Once Upon A Time In America: The Early Italian Immigrant’s Assimilation Experience Part 2 Of 4


This article is part 2 of a 4 part series that explores the history and assimilation of Italian immigrants into American society. In part 1, we explored the importance of immigration to America and the background of Italian citizen’s lives as they existed in Italy, exploring reasons that led to immigration. In part 2, we will finish examining the background of the Italians and continue into the immigration process.

In Southern Italy you had the nobles, the large land owners, the artisans, the peasants who owned or leased small plots of land, and the day laborers who were always in transit and looking for work. Many of the clergy controlled the political life in the villages.

Even though the inhabitants of Italy were all considered Italians, the Southerners would condemn the Northerners as not being true Italians. They felt that the Northerners became too European, adapting to the European culture, not adhering to the family tradition which has always been the primary focus of the Italian culture. Family, Southerners felt, provided status and security as an individual. Thus, they felt that they were true Italians. On the other hand, the Northerner considered himself better off, looking down at the southerner, condemning them for not working hard enough to call themselves Italian. Thus, the contention existed between both Northerners and Southerners.

“A statewide educational system has been in existence in Italy since 1859. The Casati Act passed in 1859 bestows educational responsibilities on individual Italian states. In 1861 the Italian unification took place.” Through the Casati Act, primary education became compulsory in Italy. This law was actually not enforced.

On July 15, 1877 the Coppino act was introduced, establishing compulsory education for all children age’s six to nine. Even children up to ten years old should attend school.

According to this Act, the subjects of instruction for the three compulsory years of schooling included elements of civics, reading, penmanship, the rudiments of the Italian language, arithmetic and the metric system.

The Southern Italians were not impressed by this type of education. They felt it only reflected the values and traditions of the elite ruling class and therefore rejected it.

The Northerner was of a much taller standing with a lighter complexion than the Southerner. He was intellectually prepared and was able to read and write. This made them more acceptable by the Anglos in America, thus making the assimilation into the American mainstream an easier transition. He usually had skills in some trade with a definite purpose, not having to depend on a padrone, who was a labor broker. The Southerner was of a shorter stature and was dark-complexioned. A large number of Southern Italians could not read or write and were unskilled farm laborers. They were considered a suitable candidate for exploitation by the padrone, whom they had to depend on in America to find jobs and to understand the language.

Prior to the mass immigration to the United States from the 1880s through 1924, Northern Italian artists, mostly educated professionals, had come to America seeking a new market to capitalize on. Many contributed to American cultural society as musicians, artists, educators and businessmen. Less than 25,000 came between the years of 1820-1870.

Between 1881 and 1917, four million Italians, mostly males, entered the United States. Many intended to return to their homeland after making enough money to establish a higher standard of living in Italy for themselves and their families. The industrialization of Northern Italy, which established a higher standard of living, slowed the exodus from this area. In contrast, the people from Sicily and the Southern provinces struggled economically at the end of the 19th century. The land was not looked after properly; little was done to make the earth productive. Parasites destroyed most of the vineyards in Southern Italy. The Sicilians did not have the opportunity to climb any financial ladder. Instead, they were reduced to being sharecroppers and they were obligated to wait until they paid off their debts.

Labor agents, the notorious ‘padroni,’ enriched themselves at the expense of the “immigrants.” The padroni [loan sharks or flesh peddlers] hired gangs of workmen, charged a heavy commission for their service, and advanced passage money for the journey from Italy at a fancy price. The padroni hooked up with railroad companies, factories, farmlands, etc., providing work for the gangs of immigrants while charging an exorbitant commission for supplying labor here in the United States. Since the ignorant Italian laborer was in a strange country and not able to speak English, he couldn’t find employment on his own, or even look after himself, so he would depend with a blind belief on the “Boss” for all his needs. These “Bosses” were ignorant men themselves, trying to make as much money as possible from the ignorance of others. It was this lack of knowledge and dependence that gave the padrone power. Of course, the unscrupulous padrone was more than willing for a sizable sum to help his fellow countryman. The padrone would find employment, and while he was working he would find a place for the immigrant to stay, write his letters and ‘take care’ of his finances. The Camorritti of Naples was members of a secret organization, at one time more powerful than the police. They subsisted largely by extorting money from the peasants. “The majority of Italian immigration came from the southern and perhaps least favorably known provinces, Abruzzi, Avelliuo, Basilicata, Sicily, Naples, and Calabria. Most of them were of the peasant class and accustomed to hard work and meager provisions, illiterate, but of a childlike mind and imagination, quick to forget, and easily led astray by schemers. “

These early immigrants were hired out to whoever was willing to pay the padrone’s inflated prices. The padrone would pay the laborer the least amount of money for his hard work. If anyone dared to complain, he would be discharged, threatened with stiff penalties, or severely abused. The women suffered the most; some were placed in houses of prostitution and never seen again. Even the children were sent out to the streets to find work to add to the coffers of the “Boss.” The Italian laborer submitted to such extortion only because there were no other choices as he was in a strange country with a strange language. To protest was useless. Besides, who would he complain to? Did anyone care? They had a choice to either work for the “Boss” or starve.

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