The Italian Enclaves Historical Society welcomes guest blog posts such as the following piece written by our friend, Rachel Dolce who shares an informative recounting of the Italian immigrant experience with enchanting tidbits from her own family’s story out of Howard Beach, Queens in New York:
“Italian immigration into New York and the rest of America has been called modern history’s greatest and most sustained movement of population from a single country,” and it’s been over a hundred years that Italian immigrants first started coming to the United States seeking a new life (Ellis 418). They brought with them unique skills, a strong work ethic, and a dedication to family that is almost unmatched by any other culture. When looking at what Italian immigrants and their descendants have achieved in the United States, one would never know that Italian immigrants were considered to be a poor fit for the American economy when the first great influx came from Southern Europe between 1880 and the 1920s.
Dr. Richard Gambino was a professor and pioneer of Italian-American Studies at Queens College in the 1970s. He dedicated his life to the study and documentation of the Italian experience in this country. In his book, Blood of My Blood: The Dilemma of the Italian-Americans, he writes that “Southern Italians landing in 1901 had the third highest percentage of the most tragic group of all those sent back to southern Europe from Ellis Island” (Gambino 86). This alarming fact is puzzling given the large number of Italian Immigrants that made it through vetting at Ellis Island, roughly 2.3 million from 1899 to 1910.
Many Italian immigrants were sent back to Europe because of disease. The technical phrasing of why many were rejected was because they had “loathsome or dangerous contagious diseases,” or suffered from some “physical incapacity, e.g. loss of an eye or limb” (Gambino 86). What we would consider today a disability that should not impede anyone from seeking a better livelihood, Ellis Island and Immigration Officials viewed something like that to be a liability thus making them not a desirable immigrant for the country. But there was also an apparent dislike and distrust of immigrants coming from Southern and Eastern Europe. President Woodrow Wilson wrote in his History of the American People, “The immigrant newcomers of recent years are men of the lowest class from the South of Italy, and men of the meaner sort out of Hungary and Poland, men out of the ranks where there was neither skill nor energy, nor any initiative of quick intelligence” (Kessner 25-6).
While that was merely one man’s opinion, albeit an American President, Congress in the early 1900s was grappling with what to make of the influx of immigrants coming from Southern and Eastern Europe. To understand how these newcomers were impacting the nation, a Congressional Commission was formed in 1907 by three Senators called the Dillingham Commission which was to put out a Report on Immigration. Despite its findings showing no alarming or dangerous aspects of Italian immigration and those from Eastern Europe in regards to criminality, work ethic, etc. the Commission concluded that letting in large numbers of them “posed a serious threat to American society and culture and should therefore be greatly reduced” (Kessner 25-6). This led Congress to pass the Emergency Quota Act of 1921 which favored immigration from Northern and Western Europe and restricted the annual number of immigrants from any given country to 3% of the total number of people from that country living in the United States in 1910 and later the National Origins Formula of 1929, which capped national immigration at 150,000 annually (Kessner 25-6). There is no question of the role Eugenicist ideas played in formulating this negative view of these immigrants, especially Italians, during this time. Thus the Italian immigrant was considered undesirable by the federal government and his numbers were severely reduced in the subsequent years.
Theirs was largely a peasant migration with job experience in being a laborer/farmer, but also professions such as sculptors, artists, barbers, masonry, mining, shoemakers, and seamstresses to name a few (Kessner 33). Despite the negative views of Italian immigrants by those in power, they were in fact an asset to the American economy due in part to their phenomenal work ethic. Dr. Allan J. McLaughlin, who was in charge of the United States Public Health and Marine Hospital in Naples, saw the Italian work ethic first hand. He observed that Italians had “…splendid adaptability, [were] quick to learn, bright…. capable of doing a day’s work and possess a great deal of endurance. The United States gets the cream of those who have enterprise enough to exercise an initiative” (Kessner 36). In addition, an Industrial Commission Report from 1901 discussed the Italian work ethic stating, “He is energetic and thrifty and will work hard with little regard for the number of hours. It is quite usual for an Italian cloak maker…after he has worked 10 hours in the shops with his wife to take a bundle home at night….he not only does the work at home himself, but he is assisted by the women in his family, and often leaves a part of the work for them to do during the day” (Gambino 79).
In looking to measure success of an immigrant group, we can first look at socioeconomics. From 1900 to 1910, the average income of Italian-American families per year was $600, keeping in mind that most families had other members of the immediate family working in addition to the father (Gambino 87). In 1970, the United States Bureau of the Census surveyed first-generation (immigrant) and second-generation white ethnic groups. The median family income level for Italian-Americans was $8,808, a bit higher than the total American population at $8,632 (Gambino 79). Further still, Italian-American median income was also higher than the English-Americans at $8,324, and the Irish-Americans at $8,127, despite these two groups having come to the United States decades earlier than the Italians and often times having the advantage of speaking English. Also more surprising than these statistics are that Italians-Americans had “one of the worst records of formal education among all Americans,” far lower than that of the total population in the country, including the English and Irish (Gambino 79).
To what can we account for this success in later generations? To do it justice, would require an entire book. But to put it simply, we can point to the strong Italian work ethic. Its uniqueness lies in taking pride in creating something that can be shared with family. To put it articulately, the work ethic is “the pride that comes from seeing and feelings one’s efforts and skills mingled with some result. The Italian-American seeks to do something the result of which he can demonstrate to his family” (Gambino 88).
It certainly is a beautiful notion and one that has been a powerful motivator for their hard work, despite being underestimated by the government, by Immigration Officials, and by many communities. This work ethic has been passed on to later generations, “to Italian immigrants and their descendants today, work involves more than a question of economics. Work is regarded as moral training for the young. And among adults…a matter of pride. To work is to show evidence that one has become a man or a woman, a full member of the family. So strong is that ethic that it governs behavior quite apart from consideration of monetary gain” (Gambino 88).
Angelica Maldera was one such Italian immigrant that came to this country with nothing, but through hard work, made a better life for her descendants. She and her sister Lena were sponsored by an Italian woman already living on 21st street in Chelsea in January 1920. They worked in the woman’s boardinghouse that housed many immigrants from Bari and other small villages in Southern Italy, emptying chamber pots, cleaning, and doing the dirty work. They slept on folding chairs and earned very little. At the same time, they worked as seamstresses in a sweatshop and saved money to eventually move out. One day, Angelica met a fellow Italian immigrant named Franco Diaferio who worked at Washington Meat Market in Lower Manhattan delivering chickens. Franco made deliveries to Queens, where he noticed it had more space and land available as compared to the crowded streets of Manhattan. After Angelica and Franco married and had children, they saved up what they could to move to Queens. They were turned down to rent numerous homes because of their Italian accents. In one instance, they were told that they “seemed like nice people” but the landlord’s neighbors would kill him if he rented to Italians.
Franco was dismayed, but did not let the discrimination deter him. He heard that there were Italian people living in a neighborhood in Queens called Ozone Park, and was able to rent a house there. In time, they moved to Old Howard Beach, which was predominantly Irish and German and is today heavily Italian. They were not accepted when they moved there but made the best of it. He and his family lived in Old Howard Beach for a few years until the family was devastated by the sudden death of their eldest daughter, Lena, of pneumonia at the age of 13. Angelica, Franco, and their younger daughter Lucia could not bear to live in the house where Lena had died, so they moved back to Ozone Park and stayed there the rest of their lives. Lucia went on to marry a local boy from the neighborhood named Alfredo Dolce. Had Angelica and Franco not moved to Ozone Park, my grandparents would not have met.
There is a dialect phrase that summarizes the Italian work ethic: Poversi si, ma perche’ lagnusi, or Poor yes, but why lazy? (Gambino 87). The pride that Italian-Americans have taken with their work is best described in doing something for the family, “Whether building a brick wall, a small business, or making a fine meal, is essential to the Italian American psychology” (Gambino 87). Like my great-grandfather who first worked unloading the meat from the trucks in the meat market and eventually saved up enough money to buy his own truck and start his own delivery business, his work ethic was a testament to the Italian culture. We can certainly say the fruits of Italian-American labor and work ethic are as sweet as they come and the legacy endures in their descendants.
By: Rachel Dolce
Ellis, Edward Robb. The Epic of New York City: A Narrative History, 1966
Gambino, Richard. Blood of My Blood: The Dilemma of the Italian-Americans, 1974
Kessner, Thomas. The Golden Door: Italian and Jewish Immigrant Mobility in New York City 1880-1915, 1977