- From Paesani to White Ethnics: The Italian Experience in Philadelphia
In this ambitious study, Stefano Luconi argues that Italian immigrants’ evolving ethnicity was a product of dialectical processes that reflected transnational and local experiences. The author’s insight into the connection between international relations, identity, and electoral politics as well as the study’s chronological breadth, make this book an important contribution to immigration history. Despite its wide scope, the study’s analytical framework is limiting because it relies so heavily on the voices of leaders to explain the transformation of an entire community’s ethnic consciousness.
Luconi carefully weaves themes of localism and internationalism to uncover how Italian immigrants in Philadelphia created a single national identity out of multiple regional loyalties and, in turn, how these ties became white racial bonds. Unlike the first generation of Italian immigrants, the fuorusciti, who arrived before the Civil War and who had a strong sense of belonging to the recently formed Italian nation-state, migrants who came after the 1880s identified with regional villages. These subnational affiliations created the social, political, and economic contours, as well as the divides, of the city’s Italian population through World War I. Luconi argues that the prominenti, ethnic leaders, of this generation had the greatest impact on forging, what he terms, “Italianness” and, later Italian-American consciousness. During the Progressive era, the prominenti balanced divergent interests and highlighted the common plight of their compatriots in order to gain political power. For example, in 1906, these leaders successfully rallied support for a campaign to stop President Teddy Roosevelt [End Page 191] from signing literacy test legislation which would have had a negative impact on future Italian immigration. They also reminded Italians of their common history through organizing celebrations honoring Christopher Columbus and Giuseppe Garibaldi.
Italy’s involvement in the Allied cause during World War I gave its emigrants in Philadelphia a new legitimacy in municipal politics. Rejecting the notion that Italians remained apolitical in the 1920s, Luconi demonstrates their sophistication in dealing with both the Republicans and the Democrats. Italians’ decision not to align with one particular party reflected savvy power brokering rather than an apolitical outlook. Their partisan equivocation continued throughout the 1930s.
Simultaneously, the rise of Fascism in their homeland caused the population’s subnational allegiances to abate and nationalist fervor to grow. Italian identity, therefore, was made locally out of the Depression era crisis and fueled internationally by Benito Mussolini’s rise to power. Luconi uses these transnational events, and their meaning to Italians in Philadelphia, to argue against the idea that the period was Americanizing moment in which second and third generation ethnics came together in the New Deal Coalition. Rather, Italians became more aware of themselves as part of a group, distinct from native-born citizens and other immigrants alike.
Underlying this new sense of connectedness, he asserts, was Fascism. While highlighting some ideological rifts in the community, he still concludes: “The great bulk of Philadelphia’s Italian Americans revealed a prevailing pro-Fascist bent” (p. 85). He never defines precisely what “great bulk” means, and his evidence suggests a more complicated reality. Regardless, he finds that the increase in nationalism had two implications for the community: Racism and applications for citizenship among Italians were both on the rise. Luconi has interesting interpretations of each. First, applying for citizenship was a result of the encouragement of Mussolini who believed that pro-fascist Italian-Americans could have a positive impact on foreign policy. Second, the author argues, “The racist views of Philadelphia’s Italian Americans resulted less from the elaboration of any white identity than from the appeal of Fascism” (p. 74) In other words, Italian immigrants’ anti-semitism and anti-black feelings were tied to Italy’s1935—1936 invasion and occupation of Ethiopia and the regime’s 1938 antisemitic decrees. There is evidence for these conclusions. Luconi’s assertion, however, that anti-Irish feeling was also connected to fealty to il Duce is shaky. Once the United States entered World War...