Immigrants, especially white Protestants, flocked to the region, bringing their conservative values that often clashed with Southern California’s cosmopolitan culture. Within thirty years, Los Angeles’ population reached 100,000. This growth trend continued with the completion of the Panama Canal in 1913, which made travel to Southern California easier and more economical.
Pictured here: Midwestern settlers in La Puente, a city in Eastern Los Angeles County, circa 1890.
A Tremendous Wrenching of the Soul
Between 1876 and 1914, 14 million people left Italy. This equated to roughly one-third of the country’s population. It is believed that no other nation has experienced a greater exodus of its people during an equal span of time. What led scores of Italians to leave their villages for a place that most had not seen, even in photographs?
After learning about employment opportunities in Southern California, 30-year-old Luigi Perini packed his belongings into this wooden trunk and left his village near Genoa in 1913. Luigi found work as a machinist, and settled in Lincoln Heights. Luigi’s daughter, Mary, kept this trunk as a reminder of her family’s humble beginnings in the United States.
Following the unification of Italy in 1861, economic and political inequities between northern and southern Italy intensified. The new constitution favored the north, and while southerners paid high taxes, little investment was made in the region’s land or infrastructure. Uncultivable soil and primitive farming methods yielded inadequate crops; phylloxera and other parasites decimated harvests.
Many farmers were reduced to mezzadri, or sharecroppers, who were permanently in debt to their landlords. Those lucky enough to find employment received meager wages. In 1902, the average Sicilian braccianti, or day laborer, earned only 25 cents for 12 hours of work. Their wages become more dismal when one considers the surprisingly high cost of living and basic foodstuffs, such as sugar, which cost $.19 a pound. Photographs of peasants reveal the physical manifestations of malnutrition: gaunt bodies, stunted growth, sunken eyes, and shallow faces. The popular greeting “Si mangiato?” (Have you eaten?) illustrates the extent to which hunger was a part of daily life.
Despite the worsening economic outlook, Italy’s population skyrocketed. By 1900, the population teetered at 33 million, and by 1911, it had soared to 35 million, exerting crushing pressure on the already scarce food supply. Weakened by hunger, the populace became more susceptible to illnesses. Pellagra, a vitamin deficiency disease that produces skin lesions, pictured here, afflicted many peasants. Outbreaks of cholera, which was related to poor sanitation, claimed tens of thousands of lives, while the infectious eye disease trachoma left scores of others blind. In areas where malaria was omnipresent, such as Calabria, Basilicata, Sicily, and Sardinia, 20 to 30 percent of the population succumbed to the disease.
Between 1890 and 1907, a series of earthquakes struck southern Italy, which is located in one of the world’s most seismically active regions. However, the 1908 Messina earthquake, centered in the narrow waterway separating Sicily from the southern Italian region of Calabria, was among the most powerful Europe has ever experienced, equaling a 7.5 by today's Richter scale.
The Scottini family left Italy in 1881 and first sailed to Mexico before traveling to Texas, and finally to Los Angeles. Of the 13 children born to Cecilia, only seven lived to adulthood. This wool shawl, which Cecilia used as a blanket, coat, and to swaddle her children, was one of the few possessions she brought from her homeland.
As the boats approached land, the immigrants, regardless of ethnicity or religion, gathered on the deck and the ship became electrified with emotion. They kissed and embraced, fell to the floor as an act of homage, or raised their hands to the heavens speaking prayers of gratitude. They danced with joy and raised their voices in unison, "America! America!"
Giulio Bonomi immigrated to the United States in 1911. The U.S. Immigration Service used this inspection card to indicate that immigrants had been vaccinated and disinfected and passed daily health inspections during the voyage. After entering through Ellis Island, Bonomi traveled west to Los Angeles, where he had accepted a job with the Southern Pacific Railroad.
Made possible by a loan from the Bonani-Garia family.
Joining immigrants from Asia and Southern and Eastern Europe, including Jews escaping religious persecution, the peak of Italian immigration to the United States coincided with the largest wave of immigration in the country’s history. This influx of peoples would forever transform the face of the nation. Economically, Italian immigrants and their multi-ethnic counterparts filled a significant need for cheap labor in booming American industries.
Because the only asset most immigrants possessed was their physical strength, they performed dangerous manual labor jobs such as building railroads, sewers, and subways, working in garment industry sweatshops, mining the coal used to power the nation's homes and factories, operating the blast furnaces that produced the steel that built the nation’s skylines, and harvesting the sugar cane that made Louisiana one of the wealthiest states in the American South.
Following in the footsteps of the region’s Italian pioneers, Los Angeles’ second wave of Italian immigrants often settled in the Plaza area (where we are today), and in San Pedro, Los Angeles’ historic waterfront. Upon the completion of the Panama Canal and the transcontinental railroad, which made travel to California easier and less costly, the Italian population of Los Angeles rose steadily, from 2,000 in 1900 to 3,800 in 1910 and 12,700 in 1930.
As the community grew, other vibrant enclaves formed. While less homogenous than the Little Italies elsewhere in the nation, the Italian neighborhoods of Southern California played an important role in the acculturation process, helping immigrants obtain housing, employment, and the information necessary to navigate their new surroundings.
While Southern California’s Italian pioneers were predominantly northern Italian, the second wave of immigrants came primarily from Italy’s south. Many were transmigrants, who, prior to settling in Southern California, lived elsewhere in the United States — New York, Pennsylvania, Massachusetts, Chicago, Louisiana, and Colorado.
Southern California’s Italian immigrants were often part of chain migration movements. Chain migration is the process by which immigrants from a particular town follow others from that town to a new country and settle in the same area. Large numbers of the region’s Italians originated from villages surrounding Bari in Puglia, the region that comprises the “heel” of Italy’s boot, and from the island of Ischia, off the coast of Naples.
Others were Sicilians from a clustering of towns outside of Palermo, including Corleone, Bagheria, Piana degli Albanesi (formerly Piana dei Greci), Santa Cristina Gela, and Contessa Entellina. The latter three towns were established by Albanian refugees in the 1400s and who spoke Gheg, a hybrid dialect of Sicilian and pre-Ottoman-era Albanian.
Not all of the region’s Italians settled in neighborhoods where a significant number of their paesani resided. Some, including the Alfieri family, pictured here, lived in the predominantly Jewish and Japanese community of Boyle Heights. Others chose the multi-ethnic neighborhood of Watts as their home.
Bordering the city’s original Chinatown on the east, the Plaza was widely regarded as a slum, or a neighborhood reserved for immigrants and the impoverished.
Pictured here: North Los Angeles Street where it intersects the Plaza. On the far right is the Cosmopolitan Saloon, which was owned by the Rabaglino family and was located in what had been the city's first firehouse. The building is now the Plaza Firehouse Museum.
Despite its reputation, Italians and other marginalized newcomers continued to settle in the city’s historic center. Paul Mance, an immigrant from Bari, Italy, operated a hotel at the Pico House, while another immigrant, Angelo Rabaglino, opened a nightclub in the adjacent Merced Theater, which was known as the Plaza Club.
The Garibaldina Mutual Benefit Society, originally headquartered in the Sepulveda House, pictured here, which was also home to the Spineglio family's sausage factory, provided newcomers with referrals to the numerous boarding houses in the Plaza area that catered to Italian immigrants, including Teresa Turinetto’s Plaza Hotel on North Main Street, Hotel Roma on Alameda, and Hotel d'Italia on San Fernando Street (now North Spring Street.).
Seeking the familiarities of home, many Italian immigrants lived in boardinghouses or hotels, such as the Hotel d’Italia, owned by the Guerrieri family. Giovanni and Emilia Verna, immigrants from Piedmont, Italy, operated a hotel in Little Italy. From 1904 to 1917, Giovanni recorded the amount boarders paid for lodging, meals, and other services in this ledger. Emilia took primary responsibility for the boarders, who were mostly single men; she served as the hotel’s cook and laundress.
Made possible by a loan from John Lombardo.
Sadly, most of the buildings offering testimony of the enclave’s Italian history, such as the Lanfranco Block, were demolished to build freeways, parking lots, and government buildings, or torn down because of their deteriorated condition. Today, the Italian Hall is the oldest remaining structure from Los Angeles’ Little Italy.
By 1917, San Pedro, which had become part of the City of Los Angeles less than a decade prior, was home to dozens of canneries, hundreds of fishing boats, and local fishermen ─ Italian, Yugoslavian, Japanese, and Mexican ─ were catching 34 million pounds of albacore and 158 million pounds of sardines annually, making San Pedro the nation's largest fishing port.
The Port of Los Angeles, located in San Pedro and Wilmington, was once home to a large commercial fishing fleet and sixteen canneries, including Van Camp Seafood and Chicken of the Sea, which owned StarKist Tuna. Foreign competition, regulations, and dwindling catches led the canneries to relocate. When Chicken of the Sea, the nation’s last full-scale tuna canning plant, closed its doors in 2001, it marked the end of an era. This can was packed at the Terminal Island-San Pedro cannery.
Sisters Rosa Buscaino and Giuseppina D’Asaro left their native Trapetto, Sicily, to work in the canneries of San Pedro. Entering work at 5 a.m. dressed in her white uniform, Pina stood on her feet for eight hours, cleaning fish with this knife. When she returned home in the afternoon, her children would often say, “Mom, you stink! You smell like fish!” Rosa would respond, “That’s the smell of money!”
San Pedro’s Italian neighborhood was divided into three sections: Italians from Genoa lived between 6th and 9th streets from Pacific to Mesa, while the area between 13th and 17th streets was largely a Sicilian enclave. Ischitani, meanwhile, lived between 9th and 12th streets. Many other Italian families lived outside these boundaries.
The Di Carlo family arrived in San Pedro in approximately 1906 with the dream of opening a bakery. With no money in their pockets, the Di Carlo's borrowed the match used to light the fire that baked their first batch of bread. They would later establish the Di Carlo Bakery on 10th and Mesa Street, famous for its hard-crusted Italian bread. The bakery helped San Pedrans survive the Drepression by offering bread on credit.
To escape the Plaza’s congestion in the late 1800s, Italians began settling in the North Broadway District, then known as Sonoratown, and Chavez Ravine, a rural village overlooking downtown. In these neighborhoods, restrictive covenants did not exclude them, and families purchased homes for as little as $100.
By 1910, Italians, such as the Aprato and Giacoletto families, pictured here in front of their boarding house, constituted one-third of the residents of the North Broadway District. The heart of the settlement could be found on Castelar Street (now North Hill Street), near St. Peter’s Italian Church. It extended to Alpine, Ord, San Fernando (present-day North Spring Street), College, and Casanova streets.
The Frumento brothers immigrated to Los Angeles in the late 1800s and settled in Little Italy. As a token of appreciation for his customers, produce merchant Giuseppe Frumento produced this decorative calendar plate. The family's market became a deli and, in 1958, relocated to the San Gabriel Valley, which was then home to a large Italian population.
The Eastside represents one of Southern California’s unique chain-migration movements. Immigrants from the Sicilian villages of Piana dei Greci (renamed Piana degli Albanesi), Contessa Entellina, and Santa Cristina Gela, many of whom had lived in Louisiana previously, created a settlement on Violet, Mateo, Hunter, Enterprise, Lemon, and Wilson streets. They spoke a hybrid of Sicilian and Arbëresh, the language spoken in pre-Ottoman Albania, which they called "Gheg Gheg."
A decade later, Methodist pastor Bromley Oxnam, an ardent believer in the Social Gospel doctrine, established the All Nations Church in the Eastside, which became the most effective social welfare organization in Los Angeles. To care for the neighborhood’s children, in 1919, one of Los Angeles first day care centers, the Mother Cabrini Day Home, named after the Italian nun and first American citizen to receive sainthood, was founded on Mateo Street.
Many of Lincoln Heights’ 20,000 Italian residents were Sicilians who had previously lived in Pennsylvania and Louisiana. One-quarter of the enclave's Italians, including the Gatto and Cortese families, pictured here, had relocated from Colorado, namely the southern Colorado mining towns of Pueblo and Trinidad.
Using kin- and village-based chain migration networks, the Grafi and Bonura families emigrated from Gibellina and Salaparuta, Sicily, to the plantations of Plaquemine, Louisiana, where they remained for several years before journeying west to Texas. The families continued to migrate as a group, purchasing homes next door to one another in Lincoln Heights. For decades, nearly one hundred family members lived within walking distance of one another in the neighborhood.
The Grafi and Bonura families, like others of the time, transplanted the social structures of their rural Italian villages to create tightly-knit urban villages in their adopted country. The Italians of Lincoln Heights remained loyal to the traditional values of campanilismo, or the tendency to trust members of one’s family and town.
They patronized stores owned by their paesani, such as the Lanza Market, Buongiorno Grocery, Grandview Delicatessen, and Mandala Grocery. Couples purchased their wedding rings at the DeCaro Jewelry Store before visiting Giachino Pastries, famous for its multi-tiered rum cakes.
Selling fruit was an avenue through which even the most impoverished immigrant could improve his or her life. After achieving success as peddlers, some became distributors and dealers, or rented stalls at the Los Angeles Wholesale Produce Market, pictured here. One such immigrant was Lorenzo Cancellieri, whose immigration journey took him from Sicily to Trinidad, Colorado, and, later, to Lincoln Heights.
Upon his arrival to the United States, Cancellieri became a produce seller, and was among the first to ship California wine grapes across the country via rail. By 1920, Italians figured prominently in Southern California’s produce industry. Italian fruit dealers and commission house owners frequently purchased crops while they were still on the trees, before procuring their own acreage and becoming growers as well as distributors.
Many expanded their holdings to include complementary industries, such as packinghouses, trucking companies, and refrigerated storage facilities. In the 1950s, Cancellieri’s son, Lawrence, established a produce trucking business, and co-founded what became one of the region’s largest potato distribution companies.
To help support the family, Sam worked for an olive oil distributor during the day and, in the evenings, purchased lemons from local groves, which he then sold at the Grand Central Market. This was his first step to becoming a wholesaler. The company he established, Perricone Citrus, would later become one of the largest citrus distributors in the world.
As the Mexican population of Lincoln Heights grew, intermarriage between Mexicans and Italians became increasingly common. During an era when inter-ethnic romantic relations were discouraged, George Carone, who was born in Los Angeles shortly after his parents emigrated from Italy, and Los Angeles-born Gloria Flores, of Mexican heritage, met at a playground in Lincoln Heights. It was love at first sight. George and Gloria kept their relationship a secret for three years before receiving their parents’ blessing; their marriage endured for over fifty years.
In the post-World War II era, many of Lincoln Heights’ Italian residents began moving to the suburbs, including San Marino, Los Feliz, Eagle Rock, and Highland Park, or the San Gabriel Valley neighborhoods of Alhambra, Arcadia, and Monterey Park. The dispersion process accelerated in the 1950s with the construction of the Golden State Freeway, which tore through the middle of the neighborhood, and required the demolition of dozens of homes.
Remittance payments─money that immigrants send back to their home countries─are viewed as the most tangible link between migration and development. For over two decades, Los Angeles railroad worker Giulio Bonomi loyally sent money to his wife in Italy, and kept each receipt. The remittances were integral to the family’s support, and served as a powerful tool in the alleviation of poverty.
Made possible by a loan from the Bonani-Garcia family.
The institutions serving Dogtown’s residents included the Los Angeles Settlement House, operated by the Rotary Club, and the Brownson House and Santa Rita Settlement House, which were administered by the Bureau of Catholic Charities. In this image, young women display the diplomas they received at Santa Rita Settlement House.
Settlement houses provided medical care, food and clothing for the destitute, educational, vocational, and recreational programs, Americanization classes, and, often, religious instruction.
Pictured here: Children of the Brownson Settlement House in Los Angeles, founded by Mary Julia Workman in 1901, learn basket weaving.
In the 1950s, Pagone, pictured left in front of the timbales, and fellow Italian American trumpet player Pete Candoli, were members of Prado’s famed orchestra. They performed regularly at clubs such as the Zenda Ballroom, which catered to Latino youth who were denied entry to other Los Angeles venues.
Content Author- Marianna Gatto
Design- Robert Checchi
Curation- Marianna Gatto and Robert Checchi
Video Projections- Christopher Sprinkle
Graphics- Robert Checchi and Clyde Crossan
GCI Videos- Robert Checchi, Clyde Crossan, and Francesca Guerrini
Images Courtesy of the Italian American Museum of Los Angeles, Archivi Alinari, Branimir Kvartuc, Corbis Images, El Pueblo de Los Angeles Historical Monument Collection, Fonderia USA, George Eastman House (Lewis W. Hine), Gloria Carone, Historic Mapworks, Idaho State Historical Society, J Allen Archives, the Venti-Lara family, Loyola Marymournt University, Department of Archives and Special Collections, (William H. Hannon Library), Los Angeles Maritime Museum, Los Angeles Public Library, Marianna Gatto, Damian Gatto, Eric Eisenberg, Perricone Family, the Flamminio family, San Pedro Bay Historical Society, Bonani-Garcia family, St. Peter’s Church, Steel Works Museum of Industry and Culture, University California Los Angeles Library Special Collections, Underwood Archives, the Cancellieri family,
Special thanks to John Lombardo, the Demaio-Tortomasi family, Jack Cancellieri, Elda Maga Pilj, the Garibaldina Society, Bernal, Bob Bozzani, Rosa Buscaino, Giuseppina D’Asaro, Roy Fazzi, Marilyn Gonzalez, Laura Miller, Mary Star of the Sea Church, the Nuccio family, Mary Perini Duce, Chris Gerola, Bruce Festa, John Emanuelli, Mary Messaroti Oliver, John Nese, William Fasoli, John Griffin