Recently a student and I were having a discussion about Pearl Harbor and the detrimental impact it had on the Japanese American population. From our conversation I realized the student was unaware of how Italians were also mistreated and classified as “enemy aliens” by the United States government from 1941 to 1943. As I explained this overlooked part of US history, the student appeared perplexed and asked, “Are you sure there were Italian American internment camps. I mean I never read anything about this in middle school or high school, and nothing has been mentioned in college.”
Our conversation brought me back to my own middle school and high school history classes and later, since I majored in US history, I thought none of my undergraduate instructors told me about how Italian immigrants and Italian Americans were treated after the attack on Pearl Harbor occurred in December 1941.
I actually learned about the imprisonment of Italians when I was still a college student and saved enough money to go to Siracusa, Italy. I had become fascinated with Ancient Greece’s influence in Sicily after taking several ancient and medieval independent classes at the undergraduate level.
While waiting for a local bus to take me to Catania from Siracusa, I had asked an elderly man if I was in the right bus terminal. He responded immediately that I was and he noticed my Italian was not native. He then asked me in his raspy smoker’s voice where I was from and I told him. The elderly man, who I later found out, was from a village called Noto, had spent some time in America.
At first it appeared his memories of living and working in the US were pleasant until he told me he was sent to an internment camp (he actually said carcere the Italian word for prison) located in the mid-West during World War II. I thought I was missing something in my own translation, so I asked him to repeat himself. Thinking that I did not understand, he chose different words to simplify his point.
As I was trying to make sense of this puzzling information our conversation was interrupted. The bus finally arrived and he found one of the few available seats in the front while I was forced to move to the back as a large crowd boarded behind me. We never continued our conversation as more and more Italians and tourists boarded what seemed to be the only bus going to Catania that day.
Nonetheless, I know that I was confused to what he was saying, I mean, How could anyone in America be forced to be relocated by the US government? Was there something he was not revealing about himself that caused this ill-treatment?
When I returned to the States, I embarked on my own research project and realized that no history teacher or professor had said anything about the US government targeting 600,000 Italian residents and forcing many to apply to their nearest post office, for a Certificate of Identification I began to find out several egregious acts targeting Italians during this era. Some of the research I uncovered did recognize the un-American acts the US government committed against Italians (as well as Germans—there were German internment camps too) but many went on to admit these acts were nowhere near what Japanese Americans experienced.
There are moments in history when certain individuals/groups with influence decide to pit one racial or ethnic group against the other even though both have had similar experiences? No doubt the Japanese internment camps and the famous Supreme Court cases of Korematsu v. United States and Hirabayashi v. United States, arguing how Japanese Americans rights as citizens were violated, must be included in US history textbooks.
At the same time, how do we validate the injustices against one racial or ethnic group and rarely include the injustices against another? And who decides which group’s story should be included in textbooks or lectures while barely mentioning another group’s hardships as an anecdote? As Winston Churchill said “History is written by the victors” and unfortunately the other side’s story is lost, especially in this case, the voices and experiences of the Italian American community.
The fact is that many Italians lost their jobs, homes and businesses because the US government prevented them from traveling more than five miles from home. Furthermore, some committed suicide and were labeled “enemy aliens” while others were also forced to stay out of all places, Ellis Island. Metropolitan opera singer, Ezio Pinza was sent to the immigrant processing center for three months, without government officials explaining why he was being imprisoned at Ellis Island. Ellis Island went from a welcoming mat for immigrants “yearning to breathe free” to a symbol of what happens to your rights if you belong to an unpopular group relative to the time period.
Writer Gary Y. Okihiro in his book Encyclopedia of Japanese American Internment describes the actions taken by the US government toward Italian fishermen living in San Francisco who “were forcibly removed from the waters designated by the military as a prohibited zone for enemy aliens.”
Even Joe DiMaggio’s father, a fisherman, “was barred from his trade of fishing” according to journalist Bart Jansen of The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Many history textbooks have the usual names that represent a particular era but few have ever heard of Martini Battistessa or Giovanni Sanguinetti, perhaps because there were no lawsuits filed against the US government on their behalf.
Gary Y. Okihiro explains the untold stories of those Italians who genuinely suffered from the actions of the US government. “Sixty-five year-old Martini Battistessa threw himself in front of a passenger train in Richmond, California; 57-year-old Giuseppe Mecheli, a fisherman, cut his throat with a butcher knife; 65–year-old Stefano Terranova leaped to his death from a building and Giovanni Sanguinetti of Stockton hanged himself. For all those Italian Americans life was no longer possible.”
As Paula Branca-Santos a lawyer from New York City remarks, “These men were not simply disillusioned with life, nor had they been deceived by a loved one; rather they were despondent over their shameful status as enemies of their adopted country, the United States of America.” The stigma associated with being an “enemy alien” was unbearable for some, resulting in several Italian families returning to their homeland post World War II and they never came back to the United States.
Yes, in 2010 the California legislative apologized for the mistreatment of many Italians even though reparations have never been received. New York State and City political leaders also made attempts to capture the attention of other lawmakers regarding this topic. Despite scant attention given in recent years to the Italian Internment Camps there is still little written in US history textbooks as well as having any discussion on college campuses about this issue. When various perspectives are not mentioned in our history books, we allow future generations to miss out on understanding the obstacles and struggles that all immigrant groups have endured upon entering the shores of America.
Today’s history books are supposed to be written with the same level of sensitivity that the subject aims to convey to students about when covering certain racial and ethnic groups. When we forget, however, to treat other groups with the same level of respect we create a misinformed generation, and when this occurs we enter a perilous world.