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Struggle and Assimilation

The history of each ethnic and national group in the United States is at least slightly different. The story of the Italians gives a good example of a group’s struggle for acceptance into American life.

All the national groups that came to the United States in the great wave of immigration from eastern and southern Europe around the turn of the 20th century had difficulties. The Italian experience was particularly difficult, however. People of Italian descent make up slightly more than 5% of the American population today. Between 1880 and 1920, four million Italians migrated to the United States, mainly from the impoverished areas of southern Italy, Naples and Sicily. These Italians usually crowded into the poorest areas of American cities, taking the lowest paying jobs. Many had scant education in their home country and had great difficulty learning English. Italians suffered discrimination in employment and in housing, with, at that time, little legal recourse. In many cases they remained in their own communities and depended on their own family and social networks for support.

Stereotypes of Italians developed almost immediately after large number of Italians began to arrive in the United States. American newspapers and media portrayed Italians as dirty and greasy, prone to criminality and violence. In a shocking incident in 1891 in New Orleans, an angry mob lynched eleven Italian immigrants. Violence against other Europeans never reached this level. In 1927, in a case that brought worldwide attention, the state of Massachusetts executed Italian immigrants Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti for murder, despite very poor evidence that they had actually been guilty. Indeed, some Italians were involved in criminal activities, as were members of many other ethnic groups, but the negative stereotypes hit Italian-Americans with particular ferocity. Despite progress by ordinary hard-working Italian-Americans, these stereotypes exist today.

Despite the stereotypes, Italians kept at the business of becoming American. Today, despite Hollywood’s love affair with the image of the Italian-American gangster, Italians are as American as anyone else. Three 20th century personalities in particular helped to normalize the public’s view of Italians, as well as the Italians’ view of themselves as Americans. Fiorello LaGuardia (1882-1947) was the charismatic reform-minded mayor of New York City. Joe DiMaggio (1914-1999) was one of America’s greatest baseball legends. Frank Sinatra (1915-1998) was an entertainment superstar and a staunch opponent of racial and ethnic discrimination. Millions of other Italian-Americans have distinguished themselves in the arts, business, the professions, and government.

It is in the area of food, however, that the Italians forced the rest of America to adjust. Life In The USA has special sections on Italian food as well as a dish that has become a core segment of American cuisine, pizza.

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