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FORGING AN ETHNIC IDENTITY: THE CASE OF ITALIAN

AMERICANS
Stefano Luconi

Belin | « Revue française d’études américaines »

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2003/2 no96 | pages 89 à 101
ISSN 0397-7870
ISBN 2701134498
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3450_03_xp_rfea96_p089_101 27/06/05 17:26 Page 89

sur les politiques de l’identité


Point de vue …

Forging an Ethnic Identity:


The Case of Italian Americans*
Stefano LUCONI
University of Florence

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mots-clés/key-words
L’esprit de clocher caractérisa les immigrés italiens aux
États-Unis entre la fin du XIXe siècle et la Première Guerre
Italo-américain ; mondiale. Au cours des deux décennies suivantes, la diffusion
Immigration ; Nationalisme ; du nationalisme stimulé par la guerre et par le fascisme, la fin
Identité ethnique ; de l’immigration de masse en provenance d’Italie, l’émer-
1900-1945 gence d’une nouvelle génération d’Italo-Américains nés aux
* États-Unis et surtout la discrimination anti-italienne conduisi-
Italian-Americans; rent les Italo-Américains à développer une conscience eth-
Immigration; Nationalism;
nique italienne.
Ethnic identity; 1900-1945

D
D onna R. Gabaccia has remarked that scholarship once “approached
ethnicity as primordial, essential, and unchanging.” Such an interpreta-
tion, however, is no longer viable. Following Werner Sollors, subsequent
research has pointed out that ethnicity is a social construction that undergoes
a continuous process of renegotiation as some individuals assert the sense
of peoplehood that they share by classifying other members of the same
society as aliens according to a criterion of inclusion and exclusion based
on allegedly inherited biological or cultural differences.1
This article represents a case study of the reshaping of ethnic identi-
ties. It focuses on Italian immigrants and their American-born offspring in
the United States2 and examines how they re-elaborated their self-images
between the late nineteenth century and the end of World War II.

Local allegiances and ethnic identity


Italy achieved unification late. The process of state building began in the
mid-nineteenth century and was not completed until the end of World War I.
Notwithstanding the rhetoric of the Risorgimento, the somehow elitist movement
for the political unity of the peninsula, this delay let most Italians long retain
a parochial sense of regional, provincial, and even local affiliation. Such an

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STEFANO LUCONI

attitude, which is better known by the term campanilismo after the Italian
word for bell tower, usually confined people’s attachments to their respective
hometowns or—as the Italian expression suggests—within the earshot of the
bells of their villages.3
The Italian expatriates who reached the United States primarily from
northern regions before the beginning of mass migration in the 1880s included
a few political exiles with a strong national consciousness. This awareness,
however, did not characterize the bulk of their fellow countrymen from southern

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provinces who followed in their footsteps en masse in the subsequent
decades. Thus, most immigrants hardly thought of themselves as members
of the same nationality group between the late nineteenth century and the
outbreak of World War I.4
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Used to considering their hometowns as “a little world unto itself,” as


Italian consul Luigi Villari once put it, newcomers generally defined them-
selves by their association with their native villages rather than with their
country of origin. Intraregional rivalries, along with disparate dialects and
traditions, estranged Italian immigrants. Maria Laurino, for instance, has
remarked that even “towns only about forty miles apart [...] had a distinct
dialect, nurtured for centuries by separate cultural influences and foreign
rule.” Likewise, Joseph Napoli has recalled that his Sicilian mother—who
was born in San Biagio, in the province of Messina—could not stand fellow
Sicilians from Palermo. She also included people from other southern-Italian
backgrounds in her maledictions:
Her special detestation was reserved for the Neapolitans. [...] She hated them openly.
[...] With the index and little finger of her left hand she threw “corni”—horns—at
their home or when she saw them in the distance. She crossed the street to avoid
walking near the house or near them, thus eluding their malice and their own
potent evil eye. She hoped the horns would cause the malefactors to be stricken
with indescribable diseases, the unmarried daughters to be impregnated by devils,
and the family reduced to beggary.5

In addition, most immigrants came to the United States through chain


migration based on family and village connections. Those who had already
settled in America were instrumental in persuading relatives and friends into
making their way across the ocean and supplied them with lodging in their
own homes or in the vicinity of their houses. Thus, fellow villagers and
people from the same region or province ended up clustering together in
self-segregated neighborhoods within the broader Italian settlements.
Actually, with regard to New York City’s Italian-American community,
Luigi Villari remarked in 1912 that
Some neighborhoods are inhabited exclusively by newcomers from a given region; we
can find only Sicilians in a street, only people from Calabria in another street, and
immigrants from Abruzzi in a third one. There are even streets where only individuals

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FORGING AN ETHNIC IDENTITY: THE CASE OF ITALIAN AMERICANS

from a single town live: a colony from Sciacca here, a colony from San Giovanni in
Fiore there, a colony from Cosenza somewhere else.6
Since previous immigrants also helped newcomers to find jobs
generally where they themselves were employed, Italians usually grouped
with fellow villagers and shied away from people from other regional
backgrounds in the workplace, too. This was, for instance, the case of
Angelo Pellegrini, an immigrant from Casabianca in Tuscany. His uncle, an
assistant foreman for the Northern Pacific Railroad in Washington State,

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provided him with a job in his own gang of eighty workers. When Pellegrini
joined the other laborers, he discovered that “the men of that gang were all
Tuscans, people like yourself; several of them were from Casabianca and
adjacent communities.”7
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Subnational divisions extended to religious life as well. Although the


great bulk of Italian immigrants were Catholics, residual paganism and the
absence of formal observance distinguished the practices of southern Italians
from the more orthodox rites of the northerners. These differences
contributed to exacerbate regional antagonism within Italian parishes and to
split congregations along lines of local loyalties. As a result, for instance, in
New York City, northern Italians refused to attend the same mass services as
southern fellow countrymen from Naples. Likewise, Sicilians boycotted the
church of St. Ambrose in St. Louis, Missouri, because immigrants from
Lombardy allegedly controlled the parish. In Providence, Rhode Island,
cleavages between northerner and southerner Italian Catholics were so
disruptive that these latter repeatedly petitioned their bishop to have their
pastor from northern Italy replaced with a priest from the South.8
Social life, too, reflected the subnational identifications of the Italian
immigrants. Embodying the romantic ideals of its founder, Vincenzo Sellaro,
the Order Sons of Italy in America—a nationwide organization with lodges
in most Italian-American settlements—accepted for membership individuals
of Italian descent regardless of their, or their parents’, place of origin in the
mother country. Yet campanilismo and the ensuing localistic antipathies
generally prevented immigrants from establishing nationally integrated
ethnic societies. Julian Miranda has recalled that his grandfather, an immigrant
from Sicily, founded a “society [that] was composed of people from his home
town” only because he “was resentful of the behavior and attitude of non-
Sicilian Italians.” Indeed, at their inception, most Italian mutual-aid and
fraternal associations admitted exclusively those Italians who had come
from a specific region, province, or even village, and barred from member-
ship all the people who had been born elsewhere. For instance, only immi-
grants from Abruzzi and their offspring could join the Fratellanza Abruzzese
in Providence, and the Ateleta Beneficial Association in Pittsburgh,
Pennsylvania, included solely newcomers from the village of Ateleta and their

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STEFANO LUCONI

children. The local denomination of a number of Italian-American associations


in Chicago in the 1920s (Sicilian Union, Tuscan Club, Turin Society, and Pisa
Society) also demonstrates the subnational concentration of their members.9
Organizations named after prominent Italian figures revealed member-
ships shaped by local origins as well. For example, the Società Guglielmo
Marconi in Providence was composed of people from the island of Ischia
alone. Regionalism affected even associations that intended to help immi-
grants supersede the legacy of their ancestral country and accommodate

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within U.S. society. This was, for instance, the case of the Americanization
Club in Jeanette, Pennsylvania. As an informant has recalled:
The Americanization Club didn’t take members for a long time if they weren’t
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northern Italians. [...] It was an irony [that] you could not get into the
Americanization society if you were not northern Italian or married to one.10

The Making of Italians in the United States


Americans of Anglo-Saxon descent and other immigrant minorities
usually failed to realize the existence of subnational differences among the new-
comers from Italy. The Wasp establishment and the members of the ethnic
groups that had preceded the mass arrival of Italians in the United States usually
made the latter victims of intolerance because of their national origin on the
grounds that Italy was a backward country. Thus, Italian immigrants from dis-
parate regions ended up sharing a common experience of widespread discrimi-
nation and bigotry regardless of their different local extractions. The image of
individuals from Italian backgrounds as members of a single inferior people
enjoying gregarious life, substandard living conditions, and prone to violence and
criminal activities was commonplace in public opinion at large. Rosario
Ingargiola has remembered that “the Irish were prejudiced against the Italians
and they thought themselves superior to the Italians because they knew the lan-
guage and controlled the politics.” Geraldine Ferraro has similarly recalled that
Italian immigrants, especially from the south, were considered inherently lower
class by other Americans, and they were a common target of abuse. In New York,
where the Irish were more established and controlled the Catholic Church and the
political machinery, discrimination against Italian Americans was codified—
expressed both formally and informally.11

Federal and state statistics initially distinguished northern from southern


immigrants. Yet the 1921 and 1924 Quota Acts discriminated against
prospective Italian newcomers by granting them only 42,057 and 5,802
immigrant visas per year, respectively, without taking into account their
regional backgrounds. As many as 349,042 Italians had arrived in the United
States in 1920 alone. But legislators wanted to curb immigration from Italy as
a whole because they regarded the Italians as undesirable people.12

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FORGING AN ETHNIC IDENTITY: THE CASE OF ITALIAN AMERICANS

Ethnic prejudice affected individuals of Italian ancestry especially on


the job market. “No Guineas” was a common sign at places of employment
in order to discourage Italians and Americans of Italian descent from
applying by using a derogatory term to refer to them. Those who managed to
get work were usually relegated to low-paying positions. For instance, in the
laundry where Rose Vigilante worked in the 1910s,
The Irish girls worked upstairs on the street level, ironing rich people’s fancy

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clothes. We Italian girls worked in the basement, doing the flat work, folding pillow
cases, handkerchiefs, and sheets.13

Frank Sgambato, a textile worker from Providence, had analogous


recollections for the 1930s:
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There was an opening for a hand-twister’s job in the Esmond Mill. [...] The boss in
the finishing room wouldn’t transfer me to the weaving room [...]. I knew it was a
skilled craft; the job was more or less noted to be an English job, they had very few
mixed nationalities, and an Italo-American going into a twisting job was a little
hard to accept.14

However, Italian Americans, too, began to close ranks across subnational


lines in the interwar years. These two decades witnessed the appearance of a
U.S.-born second-generation of individuals who had loose ties to the land of
their parents and could hardly understand the local divisions and petty rival-
ries that had separated their fathers and mothers. Furthermore, the end of
mass immigration from Italy by the late 1920s in the wake of the passing of
the 1921 and 1924 Quota Acts and the enactment of Fascist anti-emigration
policies after 1927 discontinued the influx of newcomers from Italy that had
until then helped fan the flames of localistic divisions among people from
Italian backgrounds.15
The companies that employed foreign-born workers and agencies such
as the Foreign Language Information Service devoted their efforts to promote
the Americanization of immigrant minorities in the war and interwar years.
Yet the persistence of the nationalistic feelings that had emerged following
the outbreak of World War I and the rise of fascism to power in Italy led to a
further development of the national Italian identity of the newcomers and
their offspring.16
World War I made a major contribution to the demise of local loyalties.
As Italy’s declaration of war on Austria in 1915 enabled ethnic leaders,
organizations, and newspapers to set off a wave of nationalistic fervor, the
rank and file members of Italian-American communities discovered that
they had something in common despite their different places of origin in the
mother country. In addition, after decades of ethnic stereotyping in their
adoptive society, Italian Americans realized that their national extraction was
no longer a stigma when the United States became an ally of Italy in the

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STEFANO LUCONI

conflict. The war-induced nationalistic sentiments were strong enough to


overcome the pacifist propaganda of a few radical groups and persuade tens
of thousands of reservists to go back to their fatherland and enlist in the Italian
army. Analogous feelings led many Italian Americans who remained in the
United States to raise money for the war efforts of their ancestral country and
Italian soldiers’ families.17
In a few years, Italy’s alleged accomplishments under the Fascist
regime further encouraged Italian immigrants and their offspring to identify

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with their motherland. Benito Mussolini’s seizure of power revitalized radi-
calism in the “Little Italies” after leftist movements had undergone a decline
in the wake of the Red Scare of 1919. Yet the Duce’s opponents remained a
minority within Italian-American communities until Italy’s entry into World
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War II ended the appeasement toward fascism that both the Republican and
Democratic administrations had pursued in the 1920s and 1930s.
Mussolini’s popularity in the United States as a modernizer and a Bolshevik
buster, along with the status of Great Power that Italy enjoyed under the
Duce, let people of Italian descent take pride in their national origin because
their ancestral land did not seem a backward country any longer in the eyes
of American public opinion. In a wartime exculpatory interpretation of
Italian Americans’ attachment to the regime of their ancestral country,
Constantine Panunzio contended that “Italian Americans, being human
and needing a prop to sustain them in a world where many people with
whom they had to deal regarded them as inferior, looked on fascism as
their savior.” Even anti-Fascists agreed. As one of them acknowledged
with reference to Mussolini:
You have got to admit one thing: he enabled four million Italians in America to hold
up their heads, and that is something. If you had been branded as undesirable by a
quota law you would understand how much that means.18

Italian Americans’ support for fascism and their sense of national pride
reached a climax when Italy invaded Ethiopia in October 1935 and established
its own colonial empire in May 1936. At that time, many Italian Americans
made a point of challenging the economic sanctions that the League of
Nations had passed against Mussolini’s government. During the seven
months of the Italo-Ethiopian War, Italian Americans raised money for the
Italian Red Cross (which was nothing more than an ingenious way of funding
the Duce’s military machinery under a humanitarian cover-up) and donated
their wedding rings and other gold objects to the Fascist war chest. Such
financial contributions amounted to $700,000 in New York City, nearly
$65,000 in Philadelphia, about $40,000 in San Francisco, and over $37,000
in Providence, while roughly 100,000 gold rings were sent to Rome from
New England, New York State, and New Jersey.19

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FORGING AN ETHNIC IDENTITY: THE CASE OF ITALIAN AMERICANS

Italian Americans enthusiastically participated in such drives in small


towns, too. In Norristown, Pennsylvania, for instance, the S.S. Salvatore Society
donated the Italian Red Cross $336. For the Fascist regime such amount of
money was obviously a drop in the ocean. But it was more than a fourth of the
funds which that mutual-aid association had saved to assist its own members.20
Fascist-induced nationalism made inroads even into working-class
strongholds that should have been the most immune to jingoistic sentiments.
Luigi Antonini, the general secretary of the Italian-language Local 89 of the

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International Ladies Garment Workers Union, was one of the most vocal
Italian-American opponents of Mussolini’s colonial venture. But his anti-
Fascist appeals often fell on deaf ears. Remarkably, a member of Local 89,
John Milazzo, maintained:
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I collected money for the Italian Red Cross twice in the factory where I work and
shall initiate additional fund-raisings until our beloved Duce orders our brothers
who are bravely fighting in Africa to lay their arms. [...]. I am not and shall never
be a Fascist, but I am Italian, an unrepentant Italian.21

Girolamo Valenti’s socialist-oriented La Stampa Libera, too, was the


target of the resentment of its own readers for its stand against the Italo-
Ethiopian War. For instance, Santo Farina retorted in a letter to this news-
paper that “celebrating the victory of our soldiers” against Ethiopia was
“our duty as real Italians” and added that “wishing Italy’s defeat to dis-
please Mussolini was ridiculous.” Against this backdrop, American Labor
Party Congressman Vito Marcantonio decided not to attend a rally against
the Fascist invasion of Ethiopia for fear of losing the votes of his large
Italian-American constituency in East Harlem.22
The spread of such patriotic and nationalistic feelings contributed to
defuse campanilismo and caused changes in the membership requirements
of many Italian ethnic organizations. The elaboration of these new rules
gives further evidence of the transformation of the subnational self-images
of people from Italian backgrounds into a single Italian identity in the
interwar years. By the mid 1930s, most Italian ethnic associations, including
those that chose to retain regional denominations, opened their doors to
individuals from anywhere in Italy. As Il Progresso Italo-Americano, the
leading Italian-language daily in the country, pointed out in 1934 “there
cannot be differences between a Lombard and a Roman, between a
Venetian and a Sicilian, between a Piedmontese and a Neapolitan. The
increasing difficulties in our lives require solidarity, not divisions.” 23
The renegotiation of ethnic identities affected religious life, too. In New
York City, for example, devotion to the Virgin of Mount Carmel superseded
the cult of local patron saints by the late 1920s. In addition, many Italian-
American Catholic priests embraced fascism after the 1929 covenant between

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STEFANO LUCONI

the Vatican and Mussolini’s government and contributed to the nationaliza-


tion of their parishioners by spreading patriotic ideals among them.24
The American-raised offspring of the Italian immigrants was more
tolerant of regional diversities and more inclined to join forces with fellow
Italians than their parents had been. Moreover the extolment of nationalism by
Fascist propaganda played a role in the breakdown of provincialism. In
Providence, for instance, the local Italian-language weekly Italian Echo urged
its readers to follow the example of Mussolini’s regime and disband all village-

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based and regional associations in the community. A number of mergers across
local divisions actually occurred in the city’s Italian-American social clubs.25
However, the American environment also played a significant role in
reshaping the ethnic identity of Italian immigrants and their offspring.
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Indeed, defensiveness against discrimination was the main force that


bound together people from different Italian regional backgrounds in the
United States. The calls for unity usually resulted from the awareness that
the children and the grandchildren of the Italian newcomers had to close
ranks regardless of the place where their ancestors had been born in order to
stand up for their rights and to compete successfully with other immigrant
communities. Indeed, tensions among various ethnic minorities escalated
during the economic crisis of the 1930s as they struggled with one another for
cheap housing and job opportunities in the wake of the Depression. Il
Progresso Italo-Americano warned that, as regionalism had made Italy into
an easy prey to foreign states before the Risorgimento, local divisions would
let other nationality groups dominate Italian Americans. Similarly, the
Milwaukee-based monthly Italian Leader urged its readers to band together
into a single organization in order to “promote the civic advancement of the
Italian Americans as a whole and, in this manner, derive common benefits.”
In six months, the Santa Croce, Vespri Siciliani, Tripoli Italiana, Dante
Alighieri, and Stefanese clubs merged into one association called United
Italian Societies of Milwaukee.26

Ethnic Identity at Wartime


John P. Diggins has argued that World War II “was the fuel of the melting
pot” for Italian Americans.27 Yet, notwithstanding the mounting pressure of
Americanization, the bulk of the Italian immigrants and their offspring stuck
to their identification with their mother country.
Italy’s entry into World War II on 10 June 1940 sparked rumors that
unnaturalized Italians and even a few U.S. citizens of Italian extraction
would act as fifth columnists at Mussolini’s beck and call if the United
States joined the conflict against the Nazi and Fascist regimes. Moreover the
Federal Bureau of Investigation rushed to prepare lists of allegedly Fascist

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FORGING AN ETHNIC IDENTITY: THE CASE OF ITALIAN AMERICANS

supporters to be detained in case of war on the grounds of their potential


threat to national security.28
For Italian immigrants and their children, concealing their ethnic ances-
try would have been a reasonable response to such xenophobic worries. Few,
however, yielded to this opportunistic behavior. Significantly, plans to change
the name of the Order Sons of Italy of America into Columbian Order of
America were dropped. Luigi Scala, the Rhode Island leader, argued that
“[he] consider[ed] ‘Italy’ a title of nobility, making us at least the equal of any

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other group insofar as our heritage of culture and tradition is concerned.” In
addition, in early 1941, many voters of Italian descent mobilized in the fruit-
less effort to prevent the passing of the Lend-Lease Bill because they were
afraid that such measure would pave the way for an American intervention
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against Italy in the war. Indeed, the papers of prominent members of the
Senate Foreign Affairs Committee such as Theodore Francis Green (D-RI)
and Gerald P. Nye (R-ID) contain numerous letters from opponents of that
legislation with Italian-sounding last names.29
Even Italy’s declaration of war against the United States on
11 December 1941 in the wake of the Japanese raid on Pearl Harbor failed to
weaken the ethnic identity of most Italian immigrants and their offspring.
They disavowed Mussolini’s regime although their previous attachment had
been sentimental rather than ideological, but they still cherished their ances-
tral roots. Sociologist Joseph S. Roucek maintained that “most American
Italians looked for a mirage: American victory without Italian defeat.”
Indeed, to a majority of them, fighting against their native country, where many
still had relatives and friends, was a awesome perspective. When Roland
DeGregorio, a second-generation Italian American from St. Louis, explained to
his father why he had decided to enlist in the Marines, he pointed out that “the
Marines are fighting in the Pacific and I won’t fight against your brother and
cousins in Italy.” As Paul Pisicano, a New Yorker of Sicilian descent, has
remarked,
Remember when Sergeant John Basilone came home? He was the Medal of Honor
winner. They have a bridge on the Jersey Turnpike named after him. He was our
hero. He did the right things, but he did them in the Pacific. He was shooting gooks,
so that’s okay. It would be very painful to see the same act of courage demonstrated
against Italians. Even if he did it, he would have been forgotten about.30

Although they hurried to distance themselves from fascism and to show


off their patriotism toward the country of their adoption, the great bulk of
Italian Americans did not reject their Italian descent. Even U.S. citizens of
Italian ancestry claimed their right to support the war efforts of the United
States by joining the army or buying war bonds not as mere Americans but
as Americans of Italian extraction. After all, ethnic associations such as the
Order Sons of Italy in America launched the major drives to encourage the

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purchase of war bonds within the “Little Italies” and did it on the occasion of
traditional Italian-American ethnic festivities such as Columbus Day that
members of the Italian-American communities continued to celebrate. The
Italian-language press also made a point of focusing on the U.S. servicemen
of Italian origin who were killed in action or awarded military decorations.
Besides stressing the loyalty of Italian Americans to the United States in the
eyes of the broader adoptive society, these articles helped make Italian-
American readers aware of the contribution of their own minority to the fight

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against nazism and fascism, and prevented them from renouncing their eth-
nicity and their ties based on national origin.31
Furthermore, after Italy signed an armistice with the United States in
September 1943, Italian Americans and their ethnic organizations did not
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refrain from lobbying the U.S. government on behalf of their ancestral country
in the attempt to offset its defeat in the war. Their claims included a lenient
peace treaty with their fatherland and American economic aid for Italy’s post-
war reconstruction.32
Still World War II played a significant role in removing the surviving
remnants of local, provincial, and regional loyalties. The Federal Bureau of
Investigation arrested 3,596 Italian aliens between 7 December 1941 and the
end of the war. A few hundred immigrants and U.S. citizens of Italian origin
were deported from sensitive military areas, primarily along the West Coast,
and either relocated elsewhere or even interned in detention camps.
Denaturalization proceedings were also initiated for several U.S. citizens of
Italian birth. Against this backdrop, fears of discrimination reminded Italian
Americans of their common national ancestry and further contributed to turn
individuals from different geographical backgrounds in Italy into a more unified
ethnic group whose sense of identity was based on the ties to the country of
birth or descent of its members.33

Conclusion
Aggregation along local, provincial or regional lines usually
characterized the lives of the Italian immigrants who arrived in the United
States before World War I. By the outbreak of World War II, however, the
nationalistic appeal of both World War I and fascism, the end of mass
immigration from Italy, the appearance of an American-born second
generation with loose ties to the land of their parents, and primarily the
common experience of having to face anti-Italian sentiments contributed to
bring first- and second-generation Italian Americans together and helped
them overcome their internal subnational divisions. As a result, they could
develop the sense of a nationally-cohesive Italian ethnic group that they had
lacked upon arrival in the United States.

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NOTES

*Research for this article was made possible, in part, by a fellowship of the John
Nicholas Brown Center for the Study of American Civilization. An earlier version was
presented at a panel organized by the French Association for American Studies and the Great
Lakes Studies Association at the EAAS Biennial Conference, Bordeaux, 22-25 March 2002.
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nell’età della grande emigrazione (Genoa: Graphos, 1993) 49-54; Bénédicte Deschamps,
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