Monday, October 26, 2015

Guest Post by Joe Giordano, author of Birds of Passage

Italian Immigration to New York
Joe Giordano
Southern Italians were eighty percent of the immigrants to New York where their labor was needed for growing commercial and industrial activities in Manhattan. The majority were general laborers. Those who had skills were merchants, stonecutters, mechanics, mariners, masons, barbers, seamstresses and shoemakers. Women most often worked in the garment industry. Italian immigration was composed principally of poor people who hadn’t enough money to pay transportation expenses from the ports of disembarkation, and therefore had to find work immediately. That's why the padrone system of employment was accepted. Padroni generally were labor agents who sold jobs to men eager to migrate. Many padroni were sub-contractors building railroads, tunnels, and canals with crews of migrant laborers. While immigrants were often preyed upon by other Italians and relegated to the lowest economic tier, a comparison of wages in Italy versus America demonstrates that despite the cost of travel and the cut of the padrone, Italians earned far more money in the States than in Italy. Furthermore, in Italy patron-client relationships weren't viewed as a limit on individual liberty. On the contrary, patronage was an integral dimension of Italian life at every level of society. While patronage corrupted Italy’s government, Italians viewed a patron relationship as an advantage and those without patrons as truly powerless. 
The early literature on Italian immigration to New York emphasizes the squalor of their living conditions. While this is undoubtedly true, something about Italian life in New York eventually stemmed the tendency to repatriate to Italy and attracted people to remain in the United States. Italians often immigrated to where kin, friends and neighbors had settled, familiar social networks. Factories transformed Italians from agricultural peasants into wage-earners. Southern Italian work ethic and belief in family encountered a degree of economic mobility and city-life social interactions not available to most of the men or women in the agricultural orientated villages they left. This new economic and social order was attractive. Eventually a critical mass of Italians from the same village, same area or same kin had come to New York, and more men began to immigrate with wives and children. Italians adopted the United States as a permanent home.

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