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The Price They Paid

October 23, 2016
the great irony of America

the great irony of America

America has historically been a land of immigrants from the advent of the Pilgrims right through the present. This country is still seen by many people all over the world as the best hope for a better future, but it has always come with a price.

In spite of the altruistic welcome by Emma Lazarus on the Statue of Liberty which says “Give me your tired, your poor, Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, The wretched refuse of your teeming shore. Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed, to me…,” each new immigrant group is often met with disdain, misunderstanding, distrust, and often outright hatred. This has been true for virtually every nationality and ethnicity, and it was no different for the Italian immigrants who flocked to these shores in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

The indignities began with many instances of violence. Between the years of 1870 and 1940, only African-Americans suffered more lynchings than the Italian immigrants. The dubious distinction of the largest mass lynching in American history falls to the Italians in 1891.

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This occurred in New Orleans after the police chief was shot and killed right before he was to testify against a group of Italian dock workers. The chief reportedly whispered “the dagos did it” before he died. The city reacted by rounding up Italian men indiscriminately. As related by the New Orleans Times-Democrat, “The little jail was crowded with Sicilians whose low, receding foreheads, repulsive countenances and slovenly attire proclaimed their brutal nature.”

Nine Italian men went on trial for murder, and all were acquitted. However, a mob stormed the prison, shot nine of them in their cells, and then dragged two more out and hanged them. A subsequent investigation excused the actions of the mob, something that caused the government of Italy to sever diplomatic relations with the United States.

There are far too many examples of the brutal manifestation of the ill feelings directed toward these newcomers. In 1920, the Italian neighborhood in West Frankfort, Illinois, was attacked by mobs. People of all ages were dragged from their homes and beaten, and entire blocks were burned. The railroading and ultimate executions of Sacco and Vanzetti in Massachusetts became emblematic of the treatment of Italians by the biased American establishment.

Other more subtle forms of ill will had to be tolerated during the slow process of assimilation. There was rampant discrimination in housing and hiring, and students had to survive the negative attitudes and limited expectations prevalent in the schools. Being of Italian descent also meant suffering the disrespectful slurs that unfortunately befall all immigrant groups, from blatant name-calling — wop, dago, guinea — to crude ethnic jokes and innuendo.

When I was young, I remember my very Teutonic aunt making what I interpreted even in the innocence of my youth as disparaging comments about my Italian American mother. I don’t really know exactly what she said or even if I understood it fully, but it was clear by her facial expression and the tone of her voice what was going on. My mother just laughed it off as a joke, but I could tell that this was not the case. She never spoke much about such treatment until I was an adult. It became clear from her brief anecdotes that being Italian had its social drawbacks and that one would be commonly subjected to being called derisive names.

Popular culture often reinforces the worst of the negative stereotypes of any group, and so it is for the Italian American. From the spate of mobster movies that gained popularity from the older shoot-em-up Capone type films to the more recent Godfather and Goodfellas and the widely acclaimed TV series The Sopranos, such criminal activity has long been associated with this population, the majority of whom had nothing to do with it. Later “reality” shows such as Jersey Shore focused on those sensationalized attributes also widely accepted as part of the Italian American identity. Do these exist? Yes, they do, but they are certainly not universally applicable to all people of Italian heritage, nor are they limited to this one group.

So during this Italian American Heritage Month — as in every other commemorative month — some reflection is called for. Those of us who have descended from any group of immigrants regardless of origin should remember the price our predecessors had to pay for their entry into this new society. It would behoove us, it seems, to apply these lessons to our treatment of those who are now going through the same trials as our own ancestors.

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Remember your own beginnings…

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