By Claudia Quesito
Every year in October, the United States officially celebrates Italian Americans’ contributions to the country during Italian American Heritage Month. Between 1820 and 2000, around 5.5 million Italians have emigrated to the US. According to the most recent census, 17.8 million Americans are of Italian descent, most of them living in the Northeast and in the Midwest metropolitan areas. They are the fourth-largest ethnic group in the country, and their influence on the arts, the economy, politics, and society has been remarkable—including the name of the country, for a start. The Americas are named after Amerigo Vespucci, an Italian explorer who, between 1497 and 1504, took part in at least two voyages to the “New World”.
Another notable contribution was that of Giovanni da Verrazzano, a Florentine explorer as well as the first European to explore and map the US east coast. Verrazzano is familiar to many New Yorkers since one of the New York City bridges is named after him … well, almost. For some reason, the name was misspelled to Verrazano, and that’s why it is often spelled this (wrong) way.
As for the arts, we have Frank Sinatra, Martin Scorsese, John Travolta, Leonardo DiCaprio, Robert DeNiro, Sofia Coppola, Madonna, Al Pacino, Sylvester Stallone, and Quentin Tarantino, just to name a few. And then in sports, we have Joe DiMaggio and Rocky Marciano, for example. And then there are the politicians, of course: Nancy Pelosi, Rudy Giuliani, Andrew Cuomo, Bill de Blasio. A special mention is also due to Anthony Fauci, who—before becoming a steady media presence during the pandemic—has served as the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases since 1984 and it is easily recognized as one of the most prominent medical figures in the US.
Finally, another mention is due to the whole Italian culture, which helped to shape North American culture, from food (pizza anyone?) to music (ever taken a piano class?) and much more. For many immigrants escaping poverty and crime, the Americas were not the promised land “whose streets were paved with gold.” Instead, they found themselves faced with prejudice and more poverty—but many others made a significant impact and successfully became part of the American Dream.