Italians in America before 1914 Before the year 1871, Italians were not a common site in the United States of America. Over its history, only 400,000 people had emigrated out of Italy. At a rate of 20,000 emigrates a year, it seemed that Italy didn't have to deal with a large emigration, as did Ireland and many other European countries. But due to many economical and social problems, the rates skyrocketed and by 1914 as many as 2 million Italians had left Italy for America and they were leaving at a rate of 750,000 per year.
But why would all of these people leave their homeland to go to a new land that they had never been to before in their lives? At first, the Northern Italians were suffering from a disease called pellagra, which causes the victim to go insane and die. Then, in the south, malaria began to spread rapidly.
At the same time, peasant families were having money problems. Of their small income, they had to spend about 3/4ths of it on food, and even then, they didn't get enough food for any nutritional value. Lacking enough money for anything but food, the standard of living in Italy dropped rapidly. Most lived in total poverty or in the slums. The only way to make everything better seemed to leave the country and because many wanted a good education and other rights, like the right to vote, most Italians decided to immigrate to America.
When an Italian family decided they wanted to move to America, the men of the family would go first. This was to ensure a home and a decent income so that the family could survive in America, if they survived the trip there. Crossing the Atlantic to America was a difficult journey. At the turn of the century the only way to cross the ocean was by boat, and it had not improved much since the pilgrims first sailed. The boats were packed with immigrants, not just Italians, but many different ethnic groups. The approximately two-month trip was spent with almost no hygiene. The different ethnic groups, lack of hygiene and over crowded ships had many consequences. Food was scarce so it was not rare for the immigrants to starve. With the mixed ethnic groups, the Italians were exposed to diseases that they had never encountered before, and their immune systems could not fight off the disease, resulting in death. Those that lived through the trip had no idea how difficult it would be to assimilate in America.
Ellis Island was a welcome sight to the Italians after the long and grueling trip across the Atlantic. Wanting to get off of the ship, the Italians and other immigrants were stopped. First, a Quarantine Officer had to inspect the ship to check for diseases. If the Officer believed that the ship was infected, then the ship had to turn around and all of the immigrants had to return to their homeports. That didn't happen very often though. After the ship was cleared the first and second class passengers were usually allowed to leave the ship immediately. The steerage class would have to stay on the ship for usually about a week. During that week they were checked for illnesses. If someone was suspected to have an illness, they would be marked with a letter, then sent to a doctor who would determine whether the illness was fatal or contagious. If it was either of those, then the Italian could be sent back to Italy. After passing their medical exam, the Italians thought they were ready to go out into the New World, but they had more tests. Paper work had to be completed as they were asked rapid-fire questions. If the answers were not sufficient to the officers, then, the Italians were sent home. Although this seems like a very tough routine to over come, only about two percent of Italians that immigrated to America were sent back to Italy. Many of those that stayed almost wished that they had been sent back to Italy.
When Italians arrive in America, they thought that they had reached the land of opportunity. But instead, they were met with hatred and prejudice. Many Americans believed that the Italians were ignorant only because the Italians didn't know the English language and the majority did not have an education. Americans at the time, also did not like Catholics. So of course the Americans did not like the Italians who were almost all Catholic. Being hated by Americans and uneducated made the Italians take terrible jobs. Italians competed with the Irish for jobs; jobs like building railroads, sewers, outhouses, cleaning streets of feces, and other horrible jobs that no decent person would do. Not much money could be made in these jobs so the living conditions of the Italians were not much different than that back in their homeland. They lived in the alleys and slums all clumped together in tiny apartments that were side by side and with more than one family in an apartment. But eventually, the men would get settled and send word for their families to come and join him.
Italian families swarmed into America bringing their heritage and their children. At first parents made their children work so they could help with the expenses, therefore their education was greatly ignored. Also, the Italian parents believed that they could teach their children everything they needed to know. Eventually though, the American government forced all children to go to school until age 16. When the children went to school, they wanted to fit in with the American kids. It was very common to see an Italian child deny his or her heritage. Of course their parents were very angry with this. The Italian parents wanted their children to keep the Italian traditions going, but the children wanted nothing to do with it. Many fights raged between the generations, but they all remained Catholic.
The Italians came to America bringing all of the heritage and traditions, so of course they didn't leave their religion behind. The strong Roman-Catholic Italians converted many other immigrants into their faith, as America became used to its Italian visitors. Italians were pleased with the spread of their Catholic faith, but disliked the Irish dominated Catholic churches.
Although Italians didn't want to give up their old heritage, they eventually assimilated into the American society. But they didn't do so without leaving their mark. Italian influence in our American society is seen everyday. Italian meals are probably the favorite in our country and Italian Restaurants are everywhere. Catholicism is also a huge denomination in America now. The tribulations that Italians had to face may have been difficult, but in the end, they were worth being a free, American citizen.