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The Padroneand the Immigrant ROBERT F. HARNEY The Padrone is a stock figure in North American immigrant studies, the image of an alien boss or labour agent exploiting alien workers widespread . For turn-of-the-century nativists, the existence of 'padrone systems ' ranked high among the proofs that the 'new' immigrants from the Mediterranean had no aptitude for American freedom, and for a long time the aura of padronism clung to many ethnic businessmen; more recently, historians have viewed the padrone system as a natural bridge between the greenhorn immigrant and American capitalism's voracious appetite for cheap labour. It comes as a shock, therefore, to realize that, despite a rich primary literature and an apparent consensus about the padrone's role,1 the word padrone remains more pejorative than definitional. This paper looks at some of the contradictions and misconceptions that surround 'padronism.' 'Padronism' went through several phases in the nineteenth century, each phase marked by semantic as well as historical and moral problems. The first padroni were the traditional Italian street entertainers and hustlers who, wandering about western Europe and North America, employed boys as shills, beggars, and apprentices. The word padrone, as applied to these men, meant something between master and patron. 2 Behind the word stood a system of recruiting and indenturing the excess children of the rural Italian poor. "These children were collected by the padrone ... from the hillsides of Italy, and practically in the condition of slaves were carried from Europe to America." 3 The practice of indenturing young children was common in Southern Europe. The family often saw it as alleviation of their burden and as a chance for upward mobility for the child.4 Yet it was natural that others regarded the practice as immoral and the indentured children as catamites or slaves. By the 1840s, the padrone had assumed Fagin-like proportions,, with the indentured children being viewed as corrupted innocents. The great Italian revolutionary, Mazzini, who found his exile in London tarnished by the presence of a padrone system, wrote to his mother about his attempts to destroy it: THE CANADIAN REVIEW OF AMERICAN STUDIES VOL. V, NO. 2, FALL 1974 The society for the Protection of Italian Lads will do good you may be sure, and will also give a favorable idea of us to the English. I have no time to tell you all the horrors that some of the masters commit towards the poor boys, and that they bear in silence because they do not know to whom to appeal and because terror had made them more abject than nigger-slaves.5 Mazzini's letter set the moral tone of much later comment on the system. For example, Francisco Nitti, the Italian statesman, labelled these exploiters not padroni but negriere/ slave-traders. Padronism, in its many different forms, continued to lend itself to comparisons with slavery. In 1905, an editorial in Charities magazine described a West Virginia camp to which Italian immigrants had been shanghaied: Armed guards were frequent. A man turned over to the boss after a fight was locked up in a shanty under a guard of negroes. In the night a shot was heard. The man was not seen again ... A gatling gun on a hill overlooked the camp. The Contractors and their men carried revolvers and some rode with rifles in their hands.7 The padrone, then, was not just a capitalist but a white-slaver as well. If he no longer enslaved children, he became an exploiter of 'child-like' and helpless peasant workers. As instances of padrone control over children declined among Italian migrants, abuses concerning adult Italian workers grew. Two facts kept alive the high level of moral indignation and consequent definitional confusion about "padronism.' One was the easy and often racist analogy between childhood and peasant naivete. Baron Fava, Italian Ambassador to the United States, saw the padrone system as a product of South Italian gullibility - "so long as a large part of our Italian emigration comes from the southern provinces, represented mainly by the agricultural or rural classes. PROVERBIAL FOR THEIR SIMPLICITY, there will always be those ... who are ready to take advantage of them." 8 The second...


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