Though many Italian emigrants had worked the land, those who settled in the United States mostly kept their distance from farming, with a few exceptions in the southern states.
Two names stand out among all the others in this respect. Tontitown, in Arkansas was founded in 1898. Still little more than a village, this community experienced a troubled history but has remained markedly Italian. In California, the Italian-Swiss Agricultural Colony was set up by Ligurian Andrea Sbarboro in the Sonoma Valley in 1881. This was among the earliest Italian companies in the so-called “wine counties”.
The situation was different in South America. In Brazil, in the states of Southern Rio Grand, Parana and Santa Caterina, farmers from Veneto, Friuli, Trentino and Lombardy founded colonial communities to which they gave the names of their native villages.
In Argentina, the case of Villa Regina in the Rio Negro province is emblematic. Here, Italian colonists literally turned the desert into splendid lines of orchards and vineyards, together with plantations of lucerne, corn and various other crops.
Many Italians founded cities. Small businessmen working in the railway industries sometimes had the foresight to move ahead of the railway companies, buying up portions of land suitable for future stations and for the villages which would be born around them, as well as building sawmills to produce sleepers and build shelters. Such men came to be known as “city founders”, rather like a head equivalent of the North American “pilgrim fathers”.
The streets of Little Italy, as the Italian district of a city was called in the United States, were narrow, overcrowded, dirty and surrounded by run-down tenements. The tenement was a big building which often had shared bathrooms (on the landings or in the courtyard), while the entrance was in small alleys which were often dark and extremely narrow.
Newly arrived immigrants found lodgings in “Little Italy” and, since they were often homesick and lonely, they found solace in a community which basically reproduced the values and behavioural codes of their home country.
In Buenos Aires, emigrants, Italians and other prospective settlers were accommodated in the port area, in buildings which had once been elegant and had now been turned into so-called conventillos for immigrants.
The typical layout of the conventillo was rectangular, with two floors and an inner courtyard in which shared bathrooms were to be found.
The overcrowded conventillos in Buenos Aires and of Mulberry Street in New York help us understand how these communities contributed to the perpetuation and spread of the immigrants’ home culture.
This was the origin of the Italian districts in the big American cities, known by a variety of names. The streets had the function of the village square, of places in which a common cultural heritage was palpably reproduced, almost in limbo between home roots and the new “frontiers”.
Later, the achievement of buying one’s own home became one of the most reassuring signs of success and improvement, a place which immigrants could finally feel was theirs. Home is both a nest and a fortress, a shelter for everyone who has “Italy inside and America outside” and still has much to do in order to make their mark in the new homeland they have settled in. And pictures are like personal accounts of the emigrants’ experiences.
From the Cresci Archives here are two different accounts: Augustin Storace is a trader and a bombero (fireman) in Lima. He has had a good education and uses his camera to portray scenes of family life.
Benny Moscardini, settled in Boston, makes a less private use of photography: he takes pictures of the community’s children, of the streets full of flags to honour General Diaz and, on the occasion of a journey to Italy, even a quay in the port of New York.
The world of Storace is all between his home and shop; that of Moscardini is more outward-looking.
The history of Italian emigration is full of tragic cases of xenophobia, both in Europe and America, particularly in the last decade of the 19th century. Figures speak for themselves.
In the United States, in 1891, there were 11 lynchings in New Orleans; in 1893, one lynching in Denver; in 1895, 6 murders in Walsenburg; in 1896, 5 lynchings in Tallulah. In Europe, in 1893, many died during the mass brawl at Aigues Mortes, in France; in 1896, there were 3 murders in Zurich. Many other incidents left victims maimed and injured throughout the great period of emigration.
The common factors behind these episodes were racial and cultural prejudice, fear of economic consequences as a result of massive immigration, and the general political situation of the countries concerned.
Many defamatory cartoons in newspapers and magazines from a variety of countries show clear hostility towards the Italians, who were discriminated like blacks, working at the hardest jobs and living in the poorest conditions.
Oscar Handlin very appropriately described the first emigrants as “rootless”. In most cases, though they coped with the different environment around them, they refused to learn more than the bare minimum of the host country’s language and maintained the customs and traditions of their native country.
The second generation, often born in the new country, struggled to choose between “before” and “after”, between a past which could at least offer a solid basis for their lives and a future which might be attractive but was still uncertain and at the mercy of events (when World War II broke out, many were suddenly seen as “enemies” after years of peaceful and settled life in their adoptive countries).
Third and fourth generation emigrants seem to be well settled in their families’ chosen homes and usually emerge in the most varied fields: from research to business, from politics to arts, from finance to cinema. As generations progressively integrate, they start to feel the need to rediscover their roots, because there is no identity without memory, and identity must be like a driving force that draws not only on religion, festivities and regional dishes but also on work, family and friends in the person’s adopted homeland.
It is not a simple process. There are twists and turns along the way as “old” and “new” combine.
The first mutual aid associations were born during the era of great emigration, to help members overcome difficulties in their new home country. By paying a small monthly membership fee, all the members could be helped for some time in case of illness or loss of work. Wages everywhere – even when pay was good – were paid out only according to days actually worked and there was no assistance for illness or for other circumstances.
In some cases, the association would run a little shop, selling commodities at lower prices than on the market.
Later, the associations extended their activities: they acted as jobcentres; they provided health education to reduce the incidence of disease, and also had their own doctors and clinics; they created schools and libraries, both to teach Italian to new generations and to provide technical education; they organised leisure activities with social dinners and dances, parties for political and religious feasts, cultural and sport events. These last in turn led to the creation of cultural associations, choral and amateur dramatic societies, Sports clubs, except for boxing gyms, were to all intents and purposes an Italian domain. The only Italian sport which came to be universally played was the game of bowls.
At the association premises, it was also possible to follow current affairs at home through the local Italian newspapers, which the associations often subscribed to. These helped maintain links between Italy and Italian communities abroad.
Governments in all the countries receiving large numbers of immigrants implemented a variety of policies to favour their integration. Men who emigrated alone thought only of earning money to support the family they had left behind and to speed up their return home. They therefore shunned any contact with the host country’s language and customs, even those related to leisure. Those who emigrated with their family integrated more quickly. Female influence also extended to unmarried male relatives and acquaintances, who in some cases lived with the family as boarders.
The most effective factor favouring integration was school (from school courses regularly attended by children to general language and culture courses for adults). Charities also played an important role in helping immigrants familiarize with the local way of life.
The Italian authorities in turn realised the importance of keeping the old and new generations of emigrants close to their native country. Crispi, in 1889, was the first to pass systematic legislation on Italian schools abroad, but the funds allocated were not enough to increase the number of schools significantly in the countries which attracted most immigrants.
The year 1889 was also important for the birth of the Dante Alighieri Society, which played a major role in the spread of Italian language and culture abroad.
Among the great rituals of a community, involving not just the whole family but also the whole of society, are religious festivities to commemorate patron saints, Christmas and Easter.
By observing these festivities, emigrants maintained the traditions of the community they had been born into. Their patron saints were like companions who had accompanied them on their travels, helping and comforting them.
This “folk” religion, which is still alive today, often aroused the criticism of the church authorities, often from a totally different background themselves and unable to understand a culture they saw as bordering on folklore.
Religious festivities have always been part of the emigrants’ heritage and helped them preserve their identity. And the importance of religion in the various Italian communities is reflected in by their places of worship: from the simple wooden chapel to the relatively plain stone parish church, and finally the imposing church with its high bell tower, inspired by Italian architecture