced unions to alter their programs and tactics in significant ways. In Pane e Lovoro: The Italian American Working Class (Toronto: Multicultural History Society of Ontario, 1980), George E. Pozzetta, ed., and others explore their role in well-known strikes and nine disasters, the conflict between the padrone system and labor unions, and their reactions to Fascism and to the Vietnam War. Although the title is somewhat restrictive, John H. Mariano, The Italian Contribution to American Democracy (New York: Arno Press, 1975) deals with a range of socioeconomic and demographic issues and draws conclusions regarding acculturation and assimilation, based largely on responses from questionnaires.

Throughout all the processes of acculturation and community building, Italian Americans never lost their connections to the homeland. Many Italians continued to function as “birds of passage” as Betty Boyd Caroli, Italian Repatriation from the United States, 1900–1914 (New York: Center for Migration Studies, 1974), clearly demonstrates. Although some of this migration was forced by one government or the other, most of it was voluntary on both sides of the ocean. John P. Diggins, Mussolini and Fascism: The View from America (Princeton, NJ: Princeton Univ. Press, 1972) examines the degree to which the values, symbols, and images of Fascism appealed to American Italians of various backgrounds. Gaetano Salvemini, Italian Fascist Activities in the United States (New York: Center for Migration Studies 1977) demonstrates that Mussolini was more attractive to economically successful Italian Americans than he was to working-class people.

As with every ethnic group, debates still rage over the pace, degree, and contours of the adaptation process. Almost a half century ago, Irvin L. Child, Italian or American? The Second Generation in Conflict (New York: Russell and Russell, 1943), posed the dilemma of the acculturation in psychological terms. In An Ethnic at Large: A Memoir of America in the Thirties and Forties (New York: Putnam 1978), Jerre Mangione resolves that dilemma by becoming an “ethnic-at-large,” with one foot in his Sicilian heritage, the other in the American mainstream, a “cultural gymnastic stance” that enables him to gain strength from his past and hope from his present. In her biography Rosa: The Life of an Italian Immigrant (Minneapolis: Immigration History Society, 1970), Marie Hall Ets concludes that what Rosa had learned in America was not to be afraid. Confronting the dilemma in 1975, Richard Gambino, Blood of My Blood: The Dilemma of Italian-Americans (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1975), argues that to be Italian in the United States means to develop hyphenated values concerning work, sex, sex roles, family, religion, education, and politics. Silvano M. Tomasi, ed., Perspectives in Italian Immigration and Ethnicity (Staten Island, NY: Center for Migration Studies, 1977), is a collection of papers by sixteen American and Canadian scholars on new Italian American identity, the state of research on Italian Americans, and new directions in that research. Richard Alba’s important Italian Americans: Into the Twilight of Ethnicity (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1985) stresses that the intensity of ethnic identity is challenged by demographic trends toward intermarriage. Italian Americans and other ethnics must consciously work to preserve their heritages.

The proceedings of the annual conferences of the American Italian Historical Association (New York, 1970–present) contain some 500 articles on all aspects of Italian American life. Many additional resources are available through the association’s Web site and its listserv, H-ItAm. Part of H-Net, this listserv of 300 members also has a searchable archive at containing over 30,000 items. The Italian American Review: A Social Science Journal of the Italian American Experience, published by the John Calandra Institute, Queens College, and Italian Americana: A Cultural and Historical Review, from the University of Rhode Island (since 1982), and VIA: Voices in Italian Americana, a literary and cultural review (since 1989) are the current scholarly journals devoted to Italian American studies.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * CITATION * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Multiculturalism in the United States -- : A Comparative Guide to Acculturation and Ethnicity


"ITALIAN AMERICANS." Multiculturalism in the United States : A Comparative Guide to Acculturation and Ethnicity. Westport, CT: GREENWOOD PRESS, 2005. The African American Experience. Greenwood Publishing Group. 5 Oct 2015. <>

Chicago Manual of Style

"ITALIAN AMERICANS." In Multiculturalism in the United States : A Comparative Guide to Acculturation and Ethnicity, Westport, CT: GREENWOOD PRESS, 2005. The African American Experience. Greenwood Publishing Group. (accessed October 5, 2015).