The shameful treatment of Italian Immigrants during WWII
show America’s propensity for xenophobic hysteria
Their movements were restricted,
their homes raided;
in some cases, they were interned
The men in suits were at the Maiorana family’s Monterey, California, home again. Mike, the family’s young son, watched as the agents rummaged through their belongings in search of guns, cameras, and shortwave radios. And again, they found nothing. This was during World War II, and the FBI had declared Mike’s mother an “enemy alien.” The sole source of evidence for this allegation was that she was Italian.
Elsewhere in California, an Italian poet’s work was scrutinized for treachery, and a father was hauled off by the FBI, leaving his wife and ten children without a breadwinner for four months. In New York, an Italian opera singer was thrown in prison without charge and just as unceremoniously released. Hundreds of Italian mariners who had been stranded in U.S. waters by the start of the war were loaded into Army trucks and hauled to an internment camp in Missoula, Montana, where some would remain for years.
It was a distinctly American story, revealing the immigration system’s xenophobic through line. Poverty-stricken immigrants who were hated one day were approved of the next, only to be replaced by another allegedly dangerous immigrant group, all under the guise of national security. As beloved as Italian cuisine, sports cars, and fashion are on our shores today, things were different during the first half of the 20th century, especially during WWII....
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Another informative article:
Santa Cruz County History - World War II
Names can tell a lot when researching our Italian roots. But there are some names which tell a sadder tale back several generations or so. Orphans and foundlings in Italy were given special names. This list includes the most common surnames used.
Some means of names are pretty obvious: Bastardo... for bastard. Della Femina for From a Woman. Dell'Amore means From Love. All are a testament to those who came before and the trials they must have gone through to get through troubled times of war or poverty or disgrace. Many suffered through the horrors of war or famine. Anyone bearing these Italian surnames should be proud of what their fore-bearers went through to give life to their children and their children's children.
Although these names do have a high probability of being rooted in an ancestor being orphaned, there are exceptions to this.
Amodio (Love God), Arfanetti (Orphan), Armandonada (Donated by Hand)
Bardotti (The sterile hybrid offspring of a male horse and a female donkey)
Bastardo (Bastard), Circoncisi (Circumcised)
Colombini (Little Dove), Dati (from you)
De Alteriis (Changling), De Angelis (From Angels)
Della Donna (From a Lady), Della Femmina (from a Female)
De Domo Magna ("Of the Ospizio" ,of the Hospital or Hospice)
Degli Esposti (Abandoned)
Della Scala (Name assigned by foundling home in Sienna)
Della Fortuna (from Luck), Della Gioia (From Joy), Della Stella (From a Star)
Della Casagrande (of the Hospital/Orphanage)
Dell 'Amore (from Love), Dell'Orfano (the Orphan)
Del Gaudio (of Grace & Goodness), Diodata (God Diven)
D'Amore (Love), D'Ignoto (from Unknown), Diotallevi (God Raised You)
Esposto, Esposito, Esposuto (Lost)
Fortuna (Luck), Ignotis (Unknown), Incerto (Uncertain) Incognito (Unknown) Innocenti, Innocentini (The Lost Ones)
Mulo (Mule), Naturale (Natural/Careless)
Nocenti, Nocentini (Little Innocent), Ospizio (Foundling Home)
Palma (when child is abandoned on Palm Sunday)
Proietti (Thrown away - also, Projetti, Projetto, assigned by an ospizio in Rome)
Sposito (Lost), Spurio (Illegitimate)
Stellato (The Stars), Trovatello, Trovato (Foundling)
Ventura, Venturini (Angels, Little Angels)
Legislation passed in 1928 outlawed the practice of assigning orphans surnames indicating their illegitimacy or abandonment, but surnames of some sort still had to be given to these children. These were sometimes the surnames of royal and noble families, but more often they were geographical in nature or alluded to the day, month or season of the child's birth (i.e. Sabato, Maggio, Primavera and so forth).
The Great War, as it is called, was a dramatic shift in the way war was waged... with the introduction of tanks, churning up the land as they mowed down anything, and anyone--in their way. Both tanks and cannons pulled on carts meant there would be shells remaining... countless numbers of them seemed to become part of the landscape of war, along with the barbed wire and trenches filled with men and vermin.
Italian soldiers were often stuck in the trenches for extended periods, and somehow, from an urge to ease the boredom or simply forget about the horror and fear, they used the jetsam of the battlefield to create
Shell art (not the seashell type) is one of the most famous types produced in wartime. Soldiers hammered intricate designs into the casings of artillery shells. Smaller ones were decorated and carried in pockets, often made into cigarette lighters. The larger were turned into vases, bowls, ash trays, or cachepots and taken home after the war was over.
The soldiers would use whatever tools they had available, creating a range of designs, often dating and naming the battles and victories they took part in, or simply adorned with flowers to please a loved one waiting back at home.
When you look at the beautiful designs on these pieces, it's a wonder that these men crafted them while the world around them was in chaos.
The Many Reasons for Coming to America
Poverty was the main motivation for an Italian leaving his family and home and putting up with the hardships of traveling to America. In 1898, widespread "bread riots" plagued all of Italy, with people protesting the lack of jobs and the sudden increase in the price of wheat and bread. Other motivators were the constant political strife and the dream to return to Italy with enough money to buy land and improve their lives. Fully 80% of Italians were farmers and couldn't afford modern farming equipment to better their lives. Rural Italians lived in harsh conditions, residing in one-room houses with no plumbing or privacy. In addition, many peasants were isolated due to a lack of roads in Italy.
Most Italians didn't own land, so they were indebted to landlords, who charged high rents and took a portion of their crops. Higher wages in America--as often falsely advertised by many flyers produced by steamship companies--proved to be an attractive draw. AN Italian contadino who farmed year-round might earn 16-30 cents per day in Italy. A carpenter in Italy would receive 30 cents to $1.40 per day, making a 6-day week’s pay $1.80 to $8.40. In America, a carpenter who worked a 56-hour week would earn $18.
Farmers faced even further reasons to immigrate. Besides falling wheat prices, fruit and wine prices were also falling. The phylloxera virus destroyed nearly every grape vine used to produce wine. America was envisioned as a place of opportunity, with abundant land, high wages, lower taxes--and at the time--no military draft. Yes, one more reason why many Italian men wanted to leave Italy... to escape conscription into the military. But still, many wanted only to go to America, earn money and return to buy their own land.
Political hardship was also a factor in motivating immigration. Beginning in 1860, la Guerra dei Contadini del Sud (the Southern Peasants War) began. This was an uprising to resist the changes that the North was forcing on the Southern provinces with the Unification. Led by mostly brigands (many of who had previously had the support of contadini), this was a type of "social banditism" who were rebelling in order to retain their small sphere of power and wealth in their rural areas. The poor contadini were caught suddenly in the cross fire. Later in the 1870s, the government took measures to repress political views such as anarchy and socialism. Many Italians came to the United States to escape political policies and warring factions.
Italian immigrants to the United States from 1890 onward became a part of what is known as “New Immigration,” which is the third and largest wave of immigration from Europe and consisted of Slavs, Jews, and Italians. This “New Immigration” was a major change from the “Old Immigration” which consisted of Germans, Irish, British, and Scandinavians and occurred earlier in the 19th century.
Between 1900 and 1915, 3 million Italians immigrated to America, which was the largest nationality of “new immigrants.” These immigrants, a mix of both artisans and peasants, came from all regions of Italy, but the largest numbers were from the mezzogiorno--Southern Italy. Between 1876 and 1930, out of the 5 million immigrants who came to the United States, fully 80% were from the South, representing such regions as Calabria, Campania, Abruzzi, Molise, Apulia and Sicily. The majority (2/3 of the immigrant population) were farm laborers or laborers, or contadini, as noted on the ship manifests when arriving at Ellis Island. The laborers were mostly agricultural and did not have much experience in industry such as mining and textiles. The laborers who did work in industry had come from textile factories in Piedmont and Tuscany and mines in Umbria and Sicily.
Though the majority of Italian immigrants were laborers, a small population of craftsmen also immigrated to the United States. They comprised less than 20% of all Italian immigrants and enjoyed a higher status than that of the contadini. The majority of craftsmen were from the South and could read and write; they included carpenters, brick layers, masons, tailors, and barbers.
The first wave of Italian immigration began in the 1860s after the Unification of Italy. By 1914, the number of Italians immigrating to the United States reached it's peak at over 280,000 making the journey to America. Since there was a larger population and higher skilled laborers (such as miners) in the industrial northern Italian provinces, a higher number emigrated from the North. But even though the South had a sparser population with less labor skills, more per capita came from these southern regions. In fact, by 1915, the number of emigrants from the South nearly matched those coming from the North.
Due to the large numbers of Italian immigrants, Italians became a vital component of the organized labor supply in America. They comprised a large segment of the following three labor forces: mining, textiles, and clothing manufacturing. In fact, Italians were the largest immigrant population to work in the mines. In 1910, 20,000 Italians were employed in mills in Massachusetts and Rhode Island.
An interesting feature of Italian immigrants to the United States between 1901 and 1920 was the high percentage that returned to Italy after they had earned money in the United States. About 50% of Italians repatriated, which can be interpreted as many having trouble assimilating into the American way of life. Some of this can be blamed on the blatant racist views toward Italians and refusal to hire them for better paying jobs. In the large cities, tenements were essentially slums. If an immigrant couldn't get a decent living wage, they might reconsider trying to raise their family in America. Because Italian immigrants tended to be gregarious--often clustering together in "Little Italys", often they didn't feel there was a need to learn English, another factor in not being able to secure better paying jobs.
Many might have fallen into the trap of getting housing or jobs through a padrone, a boss and middleman between the immigrants and American employers. The padrone was an immigrant from Italy who had been living in America for a while. He at first might seem helpful in providing lodging, functioning as safe "bankers" or money changers (often short changing), and found work for the immigrants (albeit, for a percentage of their earnings). Often, they would get the work that they could do in the apartments they rented to them... making silk flowers, rolling cigars, sewing, etc. After a few years of paying a percentage of their salaries to these padrone, many immigrants got discouraged enough to return to the homeland. At best, these situations became indentured servitude, at worst slavery. Child labor was also a product of these padrone, filling sweat shop factories with children as young as 10 years old.
Prejudice Rears its Ugly Head
Both immigrant contadini and those with skills faced economic as well as ethnic prejudices upon entering the labor force in America. The poor economy caused hostility toward Italians and many were labeled as strikebreakers and wage cutters from 1870 onward. American workers already feared the new mechanization in factories was the cause of taking away their jobs. Job bosses used Italians to fill their jobs as scabs during labor strikes. Prejudices were especially aimed at (as perceived) darker skinned Southern Italians who became scabs during strikes in construction, railroad, mining, long shoring, and industry. The Italian workers were called derogatory names such as:
Italians were the only workers to work along side black people and employers preferred Slovaks and Poles to Italians. At the time, it was said that "railroad superintendents ranked Southern Italians last because of their small stature and lack of strength”. In the mining industry especially there was an ethnic hierarchy: English-speaking workers held the skilled and supervisory positions while the Italians were hired as laborers, loaders, and pick miners.
It was not until the 1920s that Italians became more integrated into the American working class, regardless of whether or not they spoke English. More immigrants started to work at semi-skilled jobs in factories as well as skilled positions but one-third of the population remained unskilled. In trade unions, meetings were held in English and Italians were not elected to official positions.
My Grandfather, Sergio Finzi had made two preliminary Voyages across the Atlantic trying to establish connections and work so he could bring his wife and children over. He was a tailor, a skill he brought with him from Molfetta. They were poor. My father told of not having enough coal or wood to fire up their kitchen stove--the only heat in winter. He said he and his brother walked the railroad tracks to pick up scraps of coal fallen from passing trains. They left school in the fourth grade to help the his familia scrape a living from their new home.
Many Italian immigrants suffered--and endured. We are all proof if this fact. Italian immigrants--as many immigrants from other lands--help build this country. They helped defend it. They assimilated. They became citizens. Paid taxes. Sent their kids to school.
And here we are... over 100 years later and many in our country are still ambivalent or even dead against immigrants. Have we really lost sight of the fact that unless we have 100% Native American blood running through our veins, that we all are descended from immigrants?
Starting in 1888, photographer Jacob Riis, a Danish immigrant, in an attempt to call attention to the suffering of immigrants, photographed the Manhattan tenement slums where Italian (and other) immigrants were living in squalor. He was followed by Lewis Hines, who photographed not only the immigrants and slums but the children who were the most helpless victims of this inflicted poverty.
Enjoy the slide show... and try to remember the hardships our fore-bearers went through to get us where we are today...
When I was growing up in our neighborhood in New Jersey, there were several types of street vendors that appeared every week, each selling wares from a truck: the fruit and vegetable truck was a favorite because of the way he sang his prices; the ice man too, because in summer he'd always leave chunks for us to cool off with; the sound of the coal truck dumping coal down the chutes of the few remaining buildings still using coal as a fuel is also burned in my memory.
But the most interesting to me was the arrotino--the knife grinder. He trudged through the neighborhoods past the Victorian era apartment buildings on foot. I would hear him coming because of the bell he rang while walking--a rather large brass school bell that he swung in sync with his walking gait. When people heard that bell with its distinctive ca-clang-ca-dang pattern, they would grab their dull knifes and scissors or tools and head down to the street to meet him.
Once in a while my mother would hand me the big kitchen knife and a quarter to go and have him sharpen it. This particular man was fairly old (at least to my young eyes) and a bit arched in his back, but yet he carried his entire sharpening rig and stone on his back via two long leather straps, hitched to him like a big-wheel backpack. I remember the grinding wheel being about 18" in diameter attached to a framework of wood. When a customer wanted something sharpened, he'd unhitch himself from the rig, turn the stone upward and start pumping the treadle with one leg while sparks flew. By the time he was finished, we had a shiny, very sharp knife once again... all for 25 cents.
Walking all day long, often through hilly, cobbled streets was hard work, especially while either carrying or pushing a heavy grinder--some having more than one polishing stone and a box to hold more tools of the trade. The push type rolled along inverted and pushed by holding wooden handles. Once the arrotino found customers, he would turn the grinder rig right-side up and start work. The sharpened kitchen knifes for the casalinga, scythes and butchering knives for contadini (farmers), knives for pescivendolo (fish mongers), cleavers for macellai (butchers), scrapers for stuccatori (plasterers), large knives for cacciatori (hunters) and pocket knives for gentiluomini (gentlemen).
The grinding wheel is attached to a rudimentary treadle board which he pumps with one leg to keep the heavy wheel turning. There are either ropes or rubber belts that attach to the various wheels and axles. A can of either water or oil is mounted above the working part of the stone to drip lubricant on the stone while sharpening..
In the old days, l'arrotini were vagabond craftsmen, going from village to village to find clients. He might set up in a village square and eat and sleep where he found food and a hay bed to lay down in. You can imagine that some of his best clients were farmers, not because they might be able to pay his fees, but more often because they could offer food and a comfortable place to sleep. Otherwise, he was mainly self-sufficient, carrying a craticula (an ancient type of BBQ grill), cooking simple meals during his voyages. He cleansed himself at public fountains or in a stream. He returned to his home several times a year, definitely at Christmas and Easter, when a child was born or a relative died, but also for harvesting crops (most in rural Italy still have olives, nuts or grapes to tend).
During the 1950s and 60s the advent of the bicycle grinder rig helped arrotini go further, get more work and return to home more often. The grinding wheel was mounted over the front wheel and attached to the pedals by a second drive chain that could use the pedaling action when a lever was flipped.
Next came the Vespa scooter and the Tre Ruote Ape (three-wheeled vehicle). In both cases, the motor also drove the grinding wheels. The rear compartment of the Tre Ruote was large enough for arrotini to expand their services--refurbishing and refinishing traditional knives, selling new knives and scissors, offering repairs and parts for old style gas kitchen cookers, and selling and repairing umbrellas, of all things!
"Donne! È arrivato l'arrotino! Arrota coltelli, forbici, forbicine, forbici da seta, coltelli da prosciutto!
Donne è arrivato l'arrotino e l'ombrellaio; aggiustiamo gli ombrelli.
Ripariamo cucine a gas: abbiamo i pezzi di ricambio per le cucine a gas.
Se avete perdite di gas noi le aggiustiamo, se la cucina fa fumo noi togliamo il fumo della vostra cucina a gas."
"Ladies! The Grinder is here! Sharpen knives, scissors large and small, sewing scissors, prosciutto knives!
Women, the Grinder and Umbrella Repairman is here; we fix your umbrellas.
We repair gas cookers: we have spare parts for your cookers.
If your gas is leaking, we'll fix it, if your kitchen is smoking we remove the smoke from your gas cooker."
I don't know about you, but I sense a little naughty double entendre in the wording of the announcement... Perhaps the arrotini have sharpened some of their other skills and offer even more personalized services to le donne over the years... putting out the smoking fires in the kitchens of casalinga all over Italy...
Sharpening blades, indeed... Reminds me of the old bawdy blues song lines: "Yea, Babe, I'm your Handyman..." or "Stick out your cans, here comes the garbage man!"
And in Our Video Collection:
Old Roman Knife Grinder (Arrotino) Explains his Craft
L'Arrotini in Venice: Calling All Knife Grinders
L'Arrotino: Knife Grinding on a Vespa
If you CARE, please SHARE. Grazie.
Tombola (or tombala) is a game that is very similar to bingo in the States where numbers are picked from a drum and called out, and players have to cover an entire row to win. It is played pretty much all over Italy from Christmas Eve to the Epihany while the little ones are waiting for La Bufana (the Good Christmas Witch) to come with their presents. Although more modern Tombola sets come with chips or blots to cover the numbers, most people play the traditional way--covering the numbers with torn pieces of orange or tangerine skins or beans or lentils.
The boards are similar to bingo boards, but in Naples the boards are very different. Numbers range from 1 through 90, but the interesting thing is, each number on the board also contains a picture, usually with the name in Italian, Neapolitan dialect and some even have an English translation.
Tombola's roots lie in a fortune telling game that was used hundreds of years ago to predict the future or help understand the meaning of dreams. Each number is represented by a symbol or picture with a particular meaning. The really strange thing is--at least to us Americans--is that many of the pictures are downright rude or sexual. Even stranger is the fact that a religious picture might be right alongside a very naughty one!
Played casually in the home, people may play for small change or Euro coins, but they may also play just for fun... and offer toys, cookies or other dolci as prizes, usually letting the children win. When they do play for money, things can get pretty heated and loud. After all, these are Neapolitans, after all. The peel their oranges, eat the oranges, place pieces of peels on the numbers and laugh and talk for hours on end. It's all in fun and a great way to start the Holiday season on Christmas Eve, or to finish it off when playing on New Year's Eve. There are even television shows that play the game and offer prizes.
If you feel like giving Tombola a try during the holiday season, or any other time of the year, here is an "automatic" Trombola game (on Amazon, $31).
At the beginning of 2017, we've started re-construction and re-organization of Grand Voyage Italy's pages. If you don't find what you are looking for on this new History page, use the Search Box to find what you need. Grazie!