Gockel International Symposium Roads Less Traveled: Italian Immigrants in America

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Between 1880 and 1914, close to four million Italians came to America for work, adventure and opportunity. A large proportion repatriated because they achieved their goal, or rejected the way of life they encountered in their new surroundings. While most immigration studies follow well-trodden paths leading to America's urban/industrial areas, few examine the roads less traveled. The experience of Italians on the land and Italians in lesser-known locations remained in the shadows. Even so, the role of Italian farmers in raising and distributing vegetables they introduced to the American table represents a significant contribution. In addition, a description of interactions between Italian immigrants and their neighbors, especially the "in-between" role they served in America's segregated South, adds to the picture. 

The prevailing story lines, contained in many family histories, published memoirs, and in popular, mass-produced overviews, tend to focus on the "cinderella" aspect of newcomers who struggle and experience setbacks but eventually achieve a quality of life they enjoy. The immigrant's failure to adjust, dysfunctional behavior, and family discord often fall through the cracks in most narrative records, leaving us with an incomplete understanding of cultural and family dynamics. Examining these problems unlocks the attic door for second- and third-generation Italian Americans and allows us to appreciate more fully the textured history of immigrant experiences. Considering these issues anew allows us to supplement and correct prevailing story lines. 

Quo Vadis? Recent U.S. census figures show increasing numbers of Italian Americans claiming ethnic identity, larger than any other European ethnic group. Being "Italian" is trendy. Today, the continuity of Italians living in suburbia and Sunbelt locations highlights an evolving demographic picture that invites even more questions about their road less traveled.

Italian American author and historian Vincenza Scarpaci was born in Brooklyn into a lively Sicilian family and enjoyed the usual flavor of a neighborhood where the butcher sliced veal into cutlets that were translucent, the shoemaker salvaged worn shoes, and the baker made braided Sicilian bread resplendent with sesame seeds. After majoring in history at Hofstra University, she discovered in graduate school at Rutgers University that immigration history was a legitimate area of research. With the help of Rudolph Vecoli, a pioneer in the field of Italian American studies, she learned how her family and other immigrants fit into the larger pattern of immigration and gained an appreciation of how each ethnic group met the challenges of becoming American according to their transported culture and values.

Dr. Scarpaci went on to earn a Ph.D. at Rutgers and then taught at Towson State University in Baltimore from 1968-80. She recorded the history of Baltimore's Little Italy and then after moving to San Francisco discovered an Italian community dominated by northern Italians, and where she co-authored (with A. Baccari and G. Zavattoro) SS Peter and Paul Church 1884-1984: The Chronicles of the Italian Cathedral of the West. She also taught U.S. immigration history at Sonoma State University. Dr. Scarpaci now lives in Eugene, Oregon, where she is intrigued by the phenomenon of how the descendants of Italian immigrants retain a strong identity with their heritage although they live in communities where they constitute a small portion of the population. Currently she is researching the story of the Italian immigrants in Walla Walla, Washington.

Dr. Scarpaci has written three other books: The Journey of the Italians in America (Pelican Publishing, 2008); A Portrait of Italians in America (Scribners, 1982); and Italian Immigrants in Louisiana's Sugar Parishes: Recruitment, Labor Conditions and Community Relations, 1880-1910 (Arno Press, New York Times, 1980) and published articles on Sacco/Vanzetti, Italians on the land, and Italians in the labor/working class. She was a founding member of the American Italian Historical Association.

Thursday, 19 September, 2013


Chad Stebbins

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