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La Merica: Images Of Italian Greenhorn Experience

Michael La Sorte

Publication Year: 2010

Why would a man tie up a cheap suitcase with grass rope, leave his family and his paesani in Italy to risk his life and meager possessions among the dock thieves of Naples and Genoa to suffer the congestion and stench of steerage accommodations aboard ship, to endure the assembly-line processing of Ellis Island, to wander almost incommunicado through a city of sneering strangers speaking an unknown tongue, to perform ten to twelve hours of heavy manual labor a day for wages of perhaps $1.65—most of which he probably owed to the "company store" before he got it? Why were there not just a few such men but droves of them coming to the United States in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century? How did they survive and—some of them—prosper? How did they surmount the language barrier? Why did some stay, some go home, and some bounce back and forth repeatedly across the Atlantic? Michael La Sorte examines these questions and more in this lively study of Italian immigration prior to World War I. In exploring for answers, he draws upon the commentary of recent scholars, as well as the statistical documents of the day. But most importantly, he has searched out individual stories in the published and unpublished diaries, letters, and autobiographies of immigrants who lived the "greenhorn" (grignoni) experience. In their own language, the men bring to life the teeming tenements of New York's Mulberry Street, the exploitative labor-recruiting practices of Boston's North Square, and the harsh squalor of work camp life along the country's expanding railroad lines. What emerges is a powerful, moving, alternately funny and appalling picture of their everyday lives. Through detailed narration, La Sorte traces the men's lives from their native villages across the Atlantic through the ports of entry to their first immigrant jobs. He describes their views of Italy, America, and each other, the cultural and linguistic adjustments that they were compelled to make, and their motives for either Americanizing or repatriating themselves. His chapter on "Italglish" (a hybrid language developed by the greenhorns) will echo in the ears of Italian-Americans as the sound of their parents' and grandparents' voices.

Published by: Temple University Press


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pp. vii

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pp. ix-xiv

In this book I look at the phenomenon of the emigration of Italian men to the United States prior to the First World War from the perspective of the participants in the event, the migrants themselves. The focus is restricted to the greenhorn years-the initial encounter with the immigrant status. The first exposure to the host country was the most trying ...

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1. Leaving Italy

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pp. 3-36

To understand why emigration from Italy commenced and grew stead ily in volume, one must consider more than the broad societal forces that set the flow in motion. Time and again over the years, it was a combination of individual forces that triggered the decision to emigrate. Poverty, or relative deprivation, does not by itself create a suffi ...

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2. Landing in New York

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pp. 37-60

In mid-nineteenth-century America, although there were state laws regulating immigration, the procedure for admitting the newcomers arriving in port cities on the east coast consisted of little more than a head count. 2 New York's processing center was known as the Barge Office. It was located on the Battery, at the tip of Manhattan, where an ...

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3. Working in America

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pp. 61-116

"The Americans," wrote Napoleone Colajanni in 1909, "consider the Italians as unclean, small foreigners who play the accordion, operate fruit stands, sweep the streets, work in the mines or tunnels, on the railroad or as bricklayers." 2 Because the Italians were restricted to "immigrant work" and a few other jobs that they came to monopolize...

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4. Living in America

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pp. 117-158

In the 1870S the Italian community in lower Manhattan began to spread beyond lower Mulberry Street. The Italians took over Hester and Mott Streets from the Irish, gradually replaced them on Baxter Street, and spilled over into upper Mulberry. By 1880 there were...

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5. Italglish: The Immigrant Idiom

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pp. 159-188

One of the most fascinating adjustments that Italian newcomers made to American society was the way they adapted their language. The immigrants developed an idiom, simply constructed and quickly learned by any greenhorn within a few weeks, that proved to be an effective...

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6. Repatriation

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pp. 189-202

Italians may have been unique among European immigrants in their rate of return to their homeland. Some of these repatriates went home permanently; either they had planned to do so, or they had become disillusioned with America. Others, after a period of months or years...


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pp. 203-220

Sources and Further Reading

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pp. 221-230


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pp. 231-234

E-ISBN-13: 9781439903926

Publication Year: 2010