The Italian American Heritage and Culture Month celebrates the accomplishments of Italian immigrants and their descendants & their influence on the culture of the USA.
Tributes have been taking place since 1989 and are held in October, in conjunction with Columbus Day (along with Indigenous Peoples’ Day) – originally celebrated on October 12, now on the second Monday of October.
In addition to the official events – whether educational or celebratory, this month is, on a more private level, an occasion for Italian Americans to reflect on their values, traditions, histories, and how these have evolved over time.
The Great Arrival: Italian migrations to the United States
According to the 2019 census, over 17 million people living in the U.S. (5.2% of the population) identify themselves as Italian Americans with Italian ancestry.
Between 1820 and 2004, as a matter of fact, around 5.5 million Italians immigrated to the United States (more than 4 million from 1880 to 1914 only); they mostly established, and still live, in the Northeast and in the Midwest metropolitan areas.
Most immigrants came from Southern Italy and were escaping extreme poverty. Many were of agrarian background with little to no education; others had some specific skills – they were shoemakers, tailors, barbers– but primarily they ended up being manual workers, especially in bigger cities.
A notable, if not very famous, Italian American in Education
Overcoming the early and, at times, persistent prejudices, Italians have remarkably contributed to the development of the U.S. society.
In terms of education, Italian American families were initially “blamed” for not pushing their children to pursue an education, at least not as strongly as other ethnic groups.
If it is true that in those harsh socio-economic conditions children had to work from a very early age, this stereotype has proven to be unfounded and Italian Americans have contributed and are well represented in every cultural and scientific sector.
While the first name to come to mind today is inevitably Anthony Fauci, son of Italians from Brooklyn, there are less renowned personalities that nevertheless left a significant mark.
Leonard Covello, for instance: Italian-born educator, he founded in 1934 the Benjamin Franklin High School (now Manhattan Center for Science and Mathematics), a public school located in East Harlem, NYC.
His pioneering pedagogical approach challenged the then dominating attitude of keeping children separated from their family’s culture for them to succeed at school.
As Covello recalls in his autobiography: throughout my whole elementary school career, I do not recall one mention of Italy or the Italian language or what famous Italians there were in the world […] We soon got the idea that ‘Italian’ meant something inferior, and a barrier was erected between children of Italian origin and their parents […] We were becoming Americans by learning how to be ashamed of our parents.*
Covello proved that Italian American – and later, Puerto Rican – children were perfectly able to thrive, when given the chance. Chance that could be increased, instead of limited, by bilingualism and biculturalism, which also helped them to integrate as citizens: concepts that might be taken for granted today, but for which we should at least partly thank il prof Covello.
* Leonard Covello, The Heart is the Teacher (New York: McGraw Hill, 1958)
By Claudia Quesito
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