Sicilian emigration to the USA


An introduction to Sicilian emigration >>
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On 8th April 1838, Isambard Kingdom Brunel’s steamship, the SS Great Western set sail from Bristol to New York. While not the first steamship to cross the Atlantic, a feat that had been accomplished some years earlier, the SS Great Western was the first steamship designed and built with scheduled trans-Atlantic passenger crossings in mind. The Age of the Steamship had arrived, and it would change the world (and Sicily) beyond recognition.

Globalisation and migration are dominant themes in our jet-propelled, Internet-fuelled contemporary world, but in terms of sheer numbers, the Age of the Steamship has few rivals: between the SS Great Western’s maiden voyage in 1838 and the outbreak of the 1st World War, trans-Atlantic steamships carried a staggering 30 million European immigrants to the United States. Italy and Sicily contributed significantly to this number: from 1880 to 1920, some 4 million Italians (approximately 10% of the population) made the voyage, and more than a quarter of them were Sicilian. In the first 15 years of the 20th century, 1,126,513 Sicilians emigrated, with about 90% choosing the United States as their preferred destination. In 1906 alone, some 100,000 Sicilians emigrated to the United States.

The reasons for this mass exodus of Sicilians (and Italians) to the United States (and elsewhere) during these years are numerous.  Equally fascinating are the stories of where they settled, how they lived, what they did, and how they contributed to American society.

In 1883, Emma Lazarus, wrote the following lines, part of her famous, if not uncontroversial sonnet, The New Colossus:

Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
 I lift my lamp beside the golden door!

Written to raise funds for a pedestal for the Statue of Liberty, The New Colossus exalted the mythical American dream with propagandistic eloquence: the United States was the land of the free, the land of opportunity, a thoroughly modern country (compared to Europe’s ancient, moribund glories), where anyone could succeed and improve their life.

The egalitarian, humanitarian principles embedded in the poem were derided by many Afro-Americans (for obvious reasons), and the vast majority of Sicilians passing through Ellis Island felt no “glow of world-wide welcome” from the Statue of Liberty’s “beacon-hand”.

Indeed, Sicilians were seen as an inferior race, unclean, impoverished, degenerate and criminal-minded. This was not only the opinion of many Americans: immigrants from northern and eastern Europe viewed Sicilians with contempt, as did those from northern Italy. Consequently, Sicilians were given the most menial jobs, were paid the lowest wages, and had to live in some of the worst parts of town. Prejudice against Sicilians was rife and occasionally this verged on the murderous. The most infamous case took place in New Orleans in 1891, when a mob lynched 11 Sicilians who had been acquitted of murdering a local policeman.

Outcast by society, the Sicilians stuck together. Already by the beginning of the 20th century, Sicilian enclaves had sprung up in some of America’s largest cities: in New York, Sicilians congregated on East 69th Street and on Elizabeth Street, a thoroughfare delimiting Little Italy; the French Quarter of New Orleans became known as Little Palermo; a Little Sicily developed in downtown Chicago; North Beach in San Francisco was a Trinacrian hub; Boston’s notorious North Street had a distinctly Sicilian feel. Immigrants from the Egadi island of Marettimo went salmon fishing in Alaska and then settled a large community in Monterey, California.

As these little communities began to establish themselves, Società di Mutuo Soccorso (mutual aid societies) were founded. New arrivals were helped to find accommodation, a job, and introduced to their new way of life. The Società di Mutuo Soccorso contrasted unscrupulous padroni, well-established Sicilian immigrant middle-men who sourced cheap labour for American employers. Promising free passage and guaranteed jobs, they wooed their Sicilian compatriots to America. The unsuspecting new arrivals would be met off the ship and taken away to work for free, effectively indentured until they had repaid their padrone for his “services”.

At first, most Sicilians were employed as miners, factory workers, and hired hands on construction sites or railroad-building projects. Some, particularly women, worked in the textile industry and in clothes manufacturing. In Boston and San Francisco, there was work to be found on the fishing fleets and on the waterfront, while in the southern states of Louisiana and Texas, farmhands were in constant demand. As their communities grew stronger, some Sicilians opened grocery stores, osterie and simple eateries. Small makeshift theatres and music halls provided a little traditional entertainment. Sicilian clubs were founded, often taking the name of a patron saint from back home, and parades were organised on feast days. Darker, more sinister organisations emerged as well, another reason why Sicilians were viewed with suspicion.

The Sicilian communities that formed across America had little need to learn English. Most didn’t speak Italian, but rather Sicilian, or a dialect of Sicilian unique to their village of origin. This was not just a Sicilian phenomenon, however: when Italy was united in 1861, it is estimated that only 2.5% of the population of the new kingdom could speak the national language. Sicilian immigrants did assimilate English words, though, creating in the process a kind of pidgin language, known as Siculish. English lexis was given the Sicilian treatment, and soon friends and family were arriving from Sicily on the ferribottu (ferry boat) with the aim of finding a giobbu (a job) or doing bissinissi (business). If all went according to plan, they would be able to afford a house with an inside bathroom (rather than a beccasu - backhouse or outbuilding), a friggitèra (a fridge), and a dràiu-uè (driveway), in which they could park their carru (car).

Some of the early Sicilian immigrants were quick to shake off the shackles of poverty, prejudice and drudgery and make names for themselves in American cultural and business circles. Nick La Rocca, a jazz trumpeter, was born in New Orleans in 1889 to parents from Salaparuta and Poggioreale in central Sicily. He became one of the outstanding jazz musicians of his generation and joined the renowned Original Dixieland Jazz Band, the first jazz group to make commercial recordings (in 1917). Meanwhile, over in New York, Vincenzo La Rosa, a native Sicilian, began making pasta in the back of his Brooklyn butcher’s shop. By 1913, he had founded the La Rosa and Sons Macaroni Company, which produced, packaged and distributed pasta throughout the eastern states. Vincenzo was one of the first Sicilian-American self-made millionaires.

Many Sicilians, particularly those who arrived in the United States in the first 15 years of the 20th century, had no intention of staying in La Merica permanently. Indeed, significant numbers (some estimate up to 50%) returned home as soon as they had made enough money to buy some land, build a house, and provide for their family. When these so-called birds of passage did eventually arrive back in Sicily, their relative riches inspired others to dream the American dream.

Sicilian immigrants in the United States sent money home to relatives, and these cash injections became vital for the Sicilian economy, much in the same way that the economy of the Philippines today relies heavily on remittances from its overseas foreign workers. Emigrant Sicilians also invested in Italian government bonds.

With the outbreak of the 1st World War, Sicilian immigration into the United States relented. Then, in 1917 and 1924, two Immigration Acts were passed by the US Congress. The first excluded illiterate immigrants from entering the country and compelled shipping companies to carry out literacy tests and medical examinations on would-be emigrants before allowing them to embark at Palermo or Castellammare del Golfo. Anyone considered illiterate, epileptic, feeble-minded, insane, or carrying contagious diseases, was classified as “undesirable”. The list of undesirables also included criminals, polygamists, prostitutes, and political radicals, such as anarchists. (There was a precedent for this last grouping: in 1900, Gaetano Bresci, an Italian anarchist immigrant, returned to Italy from America and assassinated King Umberto I). Most Sicilians at that time (certainly those wishing to emigrate) fell into the “illiterate” bracket, and the numbers leaving Sicilian shores for America decreased.

The Immigration Act of 1924, meanwhile, imposed strict quotas on immigration depending on the country of origin. A National Origins Formula was created to calculate how many people from each country around the world could emigrate the United States. During the first 15 years of the 20th century, an average of around 200,000 Italians went to the United States each year. After the quota system was introduced in 1924, this number dropped to around 6,000 per year (though the official quota for Italians was just 3,845). Unable to follow in the trans-Atlantic wake of their forefathers, Sicilians looked elsewhere for opportunities, and the majority, especially those from the Aeolian Islands, chose Australia. Only in 1965 was the National Origins Formula revoked.

The legacy of Sicilian immigration into the United States is huge. Millions of Americans have some Sicilian blood coursing through their veins, and there are few areas of American life that have not profited from some kind of Sicilian input, whether it be the arts, business, sport, politics, architecture, the sciences or cuisine. Here’s a compact roll-call of Sicilian-American icons and pioneers:

  • Joseph Barbera, animator and co-creator of The Flintstones, Yogi Bear, Top Cat and Scooby-Doo (his mother was from Sciacca);
  • Chazz Palminteri, actor (his grandparents emigrated to the US from Menfi);
    Sonny Bono, singer and one-time husband of Cher (his father was from Montelepre, near Palermo);
  • Steve Buscemi, actor (his ancestors hailed from Menfi);
  • Frank Capra, director (born in Bisacquino, between Palermo and Sciacca - he emigrated to the US with his family in 1903, aged 5);
  • Al Pacino, actor (his father was from San Fratello in the Nebrodi Mountains, his mother’s parents were from Corleone);
  • Martin Scorsese, director (his father was from Polizzi Generosa in the Madonie Mountains, his mother’s family from Ciminna, near Palermo);
  • Vincenzo Schiavelli, actor (his family was originally from Polizzi Generosa in the Madonie Mountains);
  • Frank Sinatra, singer and actor (his father was from Lercara Friddi, in the mountains between Palermo and Agrigento);
  • Frank Zappa, musician (his father was originally from Partinico, near Palermo);
  • Lady Gaga, singer (her grandparents were from Naso, near Messina); 
  • Joe DiMaggio, baseball player, husband of Marilyn Monroe (his parents were from Isola delle Femmine, near Palermo);
  • Joe Montana, quarterback for the San Francisco 49ers (his maternal grandparents were from Cianciana, near Agrigento);
  • Giuseppe Curreri, aka Johnny Dundee, featherweight world champion (born in Sciacca, from where he emigrated in 1898, aged five);
  • Rosario Candela, architect, who designed over 70 buildings in New York in the 1920s and 30s (born in Montelepre, near Palermo);
  • Michael Massimino, NASA astronaut on two Space Shuttle missions (all four of his grandparents were from Sicily, three from Palermo, one from Linguaglossa on the northern flanks of Mount Etna).

An introduction to Sicilian emigration >>
From the Aeolian Islands to the Antipodes >>
The Marettimari of Monterey >>

Villas in Sicily and the Aeolian Islands >>

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