June 3, 2017


When America Barred Italians (HELENE STAPINSKI, JUNE 2, 2017, NY Times)

Women like my great-great grandmother Vita Gallitelli came to America for more than simply a better job. Subject to the whims of their padroni -- the men who owned the feudal land upon which they toiled -- Italian women were commonly the victims of institutionalized, systematic rape. There was a practice known as "prima notte" that allowed the landowner to sleep with the virgin bride of his worker, which extended into the 20th century.

The husbands couldn't protest, since they would be barred from working the farm and their families left to starve. As it was, they were barely staying alive. In the 1800s, half the children born in Basilicata -- the instep of Italy's boot -- died before age 5. It's the reason Italian-American families hold big bashes for their 1-year-olds even today. [...]

So our desperate great- and great-great grandparents came in droves from Italy, spurred on by industrial barons in need of cheap labor who welcomed them with open arms to America. They would scrape together the 300 lire -- the cost of three houses at the time -- to book passage here, to the land of dreams, where menial, often dangerous jobs no one else wanted awaited them. Some, like my relatives, came here illegally, under false names. Or as stowaways. On one ship alone, 200 stowaways were found. [...]

The United States government used the theories of Cesare Lombroso, a 19th-century Northern Italian doctor, to stop more of his suffering, starving countrymen and women from immigrating.

Lombroso, a traitor to his own people, was convinced that there was such a thing as a "natural born criminal." He measured the heads and body parts of thousands of fellow Italians -- particularly Southerners -- and came up with a description that matched the description of most of the immigrants coming over at the time: short, dark, hairy, big noses and ears.

He compared them to lower primates and said they were more likely to commit violent crimes when they arrived in the United States than immigrants from Germany, Norway, Austria, Sweden, England and every other European country.

Lombroso -- and a growing sea of American nativists -- branded the Southern Italians savages and rapists, blaming them for the crime that was on the rise in the United States.

Posted by at June 3, 2017 5:30 PM