Italian American Heritage
Italian American Heritage
Italians were some of the first European explorers and settlers of California and the Italian Americans who found their way to Fresno County became an invaluable thread in the diverse tapestry that makes up our region. Like most immigrants, the Italians were attracted to America as the land of opportunity. In fact, many Italians emigrated because of the turbulent political and economic upheavals in their native country including unemployment, high taxes and low wages. Between 1861 and 1929, 16 million Italians left their homeland. They dreamed the shores of America would welcome them with open arms and the chance to create a better life for their families. Most were very poor when they landed but they were willing to work hard to succeed. Over three-quarters of the young men who arrived in the United States initially intended to return home but only 20 to 30 percent ever did so.
The journey to America by ship usually began in either Naples or Rome and took about three months to travel to New York’s Ellis Island. After the invention of the steam ship, the trip took ten days. Ninety-six percent of the Italian immigrants traveled to America this way. With the help of family, the immigrants booked the cheapest passage in steerage or 3rd class. The accommodations were less than pleasant.
Once arriving in New York Harbor, the new settlers still had to travel. About one third of Italian immigrants stayed in New York City. Some set up shop wherever their American sponsors lived. A large number set off for California to pursue agricultural work. In most cases, travel around the country was made by train.
The San Joaquin Valley was appealing to these newcomers because the climate reminded them of home. Jobs in farming were familiar and usually easy to find. Although the wages were low and the manual labor exhausting, workers took comfort in being able to speak their own language and share similar traditions with other Italian immigrants in the fields. Italian settlements in Fresno’s West Side, Clovis, Sanger and other county communities began to develop, often in neighborhoods filled with immigrants from Armenia, China and Japan who were experiencing similar hurdles in assimilating.
While the Italian workforce was known to be diligent, laws, such as the Immigration Act of 1924 that set quotas for admission to the United States, made clear that Italian Americans had not yet been fully accepted. However, Roman Catholicism had a long history in the making of California, and the non-Christian beliefs of Asian immigrants made the Italian's religious practices more tolerable to the Anglo-Californians. This helped Italian families experience an easier time integrating.
In addition to farming, early local Italian Americans became shoemakers, waiters, fruit sellers and tradesmen of many sorts. The American-born children of the first wave of immigrants that came of age in the 1900s to the 1930s achieved great success as restaurateurs as well as in law enforcement and other public service, the military, politics, education, business, medicine, sports and agriculture, especially winemaking.
The Italians in America took much interest in vineyards and winemaking; some of the most famous names in American wines got their start during the four decades leading up to Prohibition in 1919. Wineries were an important source of revenue in the lives of many Italian American, and later, the 18th amendment put a great damper on income. During Prohibition, many of the families who owned vineyards kept their vines alive and healthy waiting for eventual repeal. In particular, the juice grape industry was instrumental in providing a much-needed bridge during this time. Once this occurred in 1933, these vineyards were crucially important in the rebuilding of the industry.
Italians grew all kinds of crops, especially figs, juice grapes and olives, and were an economic force that helped bring prosperity to the Central Valley.
Even with success in the wine and agriculture industry, it was not uncommon for Italian immigrants to face some trouble with education and the adaptation to the English language. They also had a difficult time with breaking the violent stereotype that was given to them with high profile organized crime. Like many immigrants to America, Italian Americans had to struggle with changes to their everyday life. Adapting to a new culture, they made great efforts to earn money to keep themselves and their families stable, while attempting to keep their old culture alive. Social clubs, festivals and religious celebrations provided ties back to Italy and familiar customs. The tradition of Sunday dinner continues to span the generations with the unmistakable aromas of lovingly prepared tomato sauce and pizza a constant in all Italian family homes.
During WWII, when American was at war with Italy, Germany and Japan, small numbers of Italian immigrants who had not yet been naturalized were interned as were 120,000 Japanese Americans who were considered “enemy aliens.” Newly enforced restrictions were an invasion of privacy and some Italian Americans were treated like criminals. Homes were searched, personal possessions were confiscated, and they were required to be fingerprinted and photographed. These restrictions caused many Italian Americans to lose their jobs and limited their freedom of movement. Even those serving in the military were still seen as potential threats. Despite suffering this indignity, a number of brave young Italian Americans from Fresno County enlisted and served heroically, including on the battlefields of their ancestral land, Italy.
In the end, the years of struggle, sacrifice and toil paid off. Italians flourished and eventually started moving out of the old “Little Italy” neighborhoods and into the general population. Today, Italian Americans serve proudly and successfully in all walks of life while still celebrating the traditions of family, religion and food that make their culture so unique and special.
Please, now, embark on this journey on the Italian American Road of Dreams….