America: Land of Liberty? Prejudice against Italians in the early 20th Century

Nicola Lucarino, my grandfather, second from the right, like so many southern Italian peasants at that time, made the voyage to America to make money to send to his family in Civitanova del Sannio, Molise, Italy. Nicola came to America several times, the final in 1931 on the SS Conte Grande at the age of 35 to become a permanent citizen and therefore help to bring the rest of his family to the U.S. His look of confidence was prescient as our Lucarino family continues to thrive in the U.S. Nicola Lucarino, my grandfather, second from the right, like so many southern Italian peasants at that time, made the voyage to America to make money to send to his family in Civitanova del Sannio, Molise, Italy. Nicola came to America several times, the final in 1931 on the SS Conte Grande at the age of 35 to become a permanent citizen and therefore help to bring the rest of his family to the U.S. His look of confidence was prescient as our Lucarino family continues to thrive in the U.S.

Gli immigrati italiani e la loro cultura hanno affrontato molte forme di discriminazione negli Stati Uniti all’inizio del XX secolo. Questa ostilità si è manifestata contro tutti gli italiani, ma soprattutto nei confronti dei meridionali originari della Campania, della Calabria e della Sicilia. Questo pregiudizio è scaturito a seguito del forte aumento del numero degli arrivi in quel momento storico, giacché solo nel decennio tra il 1901 e 1910 giunsero oltre due milioni di persone in cerca di un futuro più prospero. Eventi storici, nazionalismo in aumento e inimicizie etniche preesistenti contribuirono a creare terreno fertile per forme di discriminazione a danno dei cosiddetti “cafoni”, termine adottato dagli americani per  descrivere i nostri immigrati come persone ignoranti, rozze ed incolte.

Italian immigrants and their culture faced many forms of discrimination in the U.S. at the start of the 20th century. This hostility manifested itself against all Italians, but especially the southern Italian: those from Naples, Calabria and Sicily. This prejudice was initiated by the large increase in the number of Italian immigrants that arrived at that time—more than 2 million from 1901-1910 alone. Other causes included historical events, rising nationalism and pre-existing ethnic enmities. The Americans were fearful of the southern Italians and took offence with their appearance and their culture: most had dark skin, were willing to work in low-paid jobs and were considered mafiosi, criminal-like and undesirable. Cafone was an Italian word that originally meant “peasant” but was co-opted by Americans and applied to Italian immigrants to mean a rude, ignorant and crude person.

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