The Italian migration in the US. Understanding history to understand each other

The story of Italians in the US is incredibly fascinating, as well as intricate and too often generalized and ignored. It’s the story of a brave population who fought for ideals, with a strength that seems not to exist anymore in today’s Italy. This story is partially yet to be discovered.

The University of California, Los Angeles recently hosted a symposium on the experience of the Italian immigration in California. “The Italian identity is a fundamental feature of Los Angeles, a multicultural and cosmopolitan city,” said Consul General Giuseppe Perrone. “We can find it every day in many symbolic landmarks, from the Watts Towers to the Italian Hall, from LACMA to the canals of Venice”.

But what is the story of the Italian experience in California? It seems that the process of migration here was different from the one of Ellis Island. East, a page of suffering, conflicts and faith; West, a much easier process of integration. The last project of filmmakers Gianfranco Norelli and Suma Kurien aims at investigating this experience. “

The documentary Bitter Bread (2007), directed by Gianfranco Norelli and Suma

A few years ago we presented to the US audience our previous documentary, Bitter Bread (2007), which focused on the Italian migration to the East coast of the US from the late 1800 until the WWII”, explains Kurien. “While many loved the film, many others reacted by saying they didn’t recognize themselves in that story. There we realized there was another story to investigate, the one of the Italian immigration to the West Coast. We are now in the process of collecting testimonies from those who were part of that experience.”
After more than a century, the Italian immigration in the US is still little known, even by Italians and Italian-Americans themselves. “There are several answers to this process of obscuring” explains Norelli. “When Italians left Italy at the end of 1800, they were escaping an unsuccessful situation. Nor Italy or the US cared about them. Theirs was mainly a rural culture and most of them spoke dialect only, which was seen as less than a language.
Italian immigrants started to perceive all this like something to be ashamed of. So they tried to integrate into the society of the new continent, but in order to do that, they had to leave behind their roots and their identity.” America wanted to create a united nation, and being part of it implied a choice for immigrants, the choice to become Americans.
This separation from the original heritage is also one of the main causes that led to the creation of a stereotyped Italian culture in the US, which very often collides with our actual, contemporary culture. Why are Italian-Americans so bound to a heritage that doesn’t even exist in Italy anymore?

Directors Suma Kurien and Gianfranco Norelli

“As I said, Italians in the US had to leave behind their previous life to become Americans” comments Norelli. “Only a few things were left to them: among these, religious festivities and traditional food. They started to emphasize those elements to maintain their identity, and at the same time America started to identify them with those features.” This new culture became very strong and nowadays is still celebrated all over the US, together with a completely different Italian heritage, the contemporary one, renown for arts, architecture, design and fashion.
“But be careful” says Suma, “the Italian-American culture and the Italian culture are two different things. Most of the miscommunication between the two comes from the fact that Italians expect Italian-Americans to represent the actual Italian culture; but the culture of immigrants was created here, not in Italy, and therefore is something else.”
Two “sister cultures” then, that belongs to two different countries. Accepting that there was another story, -or many different stories- that made an Italian-American culture seems to be the first step towards a mutual understanding.

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