Arrivederci Italia

By Cannato, Vincent J. | Humanities, January/February 2015 | Go to article overview

Arrivederci Italia


Cannato, Vincent J., Humanities


Talese's interview comes from a new documentary entitled The Italian Americans, scheduled to air on PBS beginning in February. It is a stylish, engaging, and thoughtful documentary of nearly 150 years of history, chronicling the migration of a largely southern Italian population to America, beginning in the late 1800s and following its winding path toward the American mainstream. The documentary touches on the greatest hits of Italian-American life, from Fiorello La Guardia to Mario Cuomo, from Rudolph Valentino to Frank Sinatra, from Sacco and Vanzetti to Joe Valachi, and from Bank of America founder A. P Giannini to Chef Boyardee.

We live in an era that is increasingly nervous about assimilation, finding it too coercive an idea to impose on new immigrants. A multicultural America seeks better analogies than the old "melting pot" and instead speaks of "salad bowls" and "gorgeous mosaics." But The Italian Americans doesn't shy away from the idea of assimilation, presenting episode titles like "Becoming Americans," "Loyal Americans," and "The American Dream."

Yet this is no simple-minded tale or romanticized story of plucky immigrant success. It plumbs the complexities of immigrant assimilation and American ethnic identity in relatively sophisticated ways. In addition to the discussion of famous Italian Americans and the thoughts of academic talking heads, the documentary tries to include the perspectives of average Italian Americans. For this is their history, as much as it is the history of the wealthy and the successful.

Assimilation has never meant a "melting pot" where everyone "melted" into a homogenous "American" stew. As political scientist Peter Skerry writes, assimilation "has typically meant that immigrants have adapted and changed in disparate domains, rejecting their immigrant past in some ways (forgetting their parents' mother tongue and speaking English, or learning to tolerate individuals with sharply different values) and holding on to other aspects of their heritage (ethnic cuisine, specific religious holidays, family traditions from the homeland)." It is a process that spans generations and involves a fair share of ambivalence. The loss of traditions and a psychic sense of displacement mix with the benefits of becoming a middle-class American. There are always two sides to every bargain.

Italian immigrants began arriving in large numbers in the late 1800s as relatively unskilled labor that helped fuel a booming industrial economy. These Italian workers seemed unlikely new Americans. Most of those early arrivals were young men leaving a semifeudal Italian South that held little in the way of opportunity.

Nearly half of Italian immigrants would eventually return to Italy, but today's Italian-American community is descended from those who decided to remain in America. They brought over their families and created ethnic enclaves in Northern cities and small industrial towns of Pennsylvania and Ohio.

Each immigrant group possesses its own strategies for survival and success. For Italians, theirs rested upon two pillars: work and family. Italian immigrants helped provide the labor for American factories and mines and helped build roads, dams, tunnels, and other infrastructure. Their work provided them a small economic foothold in American society and allowed them to provide for their families, which stood at the core of Italian-American life.

Another paradox is that although Italian Americans tend to respect authority, especially the authority of parents and elders, they also harbor a suspicion of broader authority figures, such as politicians and the Catholic hierarchy. This stems from the distrust of such authority in Italy. In America, the family stood as a bulwark against the larger, sometimes hostile, institutions. Respect for authority within the family; suspicion of authority outside of the community.

The downside was that Italians often chose to wait to become naturalized citizens, delaying their full inclusion in America's political and civic life. …

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