The Italian Diaspora

The unification of Italy, itself a political and historical event of major importance, led to an unintended but equally massive consequence: Italian emigration to North and South America, a trickle up to 1861, assumed the dimensions of a torrent, as hundreds of thousands of Italians finally said basta to harsh lives of unrewarded labor and sought opportunities elsewhere. So far as I know, no one has made a causal connection between the two events, but it seems disingenuous at best to suppose that they are totally unrelated. Strangely enough, the initial impetus came from the northern regions, Piemonte, Veneto, Friuli…, and not from the South. Southern emigration, from Campania, Calabria and Sicilia, did not pick up until several decades later.

Pane Amaro (Bitter Bread)

Pane Amaro (Bitter Bread)

The United States was a favorite, though not exclusive, destination for Italian emigrants. The saga of the emigrant, a single person or a complete family, began with the decision to take the fateful step. Then there followed the economic necessity of saving up for the trip, the legal and bureaucratic requirements to satisfy, the long waiting periods. Then there was the trip itself, often an adventure in overcrowded shipboard quarters which afforded little privacy or comfort. But all this was as nothing compared to the daunting task ahead: achieving success in the New World, overcoming the language barrier and the myriad other cultural differences to which one had to adapt, often in the teeth of prejudice and overt discrimination The lore of Ellis Island and of the scattered Little Italy’s is well-known, the list of Italian achievements and contributions to the economic and social enrichment of the host country has often been trumpeted. What has been glossed over is the personal and family consequences of the emigration for thousands of “average” families, the dislocations that took place, the hundreds of thousands of compromised relationships, the agonizing ambivalence of millions, fractured by the event and unable to become whole again. For many immigrants the consequences of the move echoed through the succeeding generations, perhaps ebbing at the third, if not later.

Every immigrant or child of immigrants has a story to tell. In the next post I will tell you MY story. If you, the reader, wish to submit YOUR story you are welcome to do so. I will be happy to publish the more interesting ones on this blog.

Leave a Reply