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Italian Immigration and Emigration Between Acceptance and Prejudice

The symposium on Italian migration in the last century was hosted by the John D. Calandra Italian American Institute

Before opening the floor to the speakers, Tamburri noted that, between 1880 and 1920, more than 20 million people left Italy. He then introduced a really important idea that will be brought up many times during the conversation: history helps us understand the phenomenon that is taking place in Italy right now. It first happened with Albanians, then with Eastern Europeans, and Africans. As Gian Antonio Stella writes, we have to remember “quando gli Albanesi eravamo noi” (“when we were the Albanians”). This is why it’s extremely important to talk about both of these phenomena together, emigration and immigration.

The symposium, hosted by the John D. Calandra Italian American Institute, was also co-sponsored by the Società Dante Alighieri, the Fondazione Giorgio Ammendola and the Associazione Lucana Carlo Levi, takes its title from a collections of essays, “Tra Accoglienza e pregiudizio: Emigrazione e immigrazione nella storia dell’ultimo secolo: da Sacco e Vanzetti a Jerry Essan Masslo” (2018) [translation: Between acceptance and prejudice: Emigration and immigration in the last century’s history: from Sacco and Vanzetti to Jerry Essan Masslo, ndr].

The symposium was opened by Anthony Tamburri, Dean of the John D. Calandra Italian American Institute of Queens College, CUNY, and moderated by Donna Chirico, Professor and Dean of Arts and Science.

Before opening the floor to the speakers, Tamburri noted that, between 1880 and 1920, more than 20 million people left Italy. He then introduced a really important idea that will be brought up many times during the conversation: history helps us understand the phenomenon that is taking place in Italy right now. It first happened with Albanians, then with Eastern Europeans, and Africans. As Gian Antonio Stella writes, we have to remember “quando gli Albanesi eravamo noi” (“when we were the Albanians”). This is why it’s extremely important to talk about both of these phenomena together, emigration and immigration.

The program consisted of two opening remarks and six presentations by authors of the book as well as by other area scholars. Presentations in English and in Italian followed one another, which was very appropriate given the topic discussed.

Domenico Cerabona from Fondazione Giorgio Ammendola opened the floor shortly describing the beginning of the book and remembering Sacco and Vanzetti’ story, the migration in Boston, and its focus on migrant workers. He then observed how stories of those people are very similar to the stories of migrants coming to Italy today.

(Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti were Italian-born American anarchists who were controversially convicted of murdering a guard and a paymaster during an armed robbery in Braintree, Massachusetts. Seven years later, they were electrocuted in the electric chair, ndr).

Luigi Morgante, Regional Councilor of Puglia, believes that the authors captured the history of what happened a hundred years ago as a photography, but that reality is so close to what is happening today. Each one of us leaves the place they were born in for three reasons: for personal and professional affirmation, to escape war, or, which is the worst reason, for hunger and lack of hope in their own country. Who, as Sacco and Vanzetti did leave for this last reason and with new hope, often face prejudice. Ellis Island preserves photographs of Italian immigrants coming to the US. Those men and women have the same gaze that migrants coming to Italy have today, a desperate gaze asking for help. This is why it is so important to read this book, especially for some Italian politicians. It makes you understand what our ancestors went through and what today’s immigrants to Italy are going through, desperation.

Follows Giovanni Cerchia, editor of the book, who explains how the book uses the story of Sacco and Vanzetti to make a broader consideration and also remember the ninetieth of another bloody story. Jerry Essan Masslo, a young South-African man fleeing apartheid, was murdered in Rome during a robbery in 1989. Jerry fled his country as he was facing prosecution, but he couldn’t claim political asylum because, up until 1991, that status was only granted to those fleeing Eastern Europe. Those two events, of Sacco and Vanzetti and of Jerry Essan Masslo, changed the history and identity of Italians, all the Italians. Italy, while being a migratory country, still struggles in accepting this situation. The death of this South-African young man led for a first ever examination by the Italian public opinion of the changes the country faced, which has become not only a country of departure but also one of arrival. In this frame, the understanding of history can help us facing different situations in the future. This is what the book is trying to tell us. Migration was not an accident, but it shaped Italians’ identities. When Italy unified after the Risorgimento, it wasn’t really a resurgence of an entity that existed before, but it was an actual birth of something new. The first commonly accepted Italian unitary experience is World War I but, before that, the first unitary experience was migration. Also, it is worth considering that Italian migrants sent money back to Italy which allowed, and still allows, Italy to develop and grow. This changed Italy’s destiny and transformed the country of departure way before it transformed the country of arrival.

Fred Gardaphe’, director of the Italo-American studies at SUNY, talks about the idea of humor as weapon of mass reduction, which has been used as a tool to create distance between the local population and immigrants in the US (especially Italians). This process creates a distortion of identities and it has two stages: fear of them and familiarity with their peculiarity. This is a process through which minorities have to go before becoming integrated and assimilated. Italians were often misrepresented in satirical cartoons depicting them as ignorant and dangerous, which led to the fact of them being feared and avoided by society. America itself was a young country and was struggling with the definition of “what is American”; it was just learning to see immigrants not only from Italy, but also from other southern and eastern European countries. Americans felt superior to immigrants: as Aristoteles said, people laugh at the misfortune of others because of the joy they feel at being above them. Laughter made the distinction between what was American and what was not. Italians were able to integrate only when they became able to present their own version of themselves through humor.

Augusto Ferraiuolo, visitor professor at Boston University, draws on the previous topic and talks about ethnicity as a tool of social control. For example, soon before the events of Sacco and Vanzetti, the famous Lawrence strike happened in 1912. In January 1912, Massachusetts passed a law cutting the weekly work hours from 56 to 54. The factory owners, then, responded by diminishing the salaries. This is the spark that led the town to start a strike unique in the history of American trade unions. In few hours, 25 thousand workers started to protest. Of those, 7k were Italians, 6k German, 5k Canadian French and 5K Canadian English, 2,5k Polish, 2k Lithuanian, 1k Belgian, about 1k Russian, and so on. Lawrence, being a town of 80k residents, thus had the 75% of the population belonging to different ethnic groups. This strike was noticed by the Industrial Workers of the World, which decides to send two syndicalists, Joseph Ettor and Arturo Giovanniti, to organize it. Some 17 days later, a tragic accident happened: one of the strikers, Anna LoPizzo, gets killed by a stray shot. Three people got arrested for Anna’s murder: the policeman who shot the bullet, but also Ettor and Giovannetti, considered to be responsible for the climate of violence. The strike went on and lasted until March, when it ended with an apparent victory for the trade unions: the strikers didn’t get fired and salaries were raised. The true end of the strike, however, happens at the end of the trial of the two syndicalists, who were let free. This story allows us to make two considerations: first of all, it could be considered a rehearsal for what will happen later to Sacco and Vanzetti; second, that ethnic separation, which in reality is a tool of social control, was finally overcome and substituted by and with a class solidarity. Different ethnicities that were earlier voluntarily separated to exercise the aforementioned control were able to come together. The dialectic between ethnic and political is part of a wider socio-political argument, which is the “American dilemma”: a dilemma between the democratic imperative which constitutes the very foundation of the US, the so-called “American creed, and the American need, which is the capitalistic need of keeping the cost of labor close to zero. How can we overcome this dialectic? The thinkers of the 1800s help us with that by presenting a theory of race and ethnicity which justifies social control. What does it mean to be white? When does one become white? The answer is that this is a social, political, and cultural process. And here comes handy the great invention of the “people in between” concept, people who slowly carve themselves out, in the course of their lives, a spot in the mainstream culture.

Joseph Sciorra, Director for Academic and Cultural Programs at the Calandra Institute, introduces a completely new topic talking about his work on Neapolitan immigrant recordings. When recordings took off, people understood that this is a money maker. There were two types of recording: race recordings for african americans and ethnic recordings for european, latin american, and asian immigrants. Of all the recorded ethnic groups in the US, Italians represented the majority. Among those, many famous Italian recordings addressed the 1927 Sacco and Vanzetti case calling for clemency.

Vito Antonio Leuzzi, director of the Puglia Institute of Anti-fascist and Contemporary Italian History, talks about the effects of not only of the economic migration, but also of the political migration at the beginning of the nineteen hundreds. Those two types of migration converge in the case of Sacco (and Vanzetti). The Sacco brothers already had a political militancy history, they adhered to socialist ideas and were fighting for fundamental rights. Political protests, such as the protests for better life conditions, were drowned in blood. Leagues and political representatives were banned from manifestations. At that time the term “subversive” was created. This word will be then used by fascists and Mussolini to describe and group not only anarchists, socialists, Republicans and communists, but also those practicing a religion different from Catholicism. Another term was created to describe Puglia: “the Puglia of chronic massacres.” All the manifestations to obtain more rights became soon bloody massacres. The years 1907 and 1910 are years of migration for the Sacco brothers and other political activists. The murder of Sacco and Vanzetti unifies the Italians abroad belonging to different political credos. In Italy, there are protests in prisons and other places of confinement. All Italians express solidarity towards the “subversives”. All of this happens during the beginning of the  fascist period (which starts with World War I, ndr) and continues ten years after when laws against blacks and Jews are passed. The story of Sacco and Vanzetti allows us to understand what happens behind the protection of migration, which becomes protection of work and fight against racism. Today’s political climate is bringing the life of migrant people back by decades and the fundamental values of living in society are getting lost. “The memory of Sacco and Vanzetti helps us restoring not only justice, but also dignity where it is trampled” concludes Liuzzi.

Mary Anne Trasciatti from Remember the Triangle Fire Coalition concludes the night reflecting on the word “acceptance.” Acceptance is not the same as achievement. Often Italian-Americans focus on the latter. They celebrate the achievements of politicians, businessmen, and athletes to push for acceptance in the society. But that often doesn’t happen. The struggles of ordinary people are the ones that are worth celebrating and remembering. The “triangle fire” is a story of 146 people who died in 1911 in a fire at the Triangle Waist Company in Greenwich village. The workers on the 9th floor never got the call for the fire, so when they noticed the smoke it was already too late. Some escaped taking the elevator, but many didn’t and 146 of them perished. Joseph Zito, who was maneuvering the elevator, saved many until the elevator collapsed. Many of those who died were women and young people, one third of them were Italian. The Coalition wants to remember them for who they were: hard working, immigrant, women. Those are the people who make America great. Greed and total lack of care for workers caused 146 people to die. The grief for what happened turned into a strong labor movement, which also inspired the protests in Lawrence. Now more than ever, when immigrants are demonized, we need a triangle memorial (that the organization is working on) to remind us of the struggle of our people, to illuminate the way forward and to show what people made to make government accountable.

Every single presentation was unique and original, but conveyed a message of great importance: we can, and need, to learn from history to avoid making the same mistakes. Hopefully, Italy will be able to look back at its origins and prevent tragedies like Sacco’s, Vanzetti’s, and Jerry Essan Masslo’s stories. 

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