Recently, a fellow Italian American club member said to me: “In Italy I was an Italian. In Rochester, I’m Neapolitan. When I came to America, I was surprised to hear people referring to themselves as: Sicilian, Neapolitan, etc”. I asked him when he came to the US. He told me 1960. This raises an interesting question about the contemporary “Italian American State of Mind” (i.e. our self concept and group identity). Actually, there are two generic categories of Italian American states of mind: that of the descendants of the pre-WW I immigrants and that of the post-WW II immigrants.
During the years surrounding 1900, millions of southern-Italian immigrants got “Off the Boat” at Ellis Island. Keeping in mind Garibaldi unified Italy in 1860; at the time of this great migration, Italy had been a unified country for more or less 50 years. Accordingly, most of the immigrants did not think of themselves as Italians per se. They identified more with their provinces and towns; as their ancestors had for centuries. There were vast differences between provinces. For example, the Sicilian dialect was much different than the dialects spoken in northern Italy. A Sicilian could hardly carry on a conversation with a Roman.
At that time, when an Italian came to America, he or she did not just get “off the boat” and start looking for a place to live and work. Often they would locate near a family member or others from their town already settled in America. Immigrants from previous years would help the new arrivals get started and adjust to their new country. For example, Samira Leglib, in his “i-Italy” magazine section article (“Snapshots of Sacred Images and Local Pride”), writes: “Until World War Two a concentration of immigrants from Calatafimi lived on Knickerbocker Avenue in Brooklyn.
Also, societies were formed by immigrants who came from the same provinces or towns to help and socialize with each other.” For example, in Rochester NY the “Regina Elena Societa” was organized in 1904; the “Celanese Societa” in 1907; the Marinai Elenesi Societa in 1911; etc. By the1930s there were 55 such societies in Rochester. By then, the immigrants had stopped coming. However, the Great Depression led to job looses and financial stress. The societies help the Italian community cope with the economic hardships. Neighborhoods and societies, organized by regions and towns of Italy, resulted in the traditions of those places being preserved and passed on to the children and grandchildren of the immigrants.
Meanwhile in Italy, Italian nationalism was taking hold: Mussolini fanatically preached Italian nationalism; children in schools learned the Italian language and history; Italian language radio came into existence and people heard about national issues. Dialects and regional identities faded and people began thinking of themselves as Italian. By 1960, people who got “off the boat (airplane)” thought of themselves more as Italian nationals then regional citizens. Here they met the progeny of the original immigrants who by tradition still thought of themselves as Sicilian, Neapolitan, etc.
When the descendants of the pre-WW I immigrants say “I’m Sicilian or Neapolitan”, their ‘state of mind’ is ‘reminiscence’ of Knickerbocker Avenue like urban village days, and ‘homage’ to the mighty southern-Italian peasants who were herded from their land by the “Italy ends at the Garigliano” Piedmont government in Rome. The descendents of the original emigration are not nostalgic for Italy; rather, “Little Italy”. For example, in the “Godfather” movies, the scenes of Sicily are thought to be beautiful and delightful – “A nice place to visit”. But, it is the meticulous reproduction of “Little Italy” scenes that congers emotions in the descendants of Garibaldi’s southern-Italian diaspora. For it is the images of “Little Italy” that capture the origins of their identity; their subliminal psycho-sociological being; their ‘state of mind’. The post WW II immigrants have no memory of “Little Italy”. Walking through the remnants of ‘urban villages’ in New York, Boston, Rochester, etc. they get no emotional rush. They see only buildings not visions. They do not experience the déjà vu sense of primordial being when in the presents of origins.
Thus, in American today there are two different types of Italian Americans; i.e. two different “states of mind”. To my mind, Italian American scholars have failed to clearly make that distinction, and articulate the cultural and sociological implications that dichotomy has for fully understanding, teaching and perpetuating American Italianita.