Italian Americans of the 1930's Research Paper

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Italian-Americans -- 1930s

The American experience for Italian immigrants (with particular emphasis on the 1930s) is the salient topic for this paper. The materials presented from scholarly sources in this paper show the positive and negative impacts experienced by Italian-American immigrants; those sources will also be critiqued and analyzed in the context of the experiences, including impacts such as discrimination that Italian-Americans went through during the 1930s.

Italians Arrive in the United States

Author Dale Anderson writes in his book Italian-Americans that between 1901 and 1910, there were more than 2 million Italians that came into the U.S. As immigrants. And from 1911 to 1920, another 1.1 million immigrants arrived (Anderson, 2006, p. 33). Those huge numbers of immigrants tailed off dramatically between 1921 and 1930, when about 455,315 Italians arrived. One main reason for the drop-off in immigration from Italy was the 1924 National Origins Act, which limited immigration, Anderson reports, adding that in the 1930s, the total number of Italian immigrants shrunk to less than 70,000.

There were ill feelings towards Italians (which will be reviewed further in this paper at a later point) based on Benito Mussolini's dictatorial fascism. Moreover, when Mussolini allied himself with the hated and feared Adolf Hitler, Germany's Nazi leader, the friction between native born Americans and new Italian immigrants grew and festered in many instances. Tensions ran high in the 1930s with reference to Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy, and in fact the United States Government required "…more than six hundred thousand Italian-born Americans, or resident aliens, to register…as 'enemy aliens'" further alienated and isolated Italian-Americans (Anderson, 34).

On page 34, Anderson also talks about conflict within the Italian-American families because the children of those immigrants wanted to be known as "Americans" and wanted to adopt American lifestyles for themselves apart from their parents' cultural values brought over from Italy (Anderson, 34). The author notes that children of Italian immigrants "…could become acutely embarrassed when their parents' words or actions in public" made it totally apparent that they were Italians from the old country (34). Anderson quotes one unnamed child of Italian immigrants: "We were becoming American by learning to be ashamed of our parents" (34).

Italians in Newark New Jersey

There are many books and articles about the successes that Italian-American immigrants achieved, and it is surprising that more of these stories aren't made into movies or otherwise recounted in plays or perhaps in books. Perhaps movie producers prefer to use Italian stereotypes (mafia, gangsters, etc.) in movies, because the belief it they will sell better and make more money. In any event, the cultural lives of Italian-Americans are worthy of review and investigation in this paper.

Meanwhile how involved in cultural activities were Italians in Newark, New Jersey? It is clear they loved music and in particular they enjoyed opera. By the 1930s, according to author Sandra S. Lee, there were "at least six drama companies that performed in Italian at local playhouses" (Lee, 2008, p. 8). And in addition, Lee explains that there were five radio stations in Newark that broadcasted programs in the Italian language; there were two newspapers published in Italian. Also in Newark, there was the Columbus Hospital, built initially for the Italian community, Lee explains (8).

Silver Lake, a suburb of Newark, was home to Italians and each house "…had its own little tomato patch"; but if there was an open lot next to any of the houses in Silver Lake, neighbors would plant a larger garden "for goats to graze" as residents took jobs at several steam laundries in the neighborhood. Residents of Silver Lake had a building called the "West End Civic Association," where Italian women and men raised funds for "scholarships" and to promote community causes in the neighborhood. It was also a place for the community to come together. The first Silver Lake Fire Department station was built in the 1930s and Italian-Americans are proud to note that the very first badge -- Badge #1 -- was earned by an Italian-American named Paul Zaccone.

On the subject of culture, Silver Lake Italians celebrated the feast of St. Bartolomeo by organizing an annual procession through the town's streets; a big feast was enjoyed, a band played, and there were fireworks, very similar to the American holiday on July 4 (Lee).

Italian-American Stereotypes -- Jonathan J. Cavallero

According to Jonathan Cavallero writing in the peer-reviewed Journal of Popular Film and Television, the 1930s was a time when Italian-American heroes were on the rise but "denigration of Italians at large" (Cavallero, 2004, p. 52). Cavallero talks about a "double standard" and he is referring to the National Italian-American Foundation (NIAF), a group that protested the depiction of Italians in the popular HBO series, The Sopranos. And at the same time the NIAF ignores "…most contemporary presentations of Italian ethnicity and even applauds the depictions of Italians" in television commercials for Ragu, in radio commercials for Sprint PCS, and in the NBC series Friends, Cavallero asserts. The author's point is that it is one thing to claim cultural bias (vis-a-vis The Sopranos) and yet applaud stereotypes in advertisements.

Moreover, on page 52 Cavallero is troubled by the fact that the NIAF and other Italian advocacy groups fail to see the legitimate argument to be made that culturally Italians do have a historically valid stereotype that was established in the 1930s. Hence the stereotypes in The Sopranos evolved from those stereotypes of the 1930s -- both positive and negative stereotypes. There were three Italian male stereotypes in the 1930s Hollywood films, Cavallero continues (52). In the 1931 Al Capone was arrested and convicted on tax evasion charges; that was the same year that Angelo Rossi was elected mayor of San Francisco. Between 1933 and 1939 Fiorello LaGuardia was elected and re-elected the mayor of New York City (and one of the main airports in NYC is named after the former Italian-American mayor), Frank Capra won three Academy Awards for "Best Director," Russ Columbo "…rivaled Bing Crosby as the most popular singer of his time" (Cavallero, 52).

Speaking of LaGuardia, he has been ranked "first" by a poll of 160 historians, social scientists and journalists in Melvin G. Holli's book The American Mayor (Roberts, 2001). LaGuardia is remembered for his leadership during the depression and he "…made the city a model for New Deal welfare and public works programs and championed immigrants" (Roberts, p. 1).

In addition, the legendary Frank Sinatra launched a fabulously successful singing career in New Jersey and the New York Yankees welcomed Joe DiMaggio to Yankee Stadium. The many popular Italian-Americans (who got "good press") contrasted sharply with the "bad press" that covered the economic ills of the U.S. And blamed Italians, generally, Cavallero recounts (52). The stereotyping of Italian-Americans was of course not all vicious or based on bigotry, but the stereotyping was there nonetheless. To wit, here is an excerpt from Life magazine after DiMaggio had become a big sports star:

"Although he learned Italian first Joe, now 24, speaks English without an accent

and is otherwise well adapted to most U.S. mores. Instead of olive oil or smelly bear grease he keeps his hair slick with water. He never reeks of garlic and prefers chicken chow mien to spaghetti" (Cavallero, p. 52, quoting Life from 1969).

In The New Yorker another kind of stereotype was presented and while it reads as condescending today, it was not necessarily seen that way in the 1930s, because it was open season on Italians in many contexts in America.

"[Frank] Capra's doctor attributed the famed director's survival of a burst appendix during his childhood to 'the fact that Sicilians, conditioned by generations of knifings, have very hardy interiors" (Cavallero, quoting The New Yorker).

When Mussolini brought fascism into the international scene that created friction between Italian-Americans themselves, as the younger, second-generation Italian-Americans rejected using the native Italian language and began dating outside their ethnic group, Cavallero continues. These cultural clashes (and "…fears of Italian hoods," which led to "active imaginations" and the root causes of bias against Italian-Americans) "coupled with cultural intolerance" left Italian-Americans isolated and alienated in their own neighborhoods, which was a cultural shock to be certain.

Although Capra was on top of his game and highly respected for movies like "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington" and "It's a Wonderful Life," other films portrayed the darkest sentiments borne of bigotry and cultural stereotyping. Viewers were "encouraged" to "vilify Italians" through movies like Little Caesar and Scarface, Cavallero writes on page 59. In his conclusion, Cavallero asserts that while the economic and social climate of the U.S. -- with reference to European immigration -- has change dramatically since the 1930s, "the Italian stereotypes of the past persist."

And while characters have evolved (Tony Soprano, modern day Italian gangster, lives in the suburbs and sees a psychotherapist) and while they offer a "more complicated viewing experience than previous visions of the Italian gangster," there continues to be a living stereotype in society, in film…[continue]

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