“Birds of passage”: histories of Italian immigrants to America in the XIX century

From the end of the eighties of the nineteenth century, a wave of migration led more than 26 million of Italians to a mass exodus to America.

Driven by various factors such as the fall of the cost of grain in the international market, determined by the American and Ukrainian production, population growth, the spread of an “immature capitalism” unable to solve the problem of unemployment in the southern areas and the spread of diseases such as malaria and pellagra, Italians were mainly addressed to other European countries and to America. Instead a few of them  chose to emigrate to Africa and Oceania.

More than two million Italians landed in the United States during the last decade of the nineteenth century. In addition to the American myth, which had even reached the houses of Basilicata in which photos of Roosevelt were placed side by side with those of the Mother of God, a further stimulus was given by the repression of protests in Sicily by the Prime Minister Francesco Crispi. Moreover, the lack of manpower in the United States favored the arrival of men without any qualifications who were dedicated to humble jobs. The Italians mainly entered the American market as cigars workers, miners, builders of railways and sewers, or sweatshops for long and hard rhythms.

The main landing place was Ellis Island, a small island in the harbor of New York. It was there that 12 million people, after a careful medical examinations, were welcomed and sorted in the various cities. Fundamental importance was given to the figure of the so-called “boss”, it was the one who acted as intermediator between the illiterate emigrant and the American society. The boss was  ambiguous, dedicated to attend immigrants and to manage their savings; at the same time he acted as a supplier of votes for political interests.

Immigrants were generally identified as “Italians” or “birds of passage” because of their habit of moving to the United States during the winter months and then returning home in the fall. They were characterized by a lack of willingness to integrate into the local society; this fact was confirmed by low levels of acquisition of American citizenship and low level in terms of English learning. This situation led to the birth of the Little Italies, neighborhoods that represented a perceptible parochialism and a strong sense of nationalism born as response to the lack of perception by the Americans of the different local and regional identities.

The transition from the first generation of immigrants with difficulties of integration materialized a few decades later when, with the presence of middle-class bourgeois leadership, a strong ethnic association and the Catholic church guaranteed social security and  provided for the coexistence of different ethnic groups including Italians, Greeks and  Poles.


Ganna Korniychenko


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