Voyage of an Italian
This Ethnic History Paper, written in 2004, was done by my niece when she attended a college in northern Illinois. Her grandmother is Italian and my niece did a lot of research in preparation for this paper. With her permission I am sharing it.
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The Voyage of an Italian
Most of us never really take the time to find out how and why we are here in America today. I have always known where my ancestors are from, but I have never known how and why they decided to come here to America. Having the time and ability to study my history in the past few weeks has taught me a lot of new things that I will now share with the world.
The most major wave of Italian immigrants that came here to America was during the 1880's through the 1920's. There were an estimated 4.5 million Italians in the process of getting to the states. It has been reported that no other ethnic group had sent so many immigrants in such little time. There were some Italians who did migrate to areas such as Europe or South America as well. Most Italians entering the states were males seeking to make money. Many others focused on a future life with better opportunities.
Why did they choose to migrate away from home? This is very simple yet a painful answer: Poverty. There were many horrible living conditions the Italians faced. There were high rates of unemployment, underemployment, very little medicare, poor houses and poor schooling. There was also a big problem with starvation beginning to develop. Taxes were beginning to increase, nobody was taking care of the land or the soil and therefore everyone began to grow poor. This is the time that malaria and cholera attacked thousands of Italians giving them a reason to leave the country. This problem was more in the Southern parts of Italy than any other place. Sharecroppers were most often tied to one plantation, working full-time to pay for all their debts. Most of the time Italians were wealthy only if they were born into a high class family.
A large amount of immigrants were males from the ages of 24-45. They needed to fend for their family, many of which were left behind. This caused a great deal of emotional drain, isolation and alienation for these families. The average crossing over in the 1800's was considered to be around forty days long. By the 1900's crossings improved to only taking one week's worth of time. The average steerage fare was thirty dollars. Most immigrants spent their journey crowded together with only the clothes on their backs because of the lack of room on the boats. While on the boat, they were served stew or soup and they had to bathe themselves with salt water, sometimes causing them infections and irritations.
When the Italians made it to New York, they had to go through an "immigration station" at Ellis Island. This is where the Italians were able to enter America. This station was originally planned to be at Liberty Island but Americans did not want the Statue of Liberty to be bothered by the immigrants. Since some shipping companies made profit of carrying "human cargo", many Italians were traded along with cotton, wood and crops, all of which was documented for inventory. If an immigrant needed to be sent back to their country the shipping company decided the cost. Once at Ellis Island, they were checked medically for any physical problems, if they were found the immigrants were branded with a letter X. If they were lame, a letter L, Ct for Trachoma, S for senility, G for goiter, H for heart, and Pg for pregnancy. Some immigrants were sent back if they were not approved into the states.
The Italians that did make it into America tried to find jobs and money right away. Some immigrants went straight to a place call Little Italy, which held a place like home for them. Many of their customs and food were preserved there, giving them their own little ethnic community. Most other immigrants were forced to live in a bad part of New York. There were reports of places with "one room, 12x12, five families living in it, only two beds and no table." Other conditions included no drinking water for days at a time, bedbugs, frozen pipes in the winter and morbid heat in the summer. Mind you these are only some of the worst conditions some of these Italians faced.
Not only did these immigrants face bad living and working conditions, they had to deal with the Americans as well. Many called the Italians "wops' and "dagos." The Italian never learned enough standard English and the Americans never learned to give enough respect to incoming people, causing a lot of mis communication and hate. Italians were then soon deemed members of the "mafia" and were looked down upon because of the trouble they brought to America. Since a lot of court cases arose and violence occurred, the amount of immigrants allowed became an exact number. Only 5,802 Italians a year were then allowed to enter America a year. This came about because people started to think that alien or foreign people were beginning to "dilute their American blood."
After the Italians arrived here in the states, America began to notice the different cultures and customs of this new ethnic group. Many of us today could simply state three or four common characteristics all Italians have. Their ways of life have become a part of our knowledge today. Most of all Italians have English as their second language. They are nearly all Roman Catholic and refer to one another by the city of where one is from. Italians value punctuality, family, health, security, reliability, organization, success and most of all money.
They consider social interaction very important and are very involved in social events. They tend to always be dressed up for any social occasion. Italians often greet each other by handshakes or kisses on the cheeks. Sometimes when a man and woman are introduced to each other the man bows his head and waits for the woman to extend her hand. They are known for their commom use of hand gestures while talking. Italians believe to remove your shoes in the presence of others is very impolite. They enjoy visiting with family and friends and always have family dinner on Sunday. If you are dining at an Italian's house, you are supposed to bring a gift for the host, such as a bottle of wine or chocolates. If you visit an Italian's home before dinner you are required to stay, it is then impolite to leave. One does not leave the table until everyone is done eating. Most families eat dinner at 7-8p.m. and dinner may last up to four hours. Guests are never volunteers when it comes to helping clean up.
Dancing and going out to movies are frequent activities for Italians. Women usually marry by the age of 26 years old and the average age for men is 29. Men are most required to marry after they finish their education and have found a job.
Italians and their food; here we go. Pasta, fish, meat and vegetables are the main things in main courses. There is always olive oil, vinegar, bread and wine served at the table. Italians also enjoy literally hundreds of cheeses. Many of the women are great dedicated cooks and are always preparing for the next big family meal. In addition, meals are traditionally eaten at midday.
Holidays the Italians celebrate include: New Years, Easter, Liberation Day and Labor Day. Quality accessories such as shoes and leather goods will make a good impression with the Italians. Women are advised to dress simply and with elegance. One other neat fact I came across was that if you give an Italian a gift wrapped with gold and black paper it is a symbol of mourning and if you give a gift with purple wrapping it is a symbol of bad luck.
After reviewing all this interesting information about Italians, I decided to interview my grandmother to find out just how related I am to this situation. My grandmother, Rosemary was born here in America. Her father on the other hand was G. Nargie, an immigrant from Italy. My great-grandfather came to America during the biggest wave I mentioned before. Grandmother was not sure of the exact time her father came here. Great-grandfather came to America on a boat along with a lot of other immigrants. He faced a lot of the same conditions I mentioned. In Italy he was a tailor and then came here to become something better. Grandmother remembers her father telling her about how hard things were back in Italy. The poverty, low-class education and low income was more than enough reason to move to the states for him. He came with his father and his three brothers. He came from a town called Alveno in southern Italy near Naples.
There are quite a few things that my Grandmother Rosemary remembers and some customs she still follows today. At Easter her family always had a priest come and bless the house, this was a supposed big tradition back in Italy. Grandmother does not speak any Italian and she has never been to Italy. She remembers that on St. Joseph Day the whole family got together and ate a large dinner. Christmas Eve was also a huge family get together, which is a tradition we still follow today. Whenever someone passed away, the whole family was to dress in black, which is still continued a little today. Grandmother still cooks up the ideal meals of an Italian as well. Every time I eat at her house she has pasta or pizza, oil, vinegar and bread and dinner is always served at 3:00p.m. She remembers just one game that is a custom for Italians which is Bocci, it is like bowling. She did not follow the rules of marriage. She wed when she was only 19. She also remembers having to bring a gift to another Italians house while visiting and they also had to stay for dinner if they arrived beforehand.
There are so many things that amazed me about this whole project. My great-grandfather came over from Italy and had to go to Ellis Island, going through all of the things I had previously read about. I never noticed how much Italian is still left imprinted in our family even though a lot of the genuine people that brought it here, have passed on. I have never been to Italy but this has interested me a lot and I am thinking about traveling with my cousins this upcoming summer. It is amazing how tradition sticks with you and I hope to keep my grandmothers' traditions alive. There are many traditions and customs I came across that the Italians value, these were just a few.