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From the Desk of Chris Pisano, President of the Foundation Operations Team:

Each 2022 LaFamiglia scholarship applicant was required to produce a 500 word essay on a topic of current interest as a major component of the application. We will feature a winning essay each month, and this month’s essay was written by Brendan Elliott. Brendan was the recipient of the Jerome and Angela Elliott Scholarship. The essay topic was:

“What parallels can you draw between the challenges faced by early Italian immigrants coming to the USA in the late 1800s/early 1900s and those faced by immigrants coming to the USA today? What lessons might be learned from the experiences of those early immigrants that could help today’s immigrants?”

Comparing Harsh Working Conditions for Latin and Italian American Immigrants

Italian immigrants migrated to the United States en masse from the late 1800s until the 1920s. Despite the promise of prosperity in America, Italian immigrants faced significant challenges upon arrival to the nation. One of the most difficult challenges endured by Italians was poor working conditions. While Italian immigrants bravely overcame these challenges through fostering strong community, another group faces similar difficulties today. Parallel to the experiences of Italians, Latin American immigrants also face rough labor environments. As the history of Italian Americans demonstrates, perseverance through community will help Latin American immigrants prevail through their challenges.

Working conditions for Italian American immigrants were unhealthy and negligent towards the immigrants’ wellbeing. Primarily due to nativism, Italians often had to work in incredibly poor conditions, whether it be public work in northern cities, rock mining in Appalachia, or grueling and low-pay textile work. For example, in an academic interview, an Italian women recalled her work in a laundry shop in the 1910s. She described how Italian women were relegated to the basement, performing more grueling and dirty tasks, while other immigrant groups worked on the first floor and completed more interesting and enjoyable jobs (Luconi, 2003). These conditions generally came under the supervision of a padrone, often an immigrant himself who managed wages and contracts. Since immigrants were often not educated about the American labor system, padroni often took advantage of Italians for the sake of profit, reducing their wages and encouraging labor in poor environments (Fenton, 1959). Both the Padroni system and first-hand accounts of workers reveal the harsh labor conditions faced by Italian immigrants in the United States.

Today, Latin American immigrants face similarly poor working conditions. Often, these immigrants are forced to perform cheap labor, whether it be grueling farm work or dangerous manufacturing positions. One example of grueling conditions exists in Morganton, North Carolina. Immigrants from Guatemala were recruited to work in a poultry farm that had horrific environments: work hours could total more than fourteen a day, workers were provided unsanitary housing in nearby mobile homes, and there was no protection against unsanitary poultry (Fink, 2003). The case of the Morganton farm is only one of many agricultural factories that generates inhumane working conditions for Latin American immigrants; these poor conditions, evidently, parallel the working challenges faced by Italian Immigrants.

Despite these challenges, however, Latin Americans could find hope through the past prevail of Italian Americans. When faced with harsh labor conditions, Italian Americans were unable to join workers’ unions due to nativism and discrimination. Nevertheless, Italian laborers formed their own unions, which allowed them to fight and successfully attain improved working environments (Fenton, 1959). Latin American immigrants have taken similar strategies. The workers of Morganton, for example, successfully went on strike and earned safer conditions in the poultry farm (Fink, 2003). In the future, Latin Americans can continue to build and maintain their own communities to fight and overcome labor challenges, just as the Italians did in the early 1900s.