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Discovery Guide
Basic understanding information on Italian Culture, History, and Behavior.

Italian Americans

INTRODUCTION    According to the 1990 U.S. census, more than 12 million Italian Americans live in the United States. They constitute about 5 percent of the U.S. population. Most are grandchildren and great-grandchildren of the 3.8 million Italian-born immigrants who entered the United States from 1899 to 1924. Some are descendants of Italian-speaking immigrants from Austria, Switzerland, and Latin America. Others are themselves immigrants, including the more than 1 million who came to the United States after World War II ended in 1945. Two-thirds of the Italian American population live in and around major cities in the northeastern part of the United States.
Few Italian Americans today identify closely with Italy. Even fewer read Italian literature, follow Italian politics, or belong to organizations that promote Italian culture in the United States. However, many remain in touch with family or friends in Italy, and many more socialize with other Italian Americans in the United States. Among themselves, Italian Americans still recognize cultural differences rooted in the distinctive regional cultures of northern, central, and southern Italy, and Sicily. The majority of Italian Americans belong to the Roman Catholic Church. However, almost half of recent generations have intermarried with Catholics of other ethnic backgrounds or with people from different denominations, such as American Protestants, and Jews.
Italian Americans have made substantial contributions to American life in the arts, theater, music, and popular culture. As restaurant proprietors and food retailers, they have transformed Italian specialties into foods and beverages consumed by most Americans-notably pizza, broccoli, spaghetti, and hearty red wines. They have also gained prominence in the construction and garment industries. Many other Italian Americans work in professions such as law and medicine. In most ways Italian Americans now resemble other urban residents of the United States in their education, income, and politics. But Italian Americans prefer to see themselves as lovers of life, good food, and strong family ties. Studies show that Italian Americans are more likely than other Americans to live close to their relatives and to socialize with them regularly. Italian Americans value holiday customs that set them apart from other Americans, such as summertime street festivals honoring patron saints.
Three-fourths of all Italian immigrants to the United States came from regions south of Rome. Although the vast majority had been farmers in Italy, 97 percent settled in cities in the United States. They often established distinctive ethnic neighborhoods known as Little Italies. Many early Italian immigrants settled in New York City and San Francisco. In 1860 New York City had an Italian population of 10,000. By 1920 almost one-fourth of all Italian immigrants lived in New York City, while more than half lived in the middle Atlantic states and New England.
Traditionally Italian men came to the United States before the rest of their family. They worked seasonal and unskilled jobs building railroads, streets, skyscrapers, and public transportation systems; mining coal; or working in steel, shoe, and auto plants. Many of the women who followed the men to the United States found work in the urban garment trades, canneries, and textile mills. Immigrant children often left school before graduating to help their families earn money. Life in Italian neighborhoods in the early 1900s revolved around family, church, and small self-help insurance societies formed by villagers from a single Italian town. Other key community institutions included neighborhood businesses, such as banks, boardinghouses, groceries, and saloons. In later years, political parties, the Catholic Church, and labor unions often sponsored sports and social clubs.
Many Americans of northern European ancestry regarded early Italian immigrants as undesirable foreigners who were "not quite white." Some anti-immigrant activists feared Italian American support for radical labor organizations, such as the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) and the Italian Socialist Federation. Others associated Italian Americans with mysterious criminal organizations, such as the Mafia or the Black Hand, a secret society devoted to blackmail and terrorism. They demanded that Italian Americans abandon their distinctive ways in order to become 100 percent American. Fear of Italians, along with other southern and Eastern European immigrants, led Congress to restrict immigration in 1921 and again in 1924.
During the 1920s and 1930s, Italian immigrants gained U.S. citizenship in large numbers. In New York City, the children of immigrants preferred to move from Manhattan to the outlying boroughs of the Bronx, Brooklyn, Queens, and Staten Island where they could purchase a modest home. Many immigrants found higher-paying work in skilled trades, while their American-born sons and daughters sought work in corporate offices. Italian Americans also began to win election to prominent public offices. Such politicians as New York City mayor Fiorello La Guardia and New York congressman Vito Marcantonio relied on the support of Italian American workers in vast industrial unions, including the International Ladies' Garment Workers' Union (ILGWU) and the Amalgamated Clothing Workers of America (ACWA).
Also during the 1920s and 1930s, the domination of Italy by fascist dictator Benito Mussolini caused sharp tensions in Italian American communities. Although eager to feel pride in their homeland, Italian Americans ultimately chose loyalty to the United States after it entered World War II in 1941 and declared war on Italy. The large numbers of young Italian American men who fought in World War II perceived themselves as totally American in the postwar years. Postwar prosperity and government programs to assist war veterans allowed large numbers of Italian Americans to leave their old neighborhoods for the suburbs. By the 1960s the earnings of Italian American men, which had lagged behind those of older immigrant groups, had risen to the national average. Similarly, educational achievement among Italian American women caught up with both Italian American men and other American women.
CONTEMPORARY ISSUES    A significant minority of Italian Americans still lives in blue-collar urban neighborhoods in and around New York City. As African Americans and immigrants from the Caribbean and Latin America move into neighboring areas, these new settlers often come into conflict with established Italian American communities. Television and other media often portray these Italian American communities-many believe unfairly-as strongholds of working-class racists, determined to protect their neighborhoods and communities against new settlers. The persistence of these and other negative images annoys the majority of Italian Americans who are now well educated and middle class. Italian Americans are still portrayed in negative ways, particularly in popular culture, which frequently depicts them as urban gangsters. But they prefer to emphasize the upward mobility and financial successes of their families, achieved over several generations of American life.

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