Since 1989, Italian immigrants and their descendants have had influence on the culture of the United States of America, along with their accomplishments. It might appear obvious today, but the contributions of Italian Americans to American culture have been largely ignored for a long time. The consequences of this include the fact that, on a personal level, navigating the dual identity of being both Italian and American has not always been smooth for Italian Americans themselves.
The Great Arrival (1880–1914): Escaping poverty, facing harshness and prejudice
From 1820 to 2000, around 5.5 million Italians have immigrated to the US. The greatest wave of immigration was between 1880 and 1914. Italians leaving their country at that time were largely extremely poor, had no future perspectives, and little to no education. In the Nuovo Mondo, they didn’t find the promised land whose “streets were paved with gold.” Instead, most often, they had to endure brutal socioeconomic conditions and found themselves gripped once again with poverty, along with prejudice. If it’s true that some turned to crime as (apparently) the only way to make ends meet, the vast majority of Italians—later, Italian Americans—were just doing their best to survive. Many eventually succeeded, and some even left a significant impact and became part of the American Dream.
Italian Americans and the Italian language: A complicated relationship
Those same immigrants coming to the US with little to no education spoke little to no Italian. They spoke, instead, their regional dialect. Getting rid of their original language—that is, a major part of their identity—was perceived by many as the only way to overcome discrimination and climb the social ladder. This partly explains why, out of over 16 million Americans of Italian descent, nowadays only around 800,000 people in the United States speak Italian at home.
With time, however, Italian Americans have come to better terms with their linguistic heritage. Passing on their native language—be it standard Italian or a dialect—is now unanimously treasured.
Pride and prejudice in the 21st century
Italian Americans are now generally very proud of their heritage and, overall, the American society at large acknowledges their positive impact—as recognized by the existence of Italian American Heritage and Culture Month. There is indisputable evidence of Italian Americans’ influence, after all, in politics, sports, music, movies, science, education, and any other field you can think of.
And yet, a certain degree of prejudice has persisted. Mainstream media somehow keep promoting stereotypes of Italian Americans as an ethnic group. In the movie industry and TV shows, Italian Americans are often stereotyped as being tied to organized crime—think The Godfather or The Sopranos—and as generally racist and overly aggressive. Note that according to the FBI, less than .0025% of Italian Americans have been involved in organized crime. C’è ancora molto da fare (There’s still lots to do), right? Whether you have Italian ancestry or not, you can help: You can watch a movie portraying first and later immigrants, you can break out your traditional Italian (American) recipes, or just stop a second to consider Italian American contributions to American society at large. Or look up famous Italian Americans—you might be surprised! Buona ricerca!
By Claudia Quesito
Italian American Music and Entertainment