We Came to North America: The Italians by Greg Nickles

The first Italians came to North and South America over 500 years ago.  An Italian sailor, Christopher Columbus, reached North America in 1492.  The Queen of Spain had sent him to sail west across the Atlantic Ocean and find a new trade route to China and Japan.  He landed on an island in the Caribbean and thought he had reached Asia.  Italian explorer Amerigo Vespucci, gave his name to the Americas.  He went to South America in 1499, and a mapmaker later named the area "America" in his honor.

John Cabot was another famous Italian explorer.  He lived most of his life in Venice, a city in Italy.  When he was 46, he moved to England and changed his name from Giovanni Caboto to John Cabot.  In 1497, he was sent by the King of England to search for a sea route to Asia.  Instead, he reached a huge island off the east coast of Canada.  He called it "New Founde Landes" and claimed it for England.  Today, the island is a province of Canada, called Newfoundland.

Since then, millions of Italians have come to North America.  The first immigrants were from northern Italy and arrived after the 1820s.  Many of these Italians settled in California.  Some grew grapes and opened wineries.  Others planted fruit orchards and vegetable farms.  Some of these businesses became large and successful.

Most Italians arrived in the United States and Canada in the late 1800s.  They left the hardship and poverty of their home villages, looking for a better life in "Lamerica," as they called North America.  Most of them came with few skills and little money.  They hoped to find opportunities they did not have in Italy.  Often, their dreams of a better future came true, if not for themselves, at least for their children and grandchildren.

During the last 120 years, Italian American have worked hard, educated their children, and have become valuable citizens.  Some have succeeded in government, in music and the arts, and in sports.  Others have made contributions to science and business.


The Journey

In the 1880s, the journey from Italy to North America took two to four weeks by steamship, depending on the weather and the route.  Passengers traveled on one of three classes: first class, for passengers who could afford the ticket; second class, which was less expensive; and third class, the least comfortable and the cheapest.  Most immigrants from Italy were young, traveled alone, and were third class passengers.

False Promises

In the 1880s, North American cities were growing fast.  Workers were needed in factories, in the construction business, and to build the railroads.  Companies paid Italians living in North America to go to Italy and find people to come and work in Canada and the United States.  These agents were called padroni in Italian.

Many of the farmers in the villages of southern Italy had never even heard of the United States.  Padroni came to their villages and told stories about the land of opportunity across the ocean.  They promised people good jobs.  Most Italians did not have enough money to buy steamship tickets to North America for themselves and their families.  Padroni lent people who wanted to leave Italy the money for the journey; in return they promised to repay the padroni.  After arriving in North America, immigrants discovered they had to give a large part of their salary to the padroni each month.  They had to pay back the money they had been lent along with a high rate of interest.  Since many Italians worked low-paying jobs, they found themselves in debt for many years.  Many dishonest padroni became rich by exploiting immigrant workers in this way.

At first, padroni brought mostly children from poor southern Italian families to work in North America as acrobats, shoe shiners, and musicians.  They were forced to work long hours, were underfed, and had to give all they money they earned to the padroni.  These children were treated so badly that in the 1880s, the Italian government made it illegal for padroni to get children in Italy.  Instead, padroni began finding adults to come and work in North America.  Many of these unskilled and uneducated workers ended up in debt to the padroni for years.  By 1897, these agents controlled most of the Italian laborers who worked in the construction business in New York City.

After a while, the padroni lost all their power, and their role in the Italian community changed.  They became employment agents, finding jobs for new arrivals and being interpreters for these immigrants until they learned to understand and speak English.  Padroni still took advantage of immigrants, charging them a high fee to help them find work.  However, as soon as they could find work on their own, Italians turned away from the padroni.

The Foran Act

Padroni forced immigrants to work for little pay.  Companies were eager to hire Italian workers because they accepted such low wages.  Other workers were angry because they could not compete with the Italians.  Labor unions, such as the Order of the Knights of Labor, pressured the U.S. government to protect jobs from competition from immigrants.  In 1885, Congress passed the Foran Act, making it illegal to import workers into the United States.  Companies who brought in workers from other countries had to pay fines.  However, there were no inspectors to check if employers were obeying the law.

A Success Story

When Amadeo Obici was just eleven years old, he left his small village in Italy to seek his fortune in the United States.  He arrived in New York in 1887, speaking no English.  His first job was in a hotel as a bellhop carrying guests' suitcases.  Later, he opened his own fruit stand.  With his savings, he bought a peanut roaster and a horse and wagon and became a peanut vendor.  This business grew, and in 1906, Amadeo founded Planters Peanuts.  At first the company was small, with six workers and two large roasters.  After Amadeo married Louise Musate, who operated her own peanut stand in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania, the couple opened a factory in Virginia.  Planters Peanuts grew, and the Obicis became rich.  They never forgot their family and friends and became generous benefactors of the community.

Little Italies

Italian immigrants usually moved into the part of the city where other Italians lived and where they had friends and relatives.  These districts became known as "Little Italies."

Little Italies grew up in many North American cities, including New York City, Boston, and Toronto.  In some of these neighborhoods, the Italian population was so large that immigrants from the same village in Italy settled on the same streets.  Here they could speak their own Italian dialect, eat Italian food, hear Italian music, go to their own church, and celebrate their own holidays.  They could find help and support from family and friends.

Many Little Italies were in the oldest and most rundown areas where rents were cheap.  Living conditions were bad.  Large families were crowded into small rooms in apartment houses called tenements.  Many apartments had no running water, and families shared a tap in the hallway.  Some families even lived in dark, damp cellars.  People were overworked, and sometimes they did not get enough food.  Disease spread easily, and death rates were often much higher than in other parts of the city.

Over the years, as they became more successful and had more money, many Italians moved out of their Little Italies.  However, these communities have survived.  New York City, Boston, and Toronto have Little Italies that are thriving business centers where traditional festivals are still celebrated.  Even people who have no Italian background love to come to these neighborhoods to buy Italian specialties and eat in Italian restaurants.

Language, Food and Music

The Italians who came to North America brought their language, customs, and music with them.  Many of these traditions have been kept alive in churches, family celebrations, and community events.

In Italy, each region had its own customs and food.  Even the language could change from one region to another, with people speaking different dialects of Italian.  In North America, Italian immigrants began speaking a mixture of their local language and English.  Many English words became Italianized.  For example, "boss" became "bosso" and "job" became "giobba."  Speaking this mixed language made it easier for people from different regions of Italy to understand each other.

When North Americans think of Italian food, they usually think of pizza and spaghetti.  However, Italian cooking is much more varied.  Each region of Italy has its own specialties and cooking style, depending on the local ingredients that are available.

A basic part of the diet of the first Italian immigrants was coarse black bread.  They also ate vegetables, such as tomatoes, onions, corn, and peas.  Pasta, such as spaghetti, was a luxury in Italy.  Most people could afford to eat it only once or twice a year on special occasions.  In North America, although immigrants still had little money, they could eat pasta two or three times a week.  Pasta became a staple food of the Italian North American diet.

Italian food was unknown in North America before the arrival of the Italian immigrants.  Today, Italian food is enjoyed in many homes, restaurants, and fast-food outlets across the continent.

Music is an important part of Italian life and is enjoyed at special occasions, holidays, and family celebrations, such as weddings.  Violin, mandolin, and accordion music were especially popular among Italian immigrants who sometimes brought their musical instruments with them.  Opera, an Italian musical tradition in which a story is sung by singers taking different roles, is popular with Italians and many other North Americans.

Pizza Comes to North America

Pizza was originally a dish from Naples, a city in southern Italy.  Made of bread dough topped with tomatoes, herbs, and cheese, it was baked in a stone oven.  In 1905, Gennaro Lombardi, an Italian restaurant owner in New York's Little Italy, began to serve pizza to his customers.  It reminded them of home.  Today, pizza is one of North America's most popular foods.  Pizzerias can be found in almost any city or town.

Frank Sinatra Did it His Way

Frank Sinatra, the son of Italian immigrants, was born in the Italian section of Hoboken, New Jersey.  Brought up in a family that loved music, Frank began to sing professionally with local clubs while he was still in high school.  In 1942, he decided to go solo.  Touring the country, singing on two radio shows and starring in his first movie, Frank soon became known as "The Voice."  Millions of people fell in love with his deep voice singing romantic songs.  Frank Sinatra also had an Oscar-winning movie career.  Although he died in 1998, his recordings are still popular around the world.

Additional Resources


Courtesy of the Warren County Historical Society