A History of Anti-Italianism
While Southern California’s early Italian community fared better than Italian Americans elsewhere in the country, in the 20th century, as a national U.S. culture emerged and geopolitical events shaped the nation’s consciousness, Italian Americans in Southern California discovered they would no longer remain untouched by the anti-Italian sentiments were flooding the nation. A century later, these experiences continue to influence the Italian American identity.
Since the founding of the American nation, Italian immigrants have made significant contributions to the development of the United States. The majority of Italians who immigrated to the United States between the late 1600s and early 1800s were skilled craftsmen, artists, scientists, agriculturalists, and missionaries who became respected members of American society. This early group included Antonio Meucci, pictured here, considered by many to be the true inventor of the telephone, and artist Constantino Brumidi, whose frescoes adorn the United States Capitol.
Between 1880 and 1920, as the economic crisis following Italy’s unification worsened and political and social unrest intensified, an estimated 4 million Italians, the majority of whom were impoverished Southern Italians from regions such as Sicily, Calabria, Campania, and Abruzzo, immigrated to the United States.
Recruited to fill the labor shortage produced by the rapidly industrializing United States economy, many immigrants arrived with little more than the clothes on their back. Anti-Italianism was largely a reaction to this massive immigration.
In large American cities, Italian immigrants competed with other immigrant groups for jobs and housing, and faced considerable hostility. Their lack of formal education and limited English proficiency restricted many to manual labor and other low-paying jobs. As large numbers of Italian immigrants settled in a particular neighborhood, “Little Italies” formed. While the ethnic enclaves helped immigrants adjust to life in their new country, the neighborhoods were typically overcrowded and had inadequate sanitation. Tuberculosis and other communicable diseases were a constant health threat.
Industrial tragedies such as New York City’s Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire of 1911, which claimed the lives of 146 garment workers—largely Italian and Jewish women and girls—illustrate the dangerous working conditions the immigrants endured.
In 1914, the Colorado National Guard and Colorado Fuel and Iron Company guards attacked striking coal miners and their families, the majority of whom were Italian and Mexican, in Ludlow, Colorado. Two dozen people, including miners' wives and children, were killed. The mine’s owner, John D. Rockefeller Jr., was widely criticized for the incident, which became a watershed moment in American labor relations.
Experiences such as these inspired many Italian Americans to become activists. Angela Bambace cofounded and became one of the first female leaders of the International Ladies' Garment Workers’ Union. Arturo Giovannitti, Carlo Tresca, and Joseph Ettor became powerful voices of the labor movement, which produced reforms such as the forty-hour workweek, and child labor legislation. In 1912, fourteen-year-old Carmela Teoli called national attention to unsafe working conditions in the nation's factories by recounting how her part of her scalp was torn off after her hair got caught in a machine. Her testimony before Congress brought a successful end to the Lawrence Textile Strike, also known as the Bread and Roses Strike.
Italian immigrants’ religious beliefs were another source of conflict. At the time, the United States was largely a Protestant nation that distrusted the Catholic Pope and resented the growing number of Catholics arriving on American shores. Because Italians were seen as the descendants of the Romans, who had crucified Jesus, anti-Italianism was also linked to anti-Semitism.
By the late 19th and early 20th century, Italian immigrants had become the nation’s underclass. Nativist cartoons such as this depicted Italians as rats arriving on American shores with knives and pistols in their mouths. Derogatory terms, including guinea, wop (likely a corruption of the southern Italian word guappo, which means thug), and ethnic slurs such as dago became part of the country’s vocabulary.
Simultaneously, under the guise of science, eugenicists and social Darwinists asserted that Italians were a subhuman race, the “missing link” between humans and apes.
The caption of this cartoon, published in Life magazine in the early 1900s, is meant to be read in broken English with an "Italian" accent. The Italian shoeshiner, or "wop," possesses ape-like features, carries a stiletto knife, is of low intelligence and child-like in his reasoning, and eats garlic and spaghetti.
Because of their darker complexions, Italians were not considered white. This was particularly dangerous in the American South, where Italians were the second-most common targets of lynching and, in some areas, were semi-segregated.
Following the abolition of slavery, employers in Southern cities recruited Italian laborers to work in the booming agricultural and fishing industries. As the Italian population grew, anti-Italian riots took place, and hate groups such as the Ku Klux Klan mobilized to intimidate and, oftentimes, cause physical harm to the immigrants.
On October 15, 1890, New Orleans Police Chief David Hennessy was assassinated outside of his home. As Hennessy lay dying, he whispered, “The dagos did it.” Within days, 250 members of the city’s Italian community were arrested purely because of their ethnicity. Nineteen Italian men were indicted for murder.
After a jury delivered not-guilty verdicts in March of 1891, an mob of over 20,000 people gathered outside the prison where the men were being held. Yelling “Hang the dagos!” the gun-wielding mob stormed the jailhouse.
Nine men, including prominent businessman Joseph Macheca, were shot inside the jail. Two victims were dragged outside and hanged from lampposts, their bodies displayed for days following the lynching. In addition to the eleven men lynched, five prisoners were severely wounded in the attack and died soon after.
A grand jury cleared those involved in the lynching, including John Parker, who was later elected governor of Louisiana. In 1911, he was quoted saying Italians were "just a little worse than the Negro… filthier in [their] habits, lawless, and treacherous." Many newspapers asserted that the Italians were responsible for their lynchings. The media’s coverage of the trial and lynching marks the entrance of the word "Mafia" into the nation’s vocabulary.
Because Italian immigrants and African Americans lived in the same neighborhoods and worked together, Italians were considered enemies of Jim Crow laws. Indeed, Italian immigrants were often unconscious of or indifferent towards America’s racial hierarchy. In 1899, two Italian shopkeepers and three customers, also Italian, were lynched in Tallulah, Louisiana, for refusing to wait on Caucasians before African American customers.
Lynchings of Italians also took place in Mississippi, Texas, Florida, Colorado, Kentucky, Illinois and New York, and were used as a method of social control. Italian-language newspapers frequently reported the heinous crimes. In Italy, a song "I Cinque Poveri Italiani" (The Five Poor Italians), was written in honor of the Talulah victims.
On April 15, 1920, during the height of the Red Scare, an armed robbery took place at a shoe factory in Braintree, Massachusetts. Two employees were killed. Immigrants Nicola Sacco, a shoemaker, and Bartolomeo Vanzetti, a fish peddler, were arrested for the crime.
During the trial, anti-Italian sentiment was rampant among the jury and encouraged by Judge Webster Thayer, who presided over the case and referred to the defendants as “anarchist bastards,” “dagos,” and “sons of bitches.”
Despite ballistics evidence, eyewitness testimony, and alibis that proved Sacco and Vanzetti’s innocence, the men were found guilty of murder and sentenced to death by electric chair in 1927. The case is commonly referred to as the greatest miscarriage of justice in American history. Protests against the execution of Sacco and Vanzetti erupted in cities across the globe and throughout the nation, including in Los Angeles.
To preserve American racial homogeneity, the United States passed the Immigration Act of 1924, which established quotas for the admission of immigrants and banned immigration from certain countries entirely. While earlier legislation placed caps on immigration, the 1924 law sought to further restrict immigration of Southern and Eastern Europeans and Africans specifically and banned the immigration of Arabs and Asians. The law reduced Italian immigration by 98.7 percent. This political cartoon from the era reveals two of the act's primary targets: Italians and Chinese.
Discrimination against Italians reached another apex during World War II, when the United States joined the Allies in the global conflict against the Axis powers—Japan, Germany and Italy. Over 600,000 Italians living in the United States who had not yet become citizens, were branded “enemy aliens.” Many were arrested, sent to internment camps, and forced to leave their homes, surrender property, and abide by curfews and travel restrictions. Thousands more were placed under surveillance. This notice, printed in English, Italian, German and Japanese, instructed "enemy aliens" to register at their local post offices.
In the days following the Japanese attack of Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, hundreds of Italians were arrested. Individuals who were in the process of becoming citizens, anti-fascist refugees, and others who had lived in the United States for decades and had American-born children were included in the enemy alien classification. Many enemy aliens, such as the individuals pictured here, were elderly immigrants who could not pass the citizenship exam because of their limited literacy.
The enemy alien classification included many ironies, and enforcing the act posed countless challenges. By 1940, Italians comprised approximately 10 percent of the United States’ population and were the country’s largest ethnic group. Italian Americans were the largest ethnic group serving in the U.S. military; approximately 1.5 million Italian American men and women were members of the nation's armed forces. Rosie Bonavita, an Italian American woman who worked in the defense industry, inspired the popular wartime song "Rosie the Riveter," which soon led to a series of posters designed to boost workers' morale, such as the iconic "We Can Do It."
Rosie Bonavita, left, seen here with her partner, Jennie Fiorito, also Italian American, set a speed record by installing 3,345 rivets on a Grumman Avenger torpedo bomber during a six-hour shift. Rosie later received a letter of commendation from President Franklin D. Roosevelt.
Born in the United States to Italian parents, Lou Zamperini, pictured right, enlisted in the U.S. Air Force and earned the rank of lieutenant. After his plane crashed, Zamperini floated at sea for 47 days before being captured, held as a prisoner of war, and tortured. His experience is the subject of the 2014 film Unbroken, and illustrates the painful contradictions of the enemy alien restrictions. Zamperini was not the exception.
“It’s a great life,” read Tullio Vincentini’s senior yearbook quote. Born to Italian immigrants, the Lincoln Heights resident enlisted in the Marine Corps during World War II and was deployed to the Philippines. In 1942, Tullio was captured and sent to a prisoner of war camp. After being imprisoned for over 900 days, one of the longest captivities recorded, Tullio died on October 24, 1944, when friendly fire hit the ship transporting him and 1,700 other POWs. His parents later received the Purple Heart that Tullio had been awarded posthumously.
After being declared enemy aliens and forced to leave their homes, the Buccellato and Cardinalli families of Oakley, California, pictured here, resorted to living in migrant worker shacks.
Born in California to Sicilian immigrants, baseball great Joe DiMaggio had achieved his record-breaking 56-game hitting streak in 1941. As war clouds loomed, DiMaggio made the cover of countless American magazines. He was among the greatest national heroes of his era.
The following year, DiMaggio's parents, Giuseppe and Rosalia, were declared enemy aliens, and Giuseppe’s fishing boat was confiscated. California’s Italian population was hit hardest by the restrictions, as prohibited zones extended 60 miles from the coast inland. The state’s fishing industry was shaken as scores of Italians were prohibited from fishing in coastal waters and had their boats seized. Locally, Giovanni Falasca, the publisher of the Italian-language newspaper La Parola, was arrested and sent to an internment camp. Many Italian detainees were held at the Tuna Canyon Detention Center near Glendale, California, along with Japanese and German prisoners.
Many Italian American internees were prominent members of the community, including radio broadcaster Filippo Fordellone, pictured right, and Cesare Grimaldi, pictured left and center, the assistant to a Hollywood director. The government considered them threats because of the influence they could potentially exercise over the public.
Parole Document for Filippo Fordellone, 1943
Journalist Filippo Fordellone was among the Italian Americans of Los Angeles interned by the United States government during World War II. Although he had committed no crime, Fordellone was deemed a threat because of his influence in the community. He was arrested and imprisoned at Fort Missoula, Montana for 14 months. This parole document dictated the terms of his conditional release from prison in 1943.
Published in Los Angeles since 1907, L’Italo Americano chronicled world news and local events. After the bombing of Pearl Harbor, and the arrest and internment of Giovanni Falasca, the publisher of La Parola newspaper, L’Italo Americano destroyed its archive and, with it, decades of history. This 1917 issue is the only pre-World War II copy known to exist.
In San Pedro, California, Ferdinando Di Bernardo, a fisherman, pictured fourth from left holding a rope, was prohibited from entering the harbor. The family struggled to keep food on the table while Ferdinando found another job — working at a laundry.
In December 1941 enemy aliens were required to surrender cameras, short-wave radios, and radio transmitters. Other contraband included flashlights, weapons such as hunting rifles, and maps.
Theodore and Anna Aquaro moved from New York to Los Angeles in 1941. This radio, among the couple's prized possessions, was one of the few items they transported across the country. The radio was capable of receiving short-wave signals, which allowed Anna to listen to opera broadcasts from Italy. While Ted and Anna were United States citizens, they feared the radio, which was among the items enemy aliens were prohibited to possess, would be confiscated by authorities. To conceal the radio's short-wave capabilities, Theodore applied acetone, which erased the short wave frequencies printed on the dial.
Made possible by a loan from Ted Aquaro
Despite the fact that he was a United States citizen, because of his Italian ancestry, Theodore Aquaro was required to carry this identification card when fishing off the Los Angeles coast during World War II. Previously an electrician in the aircraft industry, Aquaro was also denied employment at Southern California aerospace company because of his nationality.
Made possible by a loan from Ted Aquaro
In January 1942, enemy aliens fourteen years and older were ordered to register at local post offices, be fingerprinted and, photographed, and carry enemy alien registration cards at all times. Failure to do so could result in severe penalties, including internment. Enemy aliens could not travel beyond a five-mile radius of their homes, even for employment, and were confined to an 8 p.m. to 6 a.m. curfew. In Los Angeles, lines of anxious Japanese, Italian, and German enemy aliens wrapped around post offices, stretching blocks long in certain communities. Rumors spread of mass relocations and arrests.
The War Relocation Authority began notifying enemy aliens living in the prohibited zones, including areas adjacent to shipyards, docks, power plants, and defense factories, that they would be forced to evacuate. In Monterey, California, Rosina Trovato was informed of her son's and her nephew’s deaths at Pearl Harbor. The following day, she was ordered to leave her home.
Attilio and Teresa LoCascio immigrated to the United States in the early 1900s. Their three sons, Angelo, Carl, and Charlie, enlisted in the United States military during World War II. Angelo served on the USS Harder, which was hit by enemy fire on August 24, 1944, killing all 79 servicemen onboard. For months, Teresa wrote to her son. Her letters were returned, marked with an ominous black “X.” The family did not inform Teresa, whose health was failing, about Angelo’s death until shortly before the ship’s loss was made public in January 1945. She wore mourner’s black for much of the remainder of her life.
On February 19, 1942, President Roosevelt issued Executive Order 9066, which, along with Executive Order 9102, authorized the removal of persons from designated areas in the interest of national security. By June 1942, the FBI had arrested over 1,500 Italian aliens, and sent hundreds to internment camps in Montana, Oklahoma, Tennessee, and Texas. The orders did not distinguish between native-born Americans and citizens of other nations living in the United States. The orders simply said "persons." This, in part, enabled the internment of Japanese Americans, 60% of whom were native-born U.S. citizens, on a much larger scale.
The effects of wartime stigmas can still be felt today. After Italy declared war on the United States, Italian Americans rushed to affirm their loyalty to their adopted country. They distanced themselves from their heritage and some anglicized their surnames. Propaganda pieces such as this, which designated Japanese, German, and Italian as the "enemy's" language, discouraged Italian Americans from speaking Italian. Italian-owned businesses often posted signs that read, "No Italian spoken here for the remainder of the war." For many, the humiliation, fear, and shame persisted even after the war, causing irreparable damage to the preservation and transmission of Italian culture, especially the Italian language, to future generations.
During World War II, many Italian Americans changed their surnames and eliminated references to Italy in the names of their businesses. The Italian American Grocery Company, located on North Broadway in Los Angeles’ Little Italy became known as Little Joe’s.
Eager to maintain the support of Italian American voters, on Columbus Day, October 12, 1942, President Roosevelt lifted the enemy alien restrictions on Italian Americans. However, many individuals remained interned or evacuated until after Italy’s surrender. Following the war, Italians seldom spoke of their ordeal. It was not until the landmark exhibit, Una Storia Segreta produced by the American Italian Historical Association's Western Regional Chapter, and the work of Lawrence Di Stasi, Gloria Ricci Lothrop, Rose D. Scherini, Adele Negro, and Stephen Fox, that stories of the traumatic days surfaced. On November 7, 2000, the Wartime Violation of Italian American Civil Liberties Act was signed into law by President Clinton. Ten years later, the California Legislature passed a resolution apologizing for the mistreatment of Italian residents during World War II. Italian Americans have never sought nor received reparations.
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- Francesca Guerrini
Images Courtesy of the Italian American Museum of Los Angeles, Alamy, Bancroft Library, Boston Public Library, Buccellato Family, Center of Military History, Corbis, Getty Images, Loyola Marymount University, Department of Archives and Special Collections (William H. Hannon Library), Library of Congress, Los Angeles Maritime Museum, Los Angeles Public Library, Mansfield Library, Archives and Special Collections, National Archives, Pittsburg Historical Society Museum, San Francisco History Center, San Francisco Public Library, Shorpy, The Historic New Orleans Collection, University of South Florida Special Collections, Tony Pizzo Collection
Special thanks to the Italian American Studies Association Western Regional Chapter, Lawrence DiStasi, Gloria Ricci Lothrop, Ted Aquaro, the Mahoney-LoCascio family, Norma Jungjohann, Ellen Endo, Lloyd Hitt, Nancy Oda, L’Italo Americano, and Mary Corsentino Schmidt