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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., 66.0

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David A. Skeel

Emigrant Nation

Italy, giving and receiving.

Students who were planning to take the Italian Advanced Placement Exam last year got some bad news: the College Board dropped Italian after 2009. With only 1,930 test takers in 2008, student interest was weak. But the coup de grâce came from across the Atlantic. Italy had pitched in $300,000 a few years earlier, and a fresh contribution apparently could have saved the program. But this time Italy decided to pass. Fortunately, after a one-year hiatus, the longstanding commitment was renewed, and the Italian AP exam will be back in action in 2011.

Readers of Mark Choate's splendid book Emigrant Nation will be able to understand how Italy came to finance an American placement exam in the first place, long after the historic waves of emigration to the United States. Who would even think to ask the Italian government to pony up funds? (Answer, for those who can't wait: anyone who is familiar with Italy's relationship with its emigrants over the past century.)

Italian emigration across the Atlantic—principally to the United States and Argentina—dates back to the decades after Italy became a unified country in 1871. In the beginning, Argentina was the destination of choice, but emigration to the United States surged at the end of the century. From 1891-1900, 651,893 Italians came to America, and the number leapt to 2,135,877 the following decade before dropping precipitously after World War I. Economic factors were the most obvious reason for much of the migration. Thousands of Italians found themselves on small farms as a result of the redistribution of church property after reunification. Population growth and competition from cheaper sources of grain like the United States and Russia made it increasingly difficult to scratch out a livelihood, which pushed many to consider relocating.

The revolution in transportation—the very development that put pressure on small Italian farms by lowering the cost of importing grain—also made it easier to migrate than ever before. Between 1861 and the end the century, the rail network increased tenfold, from 1,623 to 16,053 kilometers; a new link to a ferry between Sicily and the mainland provided further integration. Changes in the ocean crossing were equally dramatic. Prior to this era, sailing ships took between five weeks and two months to cross to New York City from Naples. By the turn of the century, when steamships were used, the crossing took ten to twelve days. The trip was more predictable, slightly cheaper, and—most important—living in the fetid, packed, unhealthy bowels of a ship was appreciably less perilous for ten days than for a two-month journey.

As with Mexico today, Italian officials never seriously interfered with emigration; it was an essential safety valve for the pent-up pressures caused by declining economic opportunity. But their enthusiasm ran hot and cold, and their stock narratives about the meaning of the exodus shifted. From the end of the 19th century until shortly before World War I, Italy treated its emigrants as emissaries of Italian life and culture, encouraging the formation of patriotic societies abroad and claiming their successes as successes for Italy. The Italian hero of A Merchant Prince, a popular, propagandistic 1899 novel by Luigi Einaudi, was an inspiring role model for this vision. By building a thriving network of textile factories, and rising to a position of social prominence in Brazil and Argentina, he lifts high the name of Italy. In the 1910s, Italy adopted a more colonialist stance, characterizing Italian communities abroad as outposts of Italian empire. New York, in this period, briefly became Nuova Jork in the official literature.

The Dante Alighieri Society, a key vehicle for these efforts, had a double task. Founded in 1889, the Society promoted Italian emigrants' identification with their homeland. But because Italy's liberal governments were constantly plagued by doubts as to whether Italy really was a single, coherent nation, the Society also had to persuade local Italians of their common bonds. To counter the profusion of dialects, one of the major obstacles to unity, the Society insisted that all Italians should master standard Italian, "the language of Dante." "The aim was not to speak Italian well," Choate writes, "but to speak well of Italy. Language could be the lynchpin of informal empire."

For much of the 20th century, Italy's stance toward its citizens' migration to America and elsewhere figured very little, if at all, in the American scholarly literature. Immigration history centered exclusively on questions of assimilation: how and when did Irish or German or Chinese—or Italian—immigrants become fully American? The classic in this genre was Oscar Handlin's book The Uprooted, which won the Pulitzer Prize for 1951. "These scholars," as one historian puts it, "saw uprooted and socially disorganized immigrants who were shunted from place to place by the impersonal push and pull of demographic conditions. Once immigrants arrived in the United States, according to these historians, they inevitably progressed toward complete assimilation in the dominant host culture."[1]

Emigrant Nation reflects the shift in the last several decades to a more pluralistic perspective—one that considers the sending nation as well as the receiving one, and no longer assumes that assimilation is always the goal. Choate traces the ideology of Italian emigration and the institutions that facilitated and shaped it as millions of Italy's citizens, especially from the depressed South, departed for North and South America. (The desolation of the region left behind is poignantly chronicled in Carlo Levi's astringent memoir Christ Stopped at Eboli, about his exile by the Fascist regime in this land from which the "men have gone and the women have taken over"; the perils of immigration are brilliantly chronicled in stories such as Leonardo Sciascia's "The Long Crossing," about would-be emigrants who are hoodwinked by the shipping company they pay for transit.)

Italian history "offered two very different models for achieving imperial greatness based upon population settlement," Choate writes. The first took the expansion of the Roman Empire as its touchstone: "Ancient Roman legions had conquered and then settled colonies in the Mediterranean, spreading Italian language and culture by force as well as by persuasion." The Venetian and Genoan trading empires of the medieval era suggested an alternative strategy: "Instead of exploiting foreign populations by force, Italy's 'colonies' of emigrants would voluntarily maintain ties with their mother country, at less expense and with less bloodshed." In this second model, the millions of Italian emigrants would form a vast, interconnected trading network.

In 1890, Italian prime minister Francesco Crispi inaugurated the Roman model by establishing an Italian colony in Eritrea in East Africa. "What is our purpose in Eritrea?", he asked. "Our purpose is the institution of a colony that can accommodate that immense emigration which goes to foreign lands, placing this emigration under the dominion and laws of Italy." The African natives were less enthusiastic than Crispi, however, and the colonial experiment ended quickly and badly; in 1896, the Italian army was humiliated by its Ethiopian counterparts at Adwa, a defeat which prompted Italy to shut down the colony.

Fifteen years later, Italian nationalists reinterpreted Italy's Eritrean experience as a failure of nerve, arguing that Crispi's experiment would have succeeded if Italy had not abandoned it at the first sign of trouble. The nationalists goaded Italy into war with Libya in 1911, unleashing a new wave of imperialist sentiment that centered on Libya as the site for another go at establishing a colonial outpost.

After each of these bouts of militaristic fervor, Italian leaders promoted the second, trade-oriented model. The two most important chapters of Emigrant Nation recount Italy's substantial efforts to strengthen its emigrants' ties to their homeland. After rampant abuses of emigrants by private Italian bankers, the Banco di Napoli set up branch offices throughout the Americas to handle the flow of remittances back to emigrants' family members in Italy. Closely tied to the Italian government, Chambers of Commerce aggressively promoted the trade and manufacturing of Italian goods not just at home but also abroad, reasoning that the growth of Italian-run businesses abroad would spur demand for Italian exports.

These business and financial efforts were supplemented by a wide range of cultural initiatives. Italian societies sponsored patriotic celebrations on foreign soil, vestiges of which still remain—as in the "race of the saints" celebration in northeastern Pennsylvania, which mirrors the original festival in Gubbia, Italy. In addition to these celebrations and the Dante Alighieri Society's efforts to foster patriotism, Italy also promoted Italian language schools in both North and South America. In 1910 alone, Choate reports, the Italian government spent 1.65 million lire to help fund Italian schools abroad, three-quarters of which went to 93 schools run by the Italian state, with the remainder split between 301 secular private schools and 244 religious schools, all but a few of which were Catholic. This history of sizable financial commitment to Italian language schools on foreign soil brings Italian subsidy of the American Advanced Placement Exam into perspective.

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.

If race is a constant preoccupation in the thinking about immigration, religion seems to come and go. In the early 20th century, Progressive scholars—most of them liberal Protestants or nonreligious—often treated Italian and other European immigrants' Catholicism as monolithic and oppressive. In a World War I-era study of Philadelphia's Polish community, a team led by the pragmatist philosopher and education theorist John Dewey characterized the Catholic Church as a suffocating influence that thwarted integration. Priests controlled political meetings and dictated the parishes' participation in local and national politics; the church stood as a "many-sided and in some ways impossible barrier to the democratization of the communities it controls." The investigators concluded that the community, with its church domination, was "a world which is simply not our world, a world in which independent criticism and disinterested science is and must remain unknown, a world which still abounds with the primitive concepts and fancies of the middle ages."

The Madonna of 115th Street, Robert Orsi's famous study of the Italian community in Harlem from 1880 to 1950, offers a more finely textured account of the neighborhood's "faith and community," as the subtitle puts it, and its central motif is the annual outdoor festival of the Madonna.[4]But even here, the church is a distant presence. There is no mention of ordinary masses or church activities, and priests figure only as occasional symbols of oppression. ("Free of the domus-[i.e. household] centered constraint of having to work and standing outside the life of the domus by vocation," Orsi writes, "the priest is a threat to the domus, an outlaw to popular values.") The community's piety is a home-based, folk religion.

Only recently has work on American immigration begun to give adequate attention to the role of religion in the immigrant experience, and deeply entrenched academic bias persists. John Wilson has recounted in these pages reading a book about Filipino Americans—who are vibrantly and overwhelmingly Catholic—"that performed the astonishing feat of almost entirely ignoring the place of Christianity in their lives."

But if one is prone to see glasses as half full, the erratic treatment of religion in studies of immigration has the feel of an invitation. One obvious subject for inquiry is the feedback effect between the church in an immigrant's home country and that of her destination. Given that roughly two-thirds of the immigrants who come to the United States are Christians, immigration inevitably will alter the ethnic complexion of American Christianity. As Joel Carpenter has pointed out, this affects not only the Catholic Church—which is now 30 percent Latino in the U.S.—but also evangelicalism, given that 15 percent of recent Latino immigrants are evangelical. One can imagine ways that the influx of new Christians could shape American Christianity. Polling data suggests, for example, that Latino immigrants are very conservative on moral issues such as abortion and homosexuality, but liberal on welfare issues. Asian immigrant churches are often more comfortable with women in leadership roles than evangelical churches that hold otherwise comparable values.

A second question is whether and how religion affects immigrants' involvement in other community groups. Are religious immigrants more or less likely than nonreligious immigrants to "bowl alone," to use sociologist Robert Putnam's evocative phrase? Here, important efforts are already underway, in work by sociologist Elaine Howard Ecklund and several co-authors studying the community involvement of Asian American and other communities. In several studies with Jerry Park, Ecklund found that Protestant Asian Americans were more likely than unaffiliated Asian Americans to participate in community organizations, but Buddhist and Hindu Asian Americans participated less. Ecklund and Park speculate that the low levels of Buddhist and Hindu community involvement could reflect either their more individual mode of worship or their " 'double-minority status,' as members of a minority racial group and a minority religion." In a larger, ongoing project, Ecklund and Michael Emerson are looking at six different communities in an effort to more fully track the links between ethnicity, religion, and community engagement.

Still another question is whether the trauma of immigration alters immigrants' attitudes toward religion and religious observance. For some, immigration—which is an exodus, potentially entailing as many reversals as the original Exodus—may itself be a religious experience; or an experience that causes them to rethink their understanding of their religious commitments.

So many questions, such a promising time for those who would pursue the avenues that have often been neglected, but are neglected no more, in recent immigration studies.

It is not too bold an assessment to say that Emigrant Nation and the other books and articles touched on here are the seeds of a new way of doing immigration history. The ideology and institutions established by the emigrant nation offer telling clues as to the reason for and significance of immigration, and may influence whether the emigrants assimilate in the receiving country, return to their homeland, or neither assimilate nor return. The communities that immigrants join or do not join, and the role that religion or ethnicity plays, will tell us still more about both immigration and the nature of our communities. I have not connected these insights in any direct way to the controversial new Arizona law directing its officials to step up their efforts to enforce the immigration laws, or to the even larger quest for a "comprehensive" solution to our immigration woes. I leave that to the reader. But it seems to me that the implications are obvious.

David Skeel, a law professor at the University of Pennsylvania, blogs about Christianity, law, literature, and other topics at lessleast.com.

1. The quote and some of the details come from another fine book on Italian immigration, Samuel L. Baily, Immigrants in the Lands of Promise: Italians in Buenos Aires and New York City, 1870-1914 (Cornell Univ. Press, 1999). The quote appears at p. 10.

2. Kitty Calavita, Immigrants at the Margins: Law, Race, and Exclusion in Southern Europe (Cambridge Univ. Press, 2005).

3. Graziella Parati, Migration Italy: The Art of Talking Back in a Destination Culture (Univ. of Toronto Press, 2005).

4. Robert Orsi, The Madonna of 115th Street: Faith and Community in Italian Harlem, 1880-1950 , 3rd ed. (Yale Univ. Press, 2010).

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