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College paper written by Phil LeVota detailing the
LeVota family's immigration to the United States

Italian Immigration to the United States

Submitted by Phil LeVota, April 27, 1987

 

Race & Ethnic Relations Course

Dr. Mark Wehrle

Central Missouri State University

                                 -------------------------------------

When the words minority, inequality, and discrimination come to mind one usually thinks of the plight of the African American in the United States. People of Jewish and Hispanic descent also are prevalent in their share of discrimination.  However, one group that isn’t as readily identifiable as having to battle stereotypes, discrimination, and the problem of social assimilation is the many people of Italian heritage living in this country.

Italian American History in the U.S. is not a prosperous or flourishing one.  This paper will give a brief history of Italian-American, show some of the ideals and values of these people, identify troubles in assimilation into U.S. society, and outline the development of one Italian-American’s personal history.

 

ITALIAN HISTORY

Before addressing the subject on Italians in America, it is best to understand a little about the history of the county of Italy.  Italy is a county of rich history from a leader of the world in the glory days of ancient Rome, to a place of simple people in the middle of the civilized world.  However, in the 19th century, the Italian peninsula was divided in control between the countries of France, Spain, and Austria.  A political movement called “Risorgimento’ wanted independence for Italy and moved toward revolution.  Inspired by the success of the American and French Revolutions, the Risorgimento finally succeeded and unified Italy in 1870.  One of the goals that Italian leaders had hoped for in obtaining independence was to help the “contandini” (peasants) improve their socioeconomic status.  But instead, it actually placed power in the hands of the Italian middle class, which at that time was unwilling to help the poor.  Even though the Risorgimento promised economic prosperity, it actually developed a strict class structure placing Northerner over Southerner.  During these disappointing times that the first major migration from Italy to the United States actually began.   

 

ITALIAN IMMIGRATION

There were actually four major waves of Italians migrating to the U.S.  The first was before the 1870’s.  These were mainly Northern Italians with special trades and people who were political exiles. This was a fairly small migration.

            The second migration was between 1871 to 1925 and was the single largest migration from Italy to another single country.  This second migration was the most substantial of the four and there were many reasons why Italians chose to move to America.

            The most important reason was, of course, to improve the Italian’s economic position and enjoy the advantages of American society.  And there were many economic advantages to an Italian living and working gin the U.S. in relation to living and working in Italy.   For example, an Italian carpenter working in Southern Italy could expect to earn anywhere between $1.80 to $7.90 an hour for a fifty hour workweek.  While in the U.S., the same person could earn over $18.00 a week for the same work.  The comforts of American life was also pleasant in contrast to the Italian.  During this time period, the economy of Italy was in horrible shape and jobs were hard to come by.  A peasant usually worked for a landowner and it was not unusual for him to have a four-hour walk to work.  Even if someone could afford land, most of it was so worn out and used, it was hard to cultivate a crop.

The farming problems in Italy were numerous.  Most of the land was in the hands of landlords who charged high rents and paid low wages.  They provided unsteady employment and put little profits back into the land.  The soil was hard to work and not very fertile.  Rain fell in the wrong seasons and in heavy amounts.  American and Russian grain also flooded Italy.  During these trying times, the words and dreams of the great land of the United States spread throughout the country.  These promises of economic advantages of the United States were irresistible and many decided to move.

The typical Italian immigrating to the U.S. at this time was a healthy, young, Italian male.  He foresaw making money in America and decided to make the journey.  Usually, his goal was to spend time in the U.S. and acquire enough money to return to Italy and purchase land.  Most never imagined their move to be anything more than temporary.  These young men sent back messages of great opportunities in the new land.  For example, a boilermaker who migrated from Sicily to America as a child noted: “I came to this country to make a fortune and return to settle in the old country.  But, I changed my mind when I saw that the great thing about this country is that it is good for the working man.  Italy is good if you work for yourself, otherwise no.  Here I can go out to eat in a restaurant and sit next to anyone I want.  Thank the lord my father came to this country.”  This Sicilian/Italian-American's words spoke for several generations of immigrants to the U.S.

Finally, there were two last waves of immigration.  The third migration from Italy was from 1926-1945.  This was a migration of small members, but this was the time when Italian communities in the US. were created and when Italians gained consciousness of national identity and leadership.  The fourth migration was from 1946 to the present.   By this time, the third and fourth generations of Italian-Americans were fully assimilated into society.  There was also a limited growth of immigrants and usually only close relatives were migrating from Italy.  Since World War II, many “specialists” visas have been granted to Italians.  These visas are for someone specializing in a certain occupation needed in this country.                 Although there were four waves of immigration, the period between 1871 to 1925 is the most important in the history of Italian- Americans.  In these years, the Italian came to a new land, ignorant to American language and culture, but strong in their own heritage and beliefs.

 

ITALIAN TRADITIONS

  The most significant social unit in the Italian tradition was the family.  “La famiglia was a description of all relatives by blood and marriage in the family.  There were unwritten social laws about relationships and responsibilities in the family.  These rules provided a social system that shunned outside influence and helped maintain stability and security.  For example, the Italian mother played a significant role in decisions for the family.  She was responsible for child rearing and responsible for teaching and respecting traditions.  “L’ordine della famiglia” means ‘the order of the family.’  In the typical Italian-American family, there was a strong devotion to the family.  In most households, the family was supreme and if the honor or welfare of the family was at stake, the Italian-American would take any means to alleviate the problem.

For the Italian immigrant, the trip to America was usually his first venture beyond the boundaries of his village, where he had spent his entire life.  A fierce loyalty to one’s village, surpassed only by the devotion to one’s family, was another basic ingredient of Italian culture.  When immigrants came to the country, they naturally sought out “paesani” (fellow townsmen).  Soon cities developed entire communities of Italian immigrants.  These communities were called “Little Italy.”

 

ITALIANS IN AMERICA

There were many advantages and disadvantages of the “paesani” principle.  The advantages were that when the new citizen arrived in the new unknown country, he had someone and somewhere to identify with.  He could share his thoughts and experiences with people of his own background.  It helped in assimilating into United States culture without “cold turkey” on his traditions.  He could find a place where he could feel safe, find shelter, and continue or make new friendship.  The disadvantages were that by isolating themselves in “Little Italy's,” Italians could not unify to exert and unify political pressure as other minority groups could.  Assimilation also was hampered because Italians were caught up in Italian traditions and not interested in learning basic American ideals to better their situation.

When Italian immigrants would look for somewhere to live, the opportunities were usually the rundown areas of the city inhabited previously by other immigrants.  Groups like the German and the Irish had moved up in social classes and left these areas for the Italians.

The lack of emphasis on formal education was also a disadvantage.  Typically, there was no choice for a young adult to work or go to school.  The economic pressures would not allow these choices for the Italian-American family.  And in not being able to take advantage of education, it would take years and years for Italians to be educated and learn about the different systems of American society.  As Irish immigrants found, it was important to become educated and learn to govern to jump up the social ladder. 

Other immigrants realized one of the avenues to the American dream is politics. And as Irish-Americans also found, the representative form of government was important to become involved in.  Irish learned the importance of speaking the language and organization and many emerged as political leaders.  The early Italian-Americans didn’t know of these important strategies.  Since they didn’t, Italians were subject to become victims of “ward bosses.”  These political men would befriend and aid Italian-Americans in exchange for votes.  The ward boss program started out as a good idea, but turned into a plan that placed the person with the most money as the person who controlled everything.  Italians who did become political leaders were the men who had made economical advances and had learned the language.  These leaders achieved no actual political or economical concessions form the American community, but were great role models for great Italian leaders to come.

Before World War II, the Republicans recruited many Italian-Americans to its ranks.  Many joined because they associated the name with the old Risorgimento of the old country and also that history told them it was Abraham Lincoln’s party, who Italians believed to be the great emancipator.  But following the administration of Franklin D. Roosevelt and the depression polices, many Italians became associated with the Democratic Party’s policies.  Today, the largest Italian-American political organization, started in 1905, is the Italian-American Democratic Union.


 As far as religion, Italians overwhelmingly practice Roman Catholicism, but when they arrived in their new country, they were greeted with mixed feelings.  The major amount of Italian-Americans were devout Catholics; however, in the years of the Italian immigration, the American Catholic church was predominantly Irish.  The Italians were looked down on at church and some became only “horizontal catholic,” practicing only baptism, marriage, and funerals.  Others realized that there must be Italian parishes, so they formed ad hoc committees which petitioned the bishop to grant them Italian national churches.  Italian priests, in America, also came to their aid.

In 1889, Father Felice Morelli of New York remarked that Italians “yearn for a church of their own.”  This idea pleased the Irish parishes, but the discrimination was still there.  In 1898, the Irish pastor of St. Bridget’s of New York said to Archbishop Michael Corrigan,

It does seem necessary to have separate churches and chapels for the Italians, as they cannot well be mixed with other nationalities, on account of their filthy condition and habits, even if they are willing to come to our churches themselves.”  

Even fighting their own church’s prejudices, the Italian founded many parishes that have come to be integral parts of the church’s organization as well as integral parts of the Italian’s personal life.

More than any other, there is one word and stereotype associated with Italian-Americans……Mafia, a word worth a thousand pictures.  The idea of a “Mafioso” was never intended to be an organized crime machine that kills people and runs Las Vegas casinos.  It was actually a good idea that went bad.  The conception of the idea began back in Italy and Sicily as a positive idea, but its American ancestor is somewhat different.

 

THE MAFIA

The life of an immigrant new to this country was intimidating.  The local police did not patrol their close-knit communities and usually the police would not respond anyway.  So the Mafioso filled the void as the establishing a sense of law enforcement.  It assured justice against fellow immigrants.  If someone was wronged, he would go to the Mafioso.  The Mafioso took the role as judge, lawgiver, defender of tradition, and moralist.  The Mafioso was a strong paternalistic presence in the community and could offer protection to the immigrant. Along with this power came opportunities such as exploiting immigration workers and shaking down small businessmen, but all in all, Italian communities took care of their own.  Also developing from this area was the Black Hand organization. 

When anyone speaks of the Mafia and the Italian family, the first thing that is perceived is Mario Puzo’s, The Godfather.  In one light, the book and later movie, is very detrimental to Italian-Americans as it shows a stereotype of an Italian-American Mafia family.  And even though it does show some of the positive traditional values of the family devotion and tradition of these families, it is mainly remembered for its Mafia portrayal.  As far as the Mafia and organized crime is concerned, many Italians achieved great success in organized crime since other doors were shut to them. It was looked upon as another form of business.

With the coming of Prohibition, bootlegging and managing bars were economical successes for Italians.  The same principles were used in organizing this business as in any legal one and a lot of them were prosperous.  Crime, in a in strange way, united some Italian-Americans.  While only as small percent was involved, directly or indirectly, crime was a ticket for some to a fuller share of American economics.  Today, it is not known how large organized crime or the Mafia is, but it has been estimated to be at least a million, if not a billion dollar per year enterprise.  Either fortunately or unfortunately, Italian influence in organized crime in dwindling.  Presently, there are more government agencies pressuring and investigating criminal activities.  The age of the syndicate

leaders is elderly.  And there has been an inability to attract talented, young individuals into the organization.

At this time, there are twenty million Americans of Italian ancestry living in America.  Crime experts estimate the underworld to be comprised of about five thousand.  Even if every one of these people were Italian, the proportion to all Italian-Americans is minute and the stereotype that all Italian-Americans are in the mob is ridiculous.  However, few groups have been subjected to ethnically identifiable stereotypes than Italian-Americans.  Nothing could be further from the truth.  Italian-Americans have had an impressive record in combating crime and the must be subjected to the false impression that one of the most law abiding of America’s ethnic groups has special connections with and condones the activity of the criminal underworld.  Italians have been stereotyped as devious, over-emotional, cold-blooded, as well as criminal.  These stereotypes led to discrimination throughout Italian-American life in the United States.

ITALIAN DISCRIMINATION: NEW ORLEANS 1891

An extreme example of discrimination of Italian-Americans took place in 1891 in New Orleans, Louisiana.  The police chief of New Orleans in 1891 was David C. Hennessy and he was very well liked.  On October 15, 1890, he was shot in the immigrant community of New Orleans.  When his friend, Bill O’Connor arrived at the scene, Hennessy allegedly said the word “dagoes,” which was a racial slang for Italians.  Hennessy lived throughout the night and was interviewed by several members of the press and policemen, but he never mentioned anything about an Italian association with his shooting.  After his death, the press, using only O’Connor’s comment, ran the story of the Mafia killing of the police chief.

The mayor of New Orleans announced the death of Chief Hennessy and commented on the stiletto societies of the Sicilians in the city and asked the people to “take initiative in this matter.  He asked them to “ act promptly without fear or favor.”  This resulted in the arrest and harassment of hundreds of Italians.  The mayor also formed a ‘Committee of Fifty’ to deal with the deviant Italian/Sicilian situation.  This committee indicted nineteen men for the murder of Hennessy and nine of these men went to trial for the murder.

The trial was held and, with no evidence whatsoever to prove any guilt, six of the men were found not guilty and three were granted a mistrial.  After reading the verdict, the judge surprisingly ordered all of the nineteen men back to the county prison.  The next morning, March 14, 1891, the newspapers in New Orleans carried an advertisement:

 

MASS MEETING:

All good citizens are invited to attend a mass meeting on Saturday, March 14 at 10 o’clock AM at the Clay statue to take steps to remedy the failure of justice in the Hennessy case.  Come prepared for action.”

 

The mob, numbering from twelve to twenty thousand met and then made their way to the prison.  Many people were armed with rifles and they proceeded to crash down the walls. The warden had foreseen the mob gaining entry and had set the nineteen men free to hide in the prison.  Eleven were found and killed in front of the cheering mob.

The lynching was deemed a success and many felt “justice had prevailed.”   This started such a scare that all over the United States, Italians were scrutinized.  The implications of this incident were felt across the country.  Some thought the only way to solve the terrible problem was to go to war with Italy.  Even after a grand jury investigation of the situation, the newspapers reported the finding, “The Lynchers Justified!”  The papers also reported the falsehood of the Italian fleet making ready to attack several U.S. coastal cities

This was the story of cold-blooded slaughter of eleven men by what a grand jury called “several thousand of the finest, best and even most law abiding of the citizens of New Orleans.”  It was the largest, single lynching in American history.  Lists of lynchings kept by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People confirm that this incident is the most minorities ever killed in a lynching situation ever in the country.

Yet, it was much more than a mass murder, the lynching was a means of limiting Italian American’s position in society and the first implications of the Mafia scare.  It was the first stimuli of the stereotype of inherent criminality of Italian-Americans, a defamation that is still a stigma today.  Italian-Americans still face the stereotype that if their last name ends in a vowel, they must have some connection to criminality.

           

SALVATORE LEVOTA: May 6, 1873:

 

            The next section of this paper deals with the real life story of an Italian immigrant who ventured to the U.S. in the greatest migration period.  This man is the author’s great-grandfather and the immigrant’s son and the author’s grandfather, Samuel P. LeVota, told his life’s story to the author.  The reason this section is included is to give the subject of Italian immigration a more personal touch and also because it is very interesting to the author.

            Salvatore LeVota was born Salvatore Sparcino Degli Devote, on May 6, 1873, in Sambuca Xabit, Provincia Girgenti, Sicily.  Sicily is the island at the foot of the Italian peninsula and has been so closely connected socially and economically to Italy that Sicilians are often referred to as Italians.  It was the Sicilians and southern Italians that were the majority of Italian immigrants in the largest wave of Italian American migration.  Salvatore was born to a young seamstress, Lucia LaSala.  His parents were not married and his father was a minor aristocrat in Sicily.  His mother raised him alone until Salvatore turned six years old, when she married, Pisciotta Barelli.

            Even at six years of age, it was not too young to work in Sicily and Salvatore did.  From the age of six to nine years old, he tended herds of sheep in the Sicilian mountains.  When he turned nine years old, he was old enough to work in the fields farming and harvesting.  This was hard work for a boy of nine and consisted of long hours in the fields and often a six-mile walk every day.  He worked in the fields for five years of his youth until he turned fourteen.  It was then that his father’s relatives decided that a boy of their bloodline should not be tilling soil.  They took him and gave him a new job.

            It was actually his father’s cousin, a Baron, who decided to let him work and live with him.  He gave Salvatore a job at his estate.  Salvatore’s duties were to care and feed the Baron’s three horses and three dogs.  He also worked in the Baron’s wine cellar.  

Salvatore pleasantly worked there for twelve years and enjoyed the life of a minor aristocrat.  But during these years, the majority of young men had eyes for one thing……..the United States.  He too heard of the many opportunities awaiting someone in America and he asked the Baron for permission to travel to the United States.  The Baron refused to allow him to leave, but that did not stop Salvatore.  Salvatore had some vacation time coming up and he asked to go to Palermo.  Taking just the clothes on his back, he went to Palermo and then on to Italy.   One of his goals was to see the LaScalla Opera in Milan.  He spent about three months touring Italy.

When he was in Naples, Salvatore found a ship bound for the U.S. and he took a job in the ship’s galley.  The ship set sail and Salvatore found himself with the responsibility of peeling potatoes in the galley.  By the time, he reached the Eastern seaboard of the U.S., he had perfected it to an art.

The year was 1899 and the influx of immigrants waiting to get in was great.  Not wanting to wit to get into the country, Salvatore jumped ship in New York and entered the country without an immigration visa.  He spent three months in the U.S. until a friend told him of a way to enter the country legally and with the correct paperwork.  Salvatore then caught a ship from New York that was headed to New Orleans.  At the dock of New Orleans port, Salvatore entered the United States as a legal immigrant.

 Salvatore, of course, didn’t understand the English language and could not speak the English language.  As was customary, officials had to ask immigrants various questions.  When he was asked for his name, Salvatore decided on “Salvatore LiVote.”  To create his American last name, he borrowed parts from his longer Sicilian name.  He took the “Li” from Degli and the “Vote” from DeVote to create the name “LiVote.” 

 

The interesting thing was that when Salvatore conveyed his name to the immigration officials he used the Italian pronunciation for certain vowels.  Due to this pronunciation, his name was spelled differently than he had planned.  The English vowels and Italian vowels have different pronunciations.  He spelled his name LiVote, but when he said the letter ‘i,’ he pronounced the ‘long e’ sound as in the word “see.”  And when he pronounced the letter ‘e,’ he pronounced the ‘long a’ sound as in the word “say.”  So as the official wrote down his name, instead of L-I-V-O-T-E, he wrote L-E-V-O-T-A.  So that is why LeVota is the way his name is spelled today.

Salvatore’s life in Louisiana was varied.  The work in Louisiana was on sugar plantations.  The plantation owners placed Italians in a slightly higher category than blacks, but still thought of them as only working machines.  And when the weather wasn’t right for farming, Salvatore worked for the railroad which took him to the Midwestern part of the country.  In between his work on the farm and on the railroad, he met a young girl, Virginia Maggio in Louisiana.  They were soon married.  About this same time, Yellow Fever broke out as a terrible epidemic in Louisiana.  One sixth of the state’s population died from the virus.  In New Orleans, for example, 294 cases of Yellow Fever were cited in four single city blocks.

Because of the outbreak, Salvatore moved with his wife and now three daughters, to Kansas City, Missouri.  He chose Kansas City, because he knew of people from his own village in Sicily had settled there.  He moved to K.C. and established a home.  When he arrived in town, he bought a horse and a cart and he started a vegetable huckster business. 

He would purchase vegetables at the city market and then sell and deliver them to homes in the city.  He sold vegetables in the summer and ice and coal in the winter.  The huckster business was good work for the Italian immigrant and was successful for Salvatore.  After gaining enough money, Salvatore was able to send for his mother and his half brothers to come and live in Kansas City.  

Salvatore then ventured into a business outside of the huckster business and purchased a saloon at 3rd & Cherry.  He allowed his half brothers to join in as partners in the enterprise.  The saloon was very successful and after a few years, Salvatore gave the saloon to his half-brothers to have as their own.  His half-brothers continued to run the saloon and later even added Italian food to the menu.  Anyone familiar with the Kansas City area might just have had dinner in the saloon that Salvatore LeVota started.  His saloon is now the renowned “Jennie’s Italian Restaurant” in downtown Kansas City and is still managed by the relatives of Salvatore’s half-brothers.

Salvatore ran his huckster business in the summer and worked for the National Biscuit Company in the winter until the Great Depression of the early 1930s.  The Federal Works Progress Act provided jobs and one of its projects was the concreting of Brush Creek by the Country Club Plaza in Kansas City.  Salvatore worked on this project.  In 1941, he gave up his huckster business and went into the concrete business where he worked steadily until he was eighty-five years old.  One of the proudest moments of his life was in 1943 when Salvatore achieved the status of American citizen.  Still using that wonderful Italian accent, Salvatore was a respected community member.  He was truly a great example of the fact that even though the assimilation was difficult at first, the American way of life was achievable to the Italian immigrant.    

This example of the Italian immigration followed a textbook history of all research found on the topic.  All of the Italian culture was represented in this man and his family and hopefully, this example gives the subject of Italian immigration a more personal note.

ITALIANS AS AMERICANS

Italians have offered much to the American society.  There are many examples of Italians who have excelled in their field.  The entertainment and sporting world have been highly enriched by Italian-Americans.  Comics Lou Costello and Jimmy Durante and movie star Rudolph Valentino were superstars in their time.  Great Italian singers like Frank Sinatra and Perry Como crooned the tunes, while people danced to the music of Guy Lombardo.  When anyone thinks of baseball, who could forget Yogi Berra and Joe DiMaggio.  The Raging Bull, Jake LaMotta of boxing and Joe Paterno of football are just a few of the thousands of Italian athletes.  The list can go on for hundreds of pages because Italians also excelled and became great individuals in politics, business, arts, and scholarship.  Italian history has also touched the United States in ways that aren’t as quickly recognized.  The name of this continent ‘America’ is named after an Italian, Americo Vespucci.

 

On January 16, 1967, the U.S. House of Representatives passed a law to initiate a national holiday honoring one of Italy’s sons.  Before then, there were only eight national holidays.  Of these nine only one is in sole honor of an Italian.  The first Monday of every September is a holiday in honor of the man who discovered this country, Christopher Columbus.  This Italian influence is further felt in the country by way of the way his name is utilized.  For example, in Boone County, Missouri, the city of Columbia is one of many across the country as well as Johnson County’s city of Columbus is one of many also.

Another holiday held in the Catholic Church has its origin in Italy.  St. Joseph’s Day is celebrated in almost every Roman Catholic parish in the United States even in non-Italian parishes.  The holiday consists of creating a large, beautiful, bountiful table of food that is then given to the poor after a dinner celebration.  The act of the holiday comes from a famine in Sicily where citizens prayed to St. Joseph (the patron saint of Italy). The people cooked a large feast and gave it to the poor and starving.  This holiday is a way for the Italian-American to share his heritage with his religious brothers.

The Italian-American is a wonderful addition to the melting pot called the United States.  He has proven himself hard working and has helped the country to become what it is today.  He has had some difficult problems to overcome, but has done so with dignity.  He has always fought for his right to be an American citizen in all the international wars of this country.  He has been honored to be a citizen while also practicing his own ethnicity.  His fight against prejudice and stereotype, while not as severe as other minorities, was in fact a real barrier in becoming an “equal” American. There was an American dream to be achieved in this country and Italian-Americans grasped for it.  Even though it was hard, many achieved it. 

With consideration to all minorities, stereotypes should be cast away. At that time, the "Italian-American", or maybe they should be referred to as "American-Italians," can take their rightful place with all other great minorities that have made this country outstanding.

 

 

 

 

    
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