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Italian Americans. Encyclopedia Of American Folklore

Immigrants from Italy and their descendants; inheritors of Old World traditions who
maintained and transformed their customary regional practices in the New World. Some
Italian Americans see themselves as descendants of Romans and the Italians of the
Renaissance. However, Italian immigrants brought to America their own folk tradhions—
rich customs that varied from north to south, province to province, and village to village.
The immigram journey was an odyssey of change and adaptation. Villagers moved
beyond their regionalism to identify themselves in the United States first as Italians, then
later as Italian Americans. Their traditional practices represent diat cultural odyssey. Folk
crafts and architecture, foods, wines, and stories, along with customary veneration of
saints and other festivals, are prime markers of Italian American identity.
Italians have been in America since the time of Columbus. In the 16th, 17th, and 18th
centuries, under Spanish or French companies, they sailed to the Western Hemisphere as
adventurers, navigators, and cartographers. They came as fur traders, trappers, priests,
and soldiers wandering the American wilderness. Alfonso and Enrico Tonti, at the end of
the 1690s, were explorers who accompanied LaSalle. Enrico was known as “Iron Fist,”
for the legend that arose about the iron prosthesis that replaced the hand he lost during an
expedition on the American continent. He was the second governor of a fort that eventually became
the city of Detroit. Filippo Mazzei, a doctor, was a friend of Thomas Jefferson. Folk
narratives observe his political influence on Jefferson and the American Revolution.
These early Italians, while influential, were few in number and came as isolated
individuals. Mass migrations did not begin until the 19th century. Between 1820—date of
the first official American Census to count iminigrants—and 1880, almost 50,000 Italians
entered the United States. The peak period was between 1880 and 1920. More than four
million Italians entered, more than any other European group except Germans, who came
at about the same time.
Until 1880 almost all immigrants were from the richer, industrialized northern Italian
provinces—Liguria, Lombardy, and Piedmont—attracted, for the most part, by the
opportunities in the West. Among the immigrants were skilled craftsmen, small
businessmen, as well as farmers, who brought their folk beliefs and customs and adapted them to the new environment. While they came as individuals and families, in general
there were not enough of them to support a Little Italy, a whole Italian quarter maintained
by internal institutions. The merchants, tailors, lawyers, doctors, and so on arrived in the
Eastern United States at a later date. Nonetheless, Italians imprinted their legacy on the
West in such obvious industries as food and wine and left their marks on the landscape.
Some came to the state of Washington and, using their village planting and harvesting
techniques, cultivated a strain of onion renowned today as the Walla Walla sweet. Folk
stories identify the local legendary character Pete Pieri as the Italian who brought the
parent strain of the sweet onion from Corsica. Italians also came to Colorado, Utah,
Wyoming, and Nevada to work as miners and charcoal burners. Some were involved in
the formation of the miners’ unions and joined the confrontations between laborers and
owners. Since mining work was seasonal, Italian immigrants and their families survived
by producing much of their food on their land, except for staple items like coffee and salt.
They modified the uniform wheat and oat fields with Italian-style vegetable, spice, and
firuit gardens that included zucchini, broccoli, garlic, oregano, and basil as well as peach,
plum, apricot, and walnut orchards. They dotted the High Desert landscape with
outbuildings behind the main house—chicken coops, rabbit hutches, goat and hog pens—
to raise animals that they slaughtered and cured according to Old World recipes. They
enacted other folk traditions by building canning sheds to preserve the vegetables they
grew in conformity with ancient practice. They built outdoor domed brick ovens for
baking bread like the ones found in Alpine Mountains.
Some immigrants went on to California to work as longshoremen and fishermen in the
maritime industry or to purchase land near San Francisco to plant vegetables and
vineyards. Originally, Italians ran these truck gardens and vineyards in the traditional
way as family enterprises. On their property, some built finely crafted stone houses based
upon the symmetrical three-part villas of northern Italy Eventually, some of the farms and
wineries grew to become large corporations, like Del Monte, Italian Swiss Colony, and
Gallo Brothers, and realized the American Dream of success.
Other immigrants who went to the West ruptured the physical and occupational
stereotypes surrounding Italian immigrants. Here were pioneers who became cowboys in
Paradise Valley, Nevada, buckaroos who wore goatskin chaparajos and silver-mounted
spurs. On quarter horses, they herded cows and carried sixty-five-foot rawhide ropes to
lasso the animals. They spoke Italian at home, Shoshone with Native Americans, and
English with other ranchers. They started out by building mud-and-willow prairie cabins
to house their growing families. Eventually, they bought ranches and lived the immigrant
dream of owning their own land. They became entrepreneurs and transformed themselves
into the most vivid symbol of the American West, the cowboy
After 1880, 80 percent of the immigrants were from the poorer, agrarian regions of
south Italy—the Mezzogiorno: Abruzzo-Molise, Campania, Apulia, Lucania, Calabria,
Sardinia, and Sicily. Almost all were contadini (peasants). While a few had owned land,
the majority were sharecroppers and day laborers who saw themselves as no more than
beasts, like mules or bison. They cursed the land that sentenced them and their families to
live on the edge of starvation. What pushed more than 15,000 immigrants a day to
America some years was the culmination of natural and social calamities in south Italy
that smothered the peasant’s will to continue la miseria—the unbearable pain of poverty
and virtual serfdom that had been their legacy for hundreds of years. Excessive taxation continued, as did the abuses by wealthy landowners and capricious local governments. In
the end, it was the collapse of vineyards and silk crops, and the cholera epidemic of the
1880s, that finally drove many to emigrate.
More than 90 percent of Italians came in chain migrations, beginning with single
males. One villager would find a job, then send back for family members or paesani
(fellow villagers), who joined him for the work. Usually, single men came “as birds of
passage,” living in inexpensive boarding houses, hoping to save enough money to return
to Italy to buy and farm land and to reap the prosperity of ownership. Only after the first
decade of the 20th century did intact families in great numbers make the journey. Italian
immigrants then settled in Little Italies in large American cities, close to kin or
comareznd compare (friends through godparenting), paesani, and others from the same
southern region. Approximately 70 percent of Italian immigrants settled in the Northeast,
16 percent in the Midwest, 10 percent in the West, and 4 percent in the South. In the
1990s, almost 90 percent ofltalian Americans live in metropolitan areas.
South Italians carried their own regional traditions to the New World. Campanilismo
is the term defining that ethos. It means that all of the important things in life lie within
the sound of the village church bell. In burgeoning American cities like New York,
Philadelphia, and Boston, immigrants transplanted their villages to urban neighborhoods,
and Campanilismo thrived. The newly arrived joined settled paesani in congested flats,
row houses, or tenements. They found work mostly as unskilled laborers in the expanding
manufacturing, railroad, and coal industries in the East.
In Detroit men boarded crowded streetcars for the long ride to the Dodge assembly
plant or the Ford Rouge plant. To pass the time, they joked and played the village game
of morra, an intense contest requiring lightning reflexes and aggressive confidence. As
two men stand face to face, each throws down one arm and extends any number of
fingers, then guesses and yells in Italian the sum total of digits extended by both players.
It is a game of strategy, and the best players display an esteemed trait in peasant
culture—composure in the face of pressure. During hot summer evenings, women would
sit on stoops in Chicago, Brooklyn, and elsewhere to gossip in familiar local dialects and
share remedies for malocchio (the evil eye), the pervasive Mediterranean belief in the
power of envy to control human destiny. For calendar holidays like Christmas and Easter,
local Italian food merchants, like Giglio’s in Detroit and Termini’s in south Philadelphia,
helped maintain the food practices of the Italian American community against impersonal
commercial transitions. Familiar village foods, like baccala (cod), prosdutto and
capocollo (ham), soppressata (sausage)—all roba buona (fresh food)—would be
displayed with cassata and sfogliatelle (Sicilian and Neapolitan pastries). The
neighborhood’s Campanilismo helped Italian Americans survive the upheaval of
immigration and begin the process of acculturation.
While there are obvious deficiencies in seeing the village as the world, there are also
many strengths. What sustained these immigrants as they uprooted themselves from the
land, and cut the cords binding them to family, was their folklore. Oral traditions guided
them through the trials of immigration as it had through transitions in the village. Folk
stories—fairy tales as well as humorous anecdotes about priests, pretentious townsfolk,
and ignorant stepmothers—entertained and at the same time instructed the listeners, both
children and adults, in how to dea! with the dread of loss and the pain of rejection, how to
summon the courage to confront fear, deception, and cruelty, all of these being universal Old and New World experiences. The stories encoded the collective wisdom of the
community and provided keys to solving the problems of daily living.
The story of “Little Peter,” for example, was a popular one in Italian American
communities. This tale is an example of a characteristic European narrative form—the
Mdrchen (fairy tale). It has retained in the United States the stylistic and thematic
features of the Italian original. This story represents the transplantation of an Old World
tradition in the American context. Under various names, “Little Peter” is a folktale found
all over the world, part of a cycle of narratives that involves a child encountering an ogre.
The young boy Peter grows up impoverished in a household with only one parent—a
common experience, as many mothers died in childbirth and fathers perished in accidents
or were away working in another country. The story reflects the community’s code for
survival: respect and spontaneity. The plot turns on Litde Peter’s failure to listen to his
mother. In the forest, he is trapped by a witch and thrust into a sack to serve as her dinner
later that evening. Peter’s quick wit, however, allows him to outsmart the witch and fill
the sack with rocks. When the witch returns home, she and her husband gleefully empty
the sack of stones into a boiling pot. The sudden splash of water causes the flames to leap
to the witches’ clothing and eventually consume them. Peter, who has been peeping down
the chimney all the while, is elated. He takes the chest of gold from their house, returns to
his family, and, like a respectful son, shares the wealth with his mother and siblings. The
tale dramatizes for the audience the qualities that allowed Peter to deal successfully with
a threatening situation, overcome his poverty, and live happily ever after.
In addition to the fairy tales, Italian Americans generated stories to combat stereotypes
of themselves. Films have frequently portrayed American criminals as being Italian, and
some newspapers and journals have depicted Italians as criminals and anarchists. Some
epithets endure, such as “wop” and “guinea”; a cycle of “dago jokes” and numskull
stories continues to circulate. One common figure is the “spaghetti bender,” who offends
others by emitting the strong scent of garlic or by consuming traditional holiday
delicacies such as roasted goat’s head and chicken-feet soup.
In opposition, Italian Americans tell stories about the culinary incompetence of
traditional adversaries, such as the Irish in the East and the Mormons in the West. These
stories deride the folly of substituting catsup for genuine tomato sauce and of determining
when pasta is cooked by throwing a fork full of noodles against the wall. These anecdotes
show that those who ridicule Old World village foods lack the culinary sophistication to
produce dishes that excite the palate in dramatic textures, aromas, and tastes. In an ironic
twist, pizza has “Italianized” Americans who have incorporated it into their national food
repertoire. This peasant Italian food represents the ultimate assimilation of an ethnic
tradition. Eating with hands from a communal dish, always on the edge of violating table
etiquette—pulling too much hot melted cheese into strands that stretch like rubber—
creates instant informality, affinity, and fun. Americans tend to include pizza
affectionately in a range of social situations: as a main course in a casual dinner, as a way
to get to know someone informally, as a way to celebrate important events. Even pasta
has become an American institution. The late-20th-century popular trend to eat healthy
foods has focused on pasta as a premier source of nutrition.
Another aspect of Italian American life is the public veneration of saints in festivals.
St. Joseph’s Day, a feast that originated in Sicily as a way to feed the poor, enacts in the
New World the basic peasant theme of reciprocity, to render a gift for a favor. A supplicant will petition the saint for a miraculous cure or for the solution to an
overwhelming problem. In exchange the petitioner promises to build an altar of food as
an expression of gratitude. If the petition has been answered, then on St. Joseph’s Day,
March 18, the supplicant displays in his or her home, after weeks of preparation, an altar
containing an astounding abundance of meatless products. It is a fusion of Italian and
American cookery—braided Easter breads, frittate (omelets), and cannoli (custard
pastries), vying with non-Italian snacks like cherry winks, snarkles, and peanut butter
cookies. In some cases, the host feeds 500 or more people. The veneration of saints in
homemade altars renews ties with the past, with Italian American society, and now with
the larger Catholic parish. In some communities, St. Joseph’s Day altars have been
adopted by other ethnic groups, who incorporate their own traditional foods in its display
The most prominent and official Italian American festival is the Columbus Day
celebration. Columbus Day is an icon for Italian Americans. It is both a national holiday
honoring Christopher Columbus as an American hero as well as an Italian American
festival celebrating Italian rather than village or regional identity. Many celebrations
follow the tradition established by Italian immigrants of the past. In the morning is a
Mass eulogizing the Italian navigator and his discovery of the Western Hemisphere for
millions of Europeans. Then follows a parade of Italian American fraternal organizations
and sodalities behind a float carrying a statue of Columbus. The speeches at the parade’s
destination, usually at an important civic location, follow the laying of a wreath at the
monument by prominent Italians and political leaders. The festivities and the dinner
afterward have helped bond the Italian American community and visibly proclaim their
contribution to American society.
As Italian Americans assimilate into the middle class, much of their folk identity
disappears. Whether, as some scholars argue, American ethnicity for those of European
ancestry is in a twilight phase or whether ethnic identity is continually reinvented in
consensual forms is an interesting academic question. There is a more personal issue,
however. For Italian Americans, what remains after they have abandoned language, food,
neighborhood, and religious traditions is a faint stirring in the heart of a world based on
village and neighborhood culture. It is a view of life unfolding most humanely in the web
of close relationships in the family and community, a web where people develop and
mature not in the pri-vate space of solitude but along public lines in daily connections
with others.
Richard Raspa
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Lopreato, Joseph. 1970. Italian Americans. New York: Random House.
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Mathias, Elizabeth, and Richard Raspa. 1985. Italian Folktales in America: The Verbal Art of an
Immigrant Woman. Detroit: Wayne State University Press.
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