A Century in the Spotlight
As the 20th century moved forward, Italian immigrants moved steadily into the main currents of U.S. society. By the 1920s and 30s, the immigrant generation had begun to see their children grow up as Americans—a process that many immigrants viewed with some ambivalence. The U.S. public school system provided immigrant children with a new language, a new set of patriotic symbols, a school yard immersion in U.S. popular culture, and sometimes even a new Anglicized name. At the same time, though, this process often created a cultural gap between the second, Americanized, generation and their parents, who would always belong, at least in part, to the old country.
Over time, Italian Americans achieved advances in the U.S. workforce. The major labor unions soon opened their doors to immigrant workers, and Italians were able to continue their activism on a much larger scale. As they gained more experience, Italian Americans were able to move into a wider range of careers, and became business owners and managers in greater numbers. Works by Italian-American authors began appearing in bookstores, and the Neapolitan tenor Enrico Caruso became a best-selling artist among Italians and non-Italians alike. With prosperity came greater political clout, and candidates began currying favor with Italian-American associations as elections drew near.
The coming of World War II saw Italian Americans step permanently into the center of U.S. cultural life. Nearly one million Italian Americans served in the armed forces, about 5 percent of the Italian-American population, and millions more worked in war industries. As with many other immigrant groups, national service brought Italian Americans even greater social mobility, more access to education, and a higher profile in the nation’s popular imagination. According to one account, an Italian-American aircraft worker, Rose Bonavita, became the inspiration for a 20th-century icon, Rosie the Riveter.
From the 1940s on, the children of Italian immigrants could be found in all regions of the U.S., in almost every career and nearly every walk of life. This was especially true in New York City, where Italian American culture soon became a major component of the city’s personality. For many Americans, the city’s longtime mayor, Fiorello LaGuardia, served as an energetic and erudite ambassador both for his city and for his national heritage. For a comprehensive collection of photographs of Italian Americans in the war years, and particularly in New York City, visit the collection Farm Security Administration/Office of War Information Black-and-White Negatives and search for “Italian American.”
With the explosion of mass media after the war, Italian Americans became ubiquitous. Every aspect of show business, politics, science, and art seemed to have a prominent Italian American in its vanguard. Marlon Brando became the face of a new school of naturalistic acting. Rocky Marciano revolutionized the sport of boxing. Diane Di Prima pioneered the rough poetry and prose of the Beat movement. Enrico Fermi continued his Nobel Prize-winning work on the mysteries of the atom, becoming arguably the greatest physicist alive.
Joe DiMaggio, the son of a San Francisco fisherman, led the New York Yankees to nine World Series championships. The crooners Perry Como and Dean Martin ruled the airwaves, and Hoboken, New Jersey’s Frank Sinatra was, for a time, the most popular entertainer in the United States.
Today, Italian Americans are represented throughout U.S. society, from the Supreme Court to the National Academy of Sciences to the National Basketball Association. More than one hundred years after the great era of Italian immigration began, the children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren of the original immigrants continue to celebrate the heritage that their forebears brought to their new home.