How Amer­ica be­came Ital­ian

In­stead of blend­ing in, Ital­ians took their cul­ture main­stream, says his­to­rian Vin­cent J. Can­nato

The Washington Post Sunday - - OUTLOOK - vin­cent.can­ Vin­cent J. Can­nato is an as­so­ciate pro­fes­sor of history at the Univer­sity of Mas­sachusetts Bos­ton and the au­thor of “Amer­i­can Pas­sage: The History of El­lis Is­land.”

When base­ball leg­end Yogi Berra passed away last month, MLB Com­mis­sioner Rob Man­fred called the late Yan­kees catcher “a bea­con of Amer­i­cana.” Sports­writer Frank De­ford had em­ployed the same theme a decade ear­lier, call­ing Berra “the ul­ti­mate in ath­letic Amer­i­cana.”

That is quite a tes­ta­ment to a man born Lorenzo Pi­etro Berra to Ital­ian im­mi­grant par­ents and raised in the Ital­ian en­clave of St. Louis known as the Hill. There, he de­vel­oped the out­size per­son­al­ity that would color the Amer­i­can ex­pe­ri­ence with Ital­ian wit.

Tra­di­tion­ally, when we think of Amer­i­cana, we re­call Grant Wood’s “Amer­i­can Gothic” or Betsy Ross sewing the Stars and Stripes. Nowwe can also in­voke Ber­raand his fa­mous quote, “It ain’t over till it’s over.”

Berra, an an­chor of the dy­nas­tic New York Yan­kees of the mid-20th cen­tury, ex­em­pli­fies the broad in­flu­ence that Ital­ian Amer­i­cans have had on Amer­i­can cul­ture since ar­riv­ing as im­pov­er­ished and den­i­grated im­mi­grants iso­lated in ur­ban ghet­tos. From sports and food to movies and mu­sic, they haven’t just con­trib­uted to the cul­ture, they have helped re­de­fine it.

That would have sur­prised many na­tive­born Amer­i­cans in the late 1800s and early

1900s, when immigration from South­ern and Eastern Europe was on the rise. Most Ital­ians came from the poverty-stricken south­ern re­gions of Si­cily, Cal­abria, Cam­pa­nia and Abruzzo (although Berra’s par­ents were part of the mi­nor­ity that hailed from the North). These im­mi­grants worked mainly as semi-skilled and un­skilled la­bor­ers, pro­vid­ing much-needed mus­cle for the United States’ boom­ing in­dus­trial econ­omy. They toiled in steel mills and coal mines as “pick and shovel” day la­bor­ers or as brick- and stone-lay­ing ma­sons, as my grand­fa­ther and great-grand­fa­ther were.

Amer­i­cans of that era saw Ital­ians as a poor fit for demo­cratic cit­i­zen­ship. Since many Ital­ian im­mi­grants were il­lit­er­ate, immigration re­stric­tion­ists sought to im­pose a lit­er­acy test for ad­mis­sion to the coun­try that would have ex­cluded Ital­ians in large num­bers. There was also a com­mon belief that Ital­ians were prone to vi­o­lence. In 1893, the New York Times called Italy “the land of the vendetta, the mafia, and the ban­dit.” South­ern Ital­ians were “bravos and cut­throats” who sought “to carry on their feuds and bloody quar­rels in the United States.” Three years later, the Bos­ton Globe pub­lished a sym­po­sium ti­tled “Are Ital­ians a Men­ace? Are They De­sir­able or Dan­ger­ous Ad­di­tions to Our Pop­u­la­tion?”

Nearly half of Ital­ian im­mi­grants were “birds of pas­sage” who even­tu­ally re­turned to Italy. Those who stayed in Amer­ica of­ten set­tled to­gether, form­ing poor eth­nic neigh­bor­hoods. But these bar­rios were not sim­ply repli­cas of their res­i­dents’ na­tive coun­try. Re­gional cul­tures — which distin­guished Si­cil­ians from Neapoli­tans — blended along with Amer­i­can cus­toms that chil­dren brought home from public schools.

Two events in par­tic­u­lar helped de­velop the Ital­ian Amer­i­can iden­tity. Congress passed immigration quo­tas in the 1920s that pri­mar­ily tar­geted peo­ple from South­ern and Eastern Europe. The Immigration Act of 1924 slashed the an­nual quota for Ital­ian im­mi­grants from morethan 42,000 to less than 4,000. Stem­ming the flow of new­com­ers into eth­nic neigh­bor­hoods caused Lit­tle Italys to grad­u­ally shrink, and Ital­ian Amer­i­cans moved to the sub­urbs and di­verse neigh­bor­hoods where they were more in­flu­enced by purely Amer­i­can mu­sic, movies and cul­ture.

Then came World War II, which forged a strong feel­ing of na­tional unity— one that was more in­clu­sive than the na­tivist cam­paign for “100 per­cent Amer­i­can­ism” dur­ing World War I. At the be­gin­ning of the war, Ital­ian im­mi­grants who had not be­come U.S. cit­i­zens were deemed “en­emy aliens.” But Pres­i­dent Franklin D. Roo­sevelt de­ter­mined that the des­ig­na­tion was coun­ter­pro­duc­tive as he sought Ital­ian Amer­i­can sup­port for the war and lifted it on Colum­bus Day 1942, so Ital­ians largely es­caped the fate of in­terned Ja­panese Amer­i­cans. A half-mil­lion Ital­ian Amer­i­cans (in­clud­ing Berra, who earned a Pur­ple Heart) served in the U.S. mil­i­tary dur­ing World War II, with some of them fight­ing in the Ital­ian coun­try­side that had been their par­ents’ home.

As they joined the mil­i­tary and in­te­grated into sub­urbs, Ital­ian Amer­i­cans shed the pop­u­lar stereo­types sur­round­ing them. Grad­u­ally, the cus­toms de­vel­oped in Lit­tle Italys found ac­cep­tance in the main­stream and were ab­sorbed into broader Amer­i­can cul­ture.

Food is a good ex­am­ple of this phe­nom­e­non. In the early 20th cen­tury, Ital­ian im­mi­grant dishes were scorned and be­came the root of slurs like “spaghetti bender” and “gar­lic eater.” Gar­lic’s pun­gency seemed un-Amer­i­can and un­civ­i­lized, and the strong smell was seen as ev­i­dence of Ital­ians’ in­fe­ri­or­ity. Its pop­u­lar­ity in Amer­i­can mar­kets and recipes to­day shows how dras­ti­cally this per­cep­tion has changed and how en­meshed Ital­ian Amer­i­can cul­ture has be­come in broader Amer­i­can life.

That’s also ap­par­ent in red-sauce dishes that are sta­ples in U.S. homes and restau­rants. Big plates of spaghetti and meat­balls, baked ziti, and chicken parmi­giana are not com­mon in Italy, but they re­flect the unique Ital­ian Amer­i­can cul­ture im­mi­grants cre­ated. Red sauce be­came preva­lent in im­mi­grants’ kitchens be­cause canned toma­toes were read­ily avail­able in U.S. mar­kets. Meat was a rar­ity in south­ern Italy but abun­dant in Amer­ica, and the grow­ing in­comes of even work­ing-class Ital­ian house­holds al­lowed for larger por­tions of meat­balls and other dishes.

Pizza, be­lieved to have orig­i­nated in Naples, epit­o­mizes Ital­ian Amer­i­cans’ out­size in­flu­ence on our cul­ture, where pizza took on an en­tirely new mean­ing. Gen­er­ally, Amer­i­cans don’t like the orig­i­nal Neapoli­tan pizza, whose crust tends to be a bit soggy in the mid­dle — un­like the crispier Ital­ian Amer­i­can ver­sion. An Ital­ian res­tau­rant owner who opened a pizze­ria in New York fea­tur­ing Neapoli­tan pies told me his cus­tomers com­plain that his piz­zas are un­der­cooked.

Ital­ian Amer­i­cans have con­tin­ued to put new spins on the Neapoli­tan cre­ation. In Chicago, they cre­ated the deep-dish pizza. New Haven’s leg­endary Frank Pepe Pizze­ria Napo­le­tana is fa­mous for its white clam pizza, as well as its reg­u­lar red-sauce and cheese ver­sion. In the clas­sic Amer­i­can way, cor­po­ra­tions also got into the act, from Domino’s to Cal­i­for­nia Pizza Kitchen. Few foods are more ubiq­ui­tous in the Amer­i­can diet, and few are more syn­ony­mous with Amer­i­can cui­sine.

While Ital­ian Amer­i­cans’ kitchens were chang­ing the na­tion’s palate, their cre­ativ­ity was win­ning over the pop­u­lar cul­ture. Be­fore the dawn of rock-and-roll, many of the singers who de­fined Amer­i­can mu­sic were Ital­ian Amer­i­cans: Frank Si­na­tra, Dean Martin, Vic Da­mone, Tony Ben­nett, Perry Como and Louis Prima among them.

Si­na­tra, specif­i­cally, tran­scended his time and has in­flu­enced Amer­i­can mu­sic be­yond his death. His songs have be­come the corner­stone of what crit­ics call the Great Amer­i­can Song­book. The mu­sic it­self is a cul­tural mash-up, bor­row­ing from African Amer­i­can jazz with lyrics of­ten writ­ten by Jewish song­writ­ers. But with his cocked hat, Si­na­tra pos­sessed an air of con­fi­dence that pop­u­lar­ized Ital­ian Amer­i­can swag­ger and sar­to­rial style. He sang with­out an ac­cent, but be­tween songs lis­ten­ers heard a voice from the streets of Hobo­ken, N. J., with Ital­ian-di­alect slang thrown in.

Ital­ian Amer­i­cans have also made a mark on film. Two of the four great­est Amer­i­can movies, as judged by the Amer­i­can Film In­sti­tute, were not only di­rected by Ital­ian Amer­i­cans but nar­rate sto­ries about the Ital­ian Amer­i­can ex­pe­ri­ence. Martin Scors­ese’s “Rag­ing Bull” is a gritty, hy­per-re­al­is­tic tale of the rise and fall of mid­dleweight box­ing champ Jake La Motta. And Fran­cis Ford Cop­pola’s “The God­fa­ther,” based on the novel by Mario Puzo, is a tale about the ten­sions of as­sim­i­la­tion, as Michael Cor­leone aban­dons his Amer­i­can am­bi­tions to take over from his fa­ther as crime boss.

Cop­pola and Puzo were walk­ing a fine line with “The God­fa­ther.” The movie re­in­forced the con­nec­tion that many Amer­i­cans made be­tween Ital­ians and or­ga­nized crime, a stereo­type that both­ered Ital­ian Amer­i­cans. But Cop­pola and Puzo turned the Cor­leones into clas­sic Amer­i­can char­ac­ters, em­body­ing the broadly re­lat­able con­flict be­tween fathers and sons, tra­di­tion and moder­nity.

Ital­ian immigration, at least on a large scale, is now a thing of the past. But the in­flu­ence of Ital­ian Amer­i­can cul­ture re­mains. These im­mi­grants and their chil­dren did not sim­ply melt into a ho­moge­nous stew of Amer­i­can­ism; they cre­ated a lively eth­nic com­mu­nity that helped shape main­stream cul­ture.

To­day, Amer­i­cans are once again con­cerned about the num­ber of new im­mi­grants and their abil­ity to as­sim­i­late. It might not quite be “deja vu all over again” (to bor­row from Yogi Berra), but the Ital­ian Amer­i­can ex­pe­ri­ence re­minds us that immigration is a process of trans­for­ma­tion for the in­di­vid­u­als and for Amer­i­can so­ci­ety. That bi­lat­eral cul­tural evo­lu­tion will con­tinue to mold who we are as a na­tion.

Ital­ian im­mi­grants and their chil­dren cre­ated a lively eth­nic com­mu­nity that helped shape the main­stream cul­ture.

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