In researching the challenges of Italian immigrants of the late 1800s – early 1900s in comparison to today’s immigrants coming to the United States, the old adage, “The more things change, the more they stay the same” proves to be true. By the late 19th century, Italy was suffering from widespread poverty, social chaos, and violence. As a result of transatlantic transportation becoming more affordable and word of American prosperity from returning immigrants, Italians found it increasingly difficult to resist the call of “L’America.” After a long voyage to America, the Italians’ challenges were just beginning. As explained by Laura Turner, in a 2018 article entitled “Challenges Faced by Immigrants in the 19th Century,” Italian immigrants faced prejudice, mistrust, and language barriers, and found that the challenges they had fled from, such as poverty, were found in America as well.
Fast forward 100 years to today and we find that of the approximate 330 million Americans, it is estimated that 44 million are immigrants. Today’s immigrants suffer the same challenges experienced by the Italians over a century ago. Despite all of the technological advances, policy initiatives, and infrastructure improvements, the reality is that not much has changed. Immigrants, regardless of their country of origin, continue to experience the same struggles with language barriers and prejudice, as well as housing, medical and educational access inequities, cultural obstacles, transportation issues, scarcity of work, prejudice, and discrimination were all too real then and now.
In terms of lessons learned from Italian immigrants, I reflect upon my own Italian ancestors’ travels to this country 117 years ago. I recalled listening to the stories of my great grandparents who were born in Calabria in the late 1890s and came to the United States in 1905. Joe Perri, my great grandfather, and Fanny, my great grandmother, met in New York City and very soon thereafter set out to Pittsburgh to start a family. Joe and Fanny worked diligently, kept their Catholic faith, and created a large Italian family with 13 children.
There is one clear and convincing dictum that resonates between the experiences of Italian immigrants and immigrants of today. In 2015, Vincent Cannato stated, “Each immigrant group possesses its own strategies for survival and success. For Italians, theirs rested upon two pillars: work and family. Italian immigrants helped provide the labor for American factories and mines and helped build roads, dams, tunnels, and other infrastructure.” So the simple lesson holds true today for immigrants hoping for freedom and prosperity … work hard, keep your faith, and hold true to your family and you will find your freedom and peace. La libertà è come l’aria: ci si accorge di quanto vale quando comincia a mancare. In Italian- “Freedom is like air: you realize its value only when you miss it.”