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Emigrant Nation: The Making of Italy Abroad
Emigrant Nation: The Making of Italy Abroad
Mark I. Choate
Harvard University Press, 2008
340 pp., $55.50

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David A. Skeel


Emigrant Nation

Italy, giving and receiving.

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Complementing Choate's retrieval of Italy's monumental efforts to ensure that absence made the hearts of its emigrants grow fonder, other scholars have offered similarly fresh insights into Americans' attitudes toward Italian immigrants in the early 20th century—especially American attitudes about race. Italian immigrants were the Mexicans of their time, viewed with suspicion. Like the Irish, they were associated with heavy drinking, gambling, papacy, and crime. Even worse than the Irish, they had dark skin—at least the Southern Italians had dark skin. Immigrants from Milan or Venice might be treated as white, Northern Europeans, and thus distinguished from countrymen hailing from further down the Italian peninsula.

The question whether to lump Italians together or divide them could generate confusion. In recent work on Western mining districts, Georgetown historian Katie Benton-Cohen has found that Northern Italians were less often discriminated against than Southern, but their arrival starting in 1903 at a "white man's camp" in Bisbee, Arizona, had roiled the miners. Some wanted to admit the Italians, while others grumbled that the Italians "could live as no white man can." At stake was the right to work in higher-paying, underground jobs, which went only to the miners in white camps, or to be limited to unskilled, above-ground work.

The Italian immigrants' reputation for criminal activity—a reputation perpetuated by the Mafia and its portrayal in Gay Talese's Honor Thy Father and Mario Puzo's The Godfather long after the main wave of immigration had passed—was both misleading and based on an element of truth. The truth: more Italians were jailed for murder or attempted murder in the early 20th century than any other immigrant group. The Italian community is repeatedly referenced and given pride of place in the 18th volume, entitled Immigrants and Crime, of a 1907 governmental report on immigration conducted by the Dillingham Commission. Yet the association of Italians in particular, and immigrants in general, with criminal activity also was blown out of proportion. During the height of the immigration boom, overall crime rates seem to have increased only slightly, despite the widespread impression that crime had become rampant.

A century after its emigrants caused so much consternation here in America, Italy is itself fretting over an unsettling wave of dark-skimmed immigrants who seem to trail crime in their wake. Italian newspapers and television feature a steady stream of stories about thefts and other crimes committed by the African immigrants who sell trinkets and Gucci knockoffs in Rome and other cities, and by gypsies descending from Romania.

The demographic imperative that complicates Italy's response to rising rates of legal and illegal immigration is well known. With its dangerously low birthrate, Italy has a rapidly aging population and a need for significant foreign labor, especially in lower paying occupations such as agriculture in the South and industry further north. Like much of Western Europe, Italy can't live without its immigrant population—and is having increasing difficulty living with it. Tensions have flared up repeatedly—most dramatically in Calabria in January 2010, when an attack on an African worker ignited a riot among his fellow immigrants.

The battle lines in the debate will sound familiar to anyone who has followed the endless skirmishing in the United States. Writing on immigration in Italy and Spain, Kitty Calavita has explored the marginalization of immigrants and the obstacles this poses to their full inclusion in society.[2] Many immigrants are trapped in the underground economy, she argues, at least in part because employers benefit from their precarious status; illegal immigrants who fear they will be discovered will work hard for relatively low wages. On the other side are writers—such as Chris Caldwell in his book Reflections on the Revolution in Europe: Immigration, Islam, and the West—who sound the alarm about the threat posed by current immigration or immigrants.

For those interested in a break from this debate, Graziella Parati's Migration Italy is an often refreshing alternative, despite Parati's trendy academic jargon.[3] Her account of a burgeoning literature in first-person immigrant narrative offers an irresistible glimpse into the complex lives that make up the immigration statistics. One of the writers she features is an African woman who lived in Italy, then returned to Kenya to start a restaurant. Io Venditori di elefanti, by Pap Khouma, an African who sold trinkets next to the Vatican Museum, became a bestseller after its publication in 1990; and a book of poems by Gezin Hajari won Italy's leading poetry prize in 1997, suggesting that the new immigrant literature has entered the literary mainstream.

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