Italian Americans are the fourth largest European ethnic group in the United States, which makes them the fifth largest ethnic group, with Argentina and Brazil having the second largest Italian population in the world. From 1890 to 1900, more than 600,000 Italian immigrants arrived in the United States looking for freedom and a chance to be successful. Many of these European immigrants hoped to earn enough money to return home and buy their own piece of land. Most Italians arrived with little cash and almost no education since they were farmers back in Italy. For this reason, Italians brought with them an agrarian culture, along with Catholic, food, and family-based culture. The most important institution in Italian society was the family.
Social life increased in Italian-American neighborhoods; the language they spoke was not the official Italian, but regional dialects instead. Few could write and read English and Italian. Italian neighborhoods were usually areas with poor sanitation. Furthermore, these immigrants were segregated in what they called Italian neighborhoods which were stereotyped as violent and controlled by the mafia. By the 1920’s the “Little Italies” grew richer as Italian Americans opened restaurants, groceries, and other small businesses. “Italian immigrants soon became an important element of American urban life. In 1870, New York already had the largest group of Italian residents (2,800), but both New Orleans and San Francisco claimed over 1,500 Italian residents each. By 1910, more than two-thirds of the 500,000 Italians in America’s largest cities lived in New York, while Philadelphia, Chicago, and Boston had all surpassed New Orleans and San Francisco as centers of Italian work and residence.” Encyclopedia of Urban America: The Cities and Suburbs. Santa Barbara: ABC-CLIO, 1998. Credo Reference.
Americans viewed Italian immigrants as a despised minority because they were perceived
- Working class
- Seemingly resistant to assimilation
- Had high rates of disease
Like many other immigrant minority groups, Italian immigrants encountered hostility and conflict in their new homes. Italian-Americans faced systematic discrimination and at times violent force from the dominant groups in America. “The dominant group in America viewed Italian immigrants as racially inferior.” Italian American: The Racializing of an Ethnic Identity (Richards, 1999:158). This indeed seems to be true considering the way Italian-Americans were treated upon their arrival. Italian-Americans were discriminated against in the workplace, receiving lower wages than white dominant group members for the same jobs, they were seen as a negative addition to America, and most whites preferred they not have come, and in some instances there was even violence against Italians such as in the case of the eleven Italian-Americans lynched in 1891 (Meyers, 2007:298-299).
The social boundaries that Italian-Americans encountered were perpetuated by conflict between the dominant group and Italian immigrants. Being generally poor, Italian immigrants settled into Italian immigrant neighborhoods, and due to pluralism as a result of overall discrimination, they generally married within their own ethnicity. Assimilation of Italian immigrants was indeed not welcomed thought among the dominant group, and conflict theorists would agree that the power held by the dominant group, as far as money, holdings, held public positions, and length of residence in America placed a barrier around Italian immigrants making assimilation a difficult process. Moreover, after the First World War Italians developed a reputation for becoming criminals. This was mainly due to high-profile criminals such as Al Capone, Slavadore Marazano, Vito Genovese, and Frank Costello. However, the US Department of Justice estimates that less than .0025 percent of Italian Americans have anything to do with organized crime.
These stereotypes are true since I come from an Italian family. When people ask me what is my maiden last name,(Bacigalupo) they automatically relate me to the “Mafia”. I can honestly say I fell a 104% identified with the Italian culture because that is what I am familiar with: the family, the pasta, and being loud when talking at each other. I also identify with the American culture because I have been living here for eight years now, and my husband and children are North American. The United States mainstream culture is all around the world, and for that reason great part of the world will feel identify with our culture.