The Brooklyn Rail

SEPT 2017

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SEPT 2017 Issue

Laura E. Ruberto and Joseph Sciorra's New Italian Migrations to the United States

Laura E. Ruberto and Joseph Sciorra
New Italian Migrations to the United States
(University of Illinois Press, 2017)

After more than 140 years, the image of the Italian in North America has evolved from the lusty Italophobic caricatures of the first half of the twentieth century to today’s condescending flattery. Who hasn’t heard the good-natured mimicking of the accent, and who would object to being associated with great cuisine, sunshine, vacations, and Michelangelo? And on the other side of the hyphen, what about Jersey Shore, Sopranos, or The Godfather? But those images are so gaudy and extreme as to be hardly taken seriously. I remember young Italian men stepping cockily around Coney Island after the release of Godfather II and that’s empowerment of a certain kind, no? 

On the road to more benign caricatures, Italian- Americans have participated in a “great forgetting,” born of a yearning to leave behind the miseria of the South (where most North American immigrants after 1880 have their roots). The utter irony of Italian “liberation” and unification after 1865 was that Southerners found their identities inconvenient in both class-conscious Italy and xenophobic America. Folks from rural farming villages, or the slums of Napoli, Bari, Palermo, and Reggio Calabria, were already living in a two-tiered hierarchy of dignity, as Antonio Gramsci details starkly in the Prison Notebooks, and brought that self-consciousness with them here. No wonder even second-generation Italians lost touch with a grand, national treasure, the brilliant and witty local dialects of their parents.

In terms of Italian-American urban history, there are yet other layers of culture that lose their distinct shapes aided by strident film imagery and the glib teleologies of well-meaning documentaries. We start to lose a view of the hybrid cultures of successive Little Italies. There is, however, a juicy bibliography that has blazed a trail. A vibrant worker’s literature thrived in the 1930s through 50s that illuminates some of these folkways, one of the best novels being Christ in Concrete, written by a bricklayer. There are also the sociological classics, such as Beyond the Melting Pot by Nathan Glazer and Daniel Patrick Moynihan (longtime Senator from NY State), which actually played a big role in President Johnson’s “War on Poverty,” and The Urban Villagers, by Herbert J. Gans, a study of Italian-Americans in early twentieth-century Boston. I must also mention a recent and brilliant work of social history, Living the Revolution: Italian Women’s Resistance and Radicalism in New York City, 1880–1945, by Jennifer Guglielmo. These and many other good books encourage looking beyond prejudice, payback, and noble, upward striving, even if there has been plenty of that, too.

According to Vincenzo Milione of the Calandra Institute (Queens College, CUNY), 25 million Italians at a minimum left Italy from 1880–2002, with a first tall crest coming from 1880–1924, and the second from 1945–1973. An illustrative statistic is that by 1930, 15% of all New Yorkers were of Italian descent. By studying the Italian in America, interesting questions arise that could apply to studies of migration and assimilation globally: What exactly are the forces at play during large-scale migrations? How do immigrant communities assimilate? How can we get a grasp of local demographics? How do Little Italies live and die? When immigrant communities mature, how is their political clout deployed? These questions are boldly taken by New Italian Migrations to the United States: Politics and History since 1945. Editors Laura E. Ruberto and Joseph Sciorra stake out a period with significant opening and closing dates, from the end of World War II to 1973, when the numbers of immigrants into Italy began outstripping those leaving Italy—in short, when it became a host country.

Ruberto and Sciorra’s periodization is valuable because the economic and political contexts of the two waves were quite different. In a growing U.S., the earlier wave contributed to the construction of major infrastructure such as roads, bridges, and Northeastern subway systems, and the grand impetus for the immigrants was utter poverty and thievery in the home country. In the later period, U.S. immigration policy had a lot to do with the Cold War, as Stefano Luconi tells us in the first study in the book. Post- war Italy, with its tremendous unemployment, accompanied by a population growth of half a million people a year, was imagined to be veering towards communism. This, at least, was the main talking point of the prime minister of Italy, Alcide DeGasperi, along with many allies in the Italian-American community and the Catholic Church, who lobbied Truman for an increase in quotas and encouraged him to veto a proposed bill by Senators McCarran and Walter: “Italy is not able to solve her unemployment problem by herself [...] unemployment is a breeder of communism.” Truman vetoed the bill, but it passed in 1952 on override and instituted a quota of 5,645 permanent residencies per year, much lower than the numbers allowed to Northern European countries. As Maddalena Marinari points out in the second article of the collection, there was “a hierarchy of desirability among immigrants,” or, in short, an expression of our periodic surge of nativism. To put the numbers in historical perspective, the influx of Italians during the years in which the infrastructure of American cities was being built averaged 200,000 people per year (Milione), until the brakes were slammed hard by the passionately named laws of 1924, The Chinese Exclusion Act and the National Origins Act, which put heavy restrictions on Italians, Eastern European Jews, Africans, and instituted an outright ban on all immigrants of Asian or Arab backgrounds. Marinari also reminds us that Italians in the U.S. had a significant involvement with home country politics. In which case, I believe, complicates our view of U.S. government policy and at the very least suggests motivations apart from nativism. The third contributor, Elizabeth Zanoni, illuminates one of the surprising effects of the McCarran-Walter Act, enhanced agency for women. For the first time in the long and winding road of U.S. immigration policy, men could gain U.S. residency by marrying female American residents. In this way, women could actually determine the course of their family’s destiny, in addition to producing citizens in the good old biological fashion (what some call “anchor babies”). Zanoni treats us to excerpts from letters and interviews, so we get to hear the voices of the people themselves, a respectful procedure that should be used much more often.

The next two readings describe how Little Italies are born, live, and evolve (and sometimes leave touristy ghosts of their former selves). James S. Pasto illustrates how highways and waterways (many of which were built by the immigrants themselves) increased the isolation and therefore the cohesiveness of North Boston’s Little Italy. Pasto also points out that these Italians, like all immigrants, can assimilate up, down, and sideways. This is an obvious but valuable corrective to the classic striver’s trajectory, and the emphasis on physical aspects of urbanity recalls New York City’s struggles with the protean visions of Robert Moses.

“New Second Generation Youth Culture in the Twilight of Italian American Ethnicity” by Donald Tricarico lays out a spectacular mosaic of cultural artifacts of Brooklyn’s Bensonhurst, including disco, gold chains, tight pants, and cars as well as the physical locations in which Italian identity was manifested. He might have included other improvised meetups such as stoops, street corners, soda fountains, and high school basements, but perhaps this was more typical of the East Harlem of Frank Sinatra, or the fictional Sharks and Jets who roam my imagination. The unique take in this study is that the objects are all manifestations of commercial life, a bright distinction from the material culture of Italian ancestral towns. Regarding media representations such as Jersey Shore, Tricarico argues that Italian-Americans are far from a “post-ethnic” status. I wonder, though—do round pizzas, gold chains, status autos, tattoos, and braggadocio replace village wit, hand virtuosity, modest clothing, and the culture of deft negotiation and ritual that marked Southern Italian small-town life until at least 1980, or does the former sublimate the latter?

“The Kingmakers of Fresh Pond Road,” by the international team of Cappelli and Praino, studies the features of political representation for ethnic communities. There is much lore around the political “machines” which parlayed immigrant numbers into political clout. Historically, the Italian-Americans of this Queens, NY district have been drawn towards a candidate of their own ethnicity, but that person could either “stand for” them in the sense of merely being a symbol, or “act for” them, addressing the specific interests of their own ethnic group. Cappelli and Praino use statistical analysis, charting decades of votes, to reveal the exquisite sensitivity of voters to this distinction. A number of questions arose for me while reading this, such as whether increased power and representation preserves identity or fossilizes it. And what of the interests of non-majority groups in these districts? The authors anticipate these and other questions in their nuanced and substantial work.

In the afterward, the distinguished scholar Donna Gabbaccia points out the double-edged nature of historical periodization. New insights are gained by compartmentalizing the past into eras and periods, which allows us to understand past experience more deeply, but these same lines drawn in time may become a kind of temporal gerrymandering. The peril is that when history is divided up to reinforce our favorite assumptions, those assumptions become fossils. In fact, the innovative and sometimes counterintuitive discussions in New Migrations produce fresh insights. Otherwise we may begin to get used to the idea that 1.5 million immigrants have been dutifully meshing, blending, assimilating, or even disappearing into the “fabric” of American life. They haven’t.


Fiore Sireci

FIORE SIRECI teaches writing, social history, and literature at The New School and Parsons.


The Brooklyn Rail

SEPT 2017

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