Closer Readings Commentary

“The Italian Americans” Premiers!

"Most Italians who came to this country are very patriotic. There was this exciting possibility that if you worked real hard, and you loved something, you could become successful." —Francis Ford Coppola

Trace the evolution of Italian Americans from the late 19th century to today with a new two-part, four-hour NEH-funded documentary series about the Italian experience in America.

Premiering on PBS on two Tuesday nights, February 17 and 24, The Italian Americans reveals the unique and distinctive qualities of one immigrant group’s experience and how these qualities have shaped and challenged America.

The documentary, expertly narrated by actor Stanley Tucci, features some famous larger-than-life figures of the Italian American community: from Fiorello La Guardia to Mario Cuomo; from Rudolph Valentino to Frank Sinatra; from Sacco and Vanzetti to Joe Valachi; and from Bank of America founder A. P. Giannini to Chef Boyardee. But the program also encompass the experiences of ordinary Italian Americans from all walks of life.

Unlike the members of some other immigrant groups, many Italians did not come to America to stay. At the turn of the 20th century, most came to work, earn money to support their families, and eventually return to Italy. Nearly half of first generation Italian immigrants did return. For those that made America home, their struggle to maintain a distinct Italian culture was guided by remarkably powerful ideals that had always been at the center of their lives.

Each immigrant group possesses its own strategy for survival and success. The Italian strategy rested upon two pillars: work and family. Italian immigrants helped to provide the labor for American factories and mines and helped build roads, dams, tunnels, and other infrastructure. Their work gave them a small economic foothold in American society and allowed them to provide for their families, which stood at the core of Italian American life.

In the Italian family, the needs of the collective came before the individual—a value system often at odds with American ideals of freedom and personal choice. Although the power of the Italian family was a source of its strength, its enclosed nature also bred suspicion among outsiders and led to the popular media’s caricature of this group as the dark, criminal element in American society. This stigma remained intact through generations of Italian Americans; and as this group entered positions of political, social, and cultural influence, it left its mark on the American landscape.

No longer viewed as “outsiders” subject to suspicion and mistrust, Italian Americans are today some of the most prominent leaders of U.S. business, politics, and the arts. The series peels away myths and stereotypes to reveal a world uniquely Italian and uniquely American.

Preview The Italian Americans here:

February 17

La Famiglia Roots 18901910

A brief history of the Italian Risorgimento provides the context for the great flight from the Mezzogiorno (southern Italy). By the late 19th century, a number of “Little Italys” had sprung up in urban areas throughout the U.S. But those of the first generation, holding onto language and culture, were branded as “outsiders” and mistrusted by non-Italians. In New Orleans, this mistrust exploded into violence; in San Francisco, a second-generation Italian American saved his community from disaster while creating one of the greatest financial institutions in America.

Becoming Americans 19101930

At the turn of the 20th century, more than four million Italians had immigrated to America. Leonard Covello was forced to give up his Old World ways and adopt American mores; Arturo Giovannitti, a new immigrant, led the largest labor strike of 1912, pushing for better working conditions and wages. Italian Americans worshiped in the basements of churches controlled by the Irish archdiocese; anarchists Sacco and Vanzetti were executed, reinforcing stereotypes that continue to plague Italian Americans today. With the advent of Prohibition came a new kind of criminal—one who took shortcuts to success. 

February 24

Loyal Americans 19301945

A second generation of Italian Americans began to enter the labor movement and achieved celebrity status in politics, sports, and entertainment. Fiorello LaGuardia became mayor of New York City. Joe DiMaggio became a baseball powerhouse and an American hero. But with the outbreak of World War II, loyalty to America was questioned, and Italians were forced to choose between two nations at war. While many Italian Americans fought with valor and bravery, others were labeled “enemy aliens.” The war proved to be a turning point for Italian Americans as they began to break out of their enclaves.

The American Dream 1945Present

In post-war America, Italian Americans entered the middle class. Italian American crooners such as Frank Sinatra defined American cool. But even as he skyrocketed to fame, Sinatra was subjected to accusations of Mafia ties. Governor Mario Cuomo, son of Italian immigrants, struggled to straddle both worlds, while his sons’ successes promised assimilation and acceptance. Antonin Scalia became the first Italian American appointed to the U.S. Supreme Court and Congresswoman Nancy Pelosi was the first woman and Italian American elected to Speaker of the House.