But, Cavallero insists, the messages of "assimilation or discrimination" are not perpetuated in order to keep bias alive but rather to "preserve and celebrate ethnic ties" (61).
What Cavallero has presented may be an optimistic, even idealistic view of the way Italian-Americans continue to be depicted in the print media, and in movies and on television. While the author is thorough in digging through the 1930s and finding Italian-American heroes on the silver screen and in mayors' offices, he may be softening the reality when he states that the stereotypes are used to "preserve and celebrate ethnic ties." Somehow it just doesn't fit the movie and television industry to suggest that it's not cultural and ethnically unkind and unfair to continue to stereotype Italian-Americans such as Tony Soprano. In fact the number one concern of the movie and TV industry is profit, not culturally appropriate themes.
The New Deal Coalition and Italian-Americans
Meanwhile there may have been some rude and bigoted stereotypes in the 1930s, and even rage against Italian-Americans due to the repugnance native born Americans showed regarding the fascist brutality perpetrated by Mussolini, but Italian-Americans made a huge contribution to the economy of the U.S. By supporting the New Deal, President Franklin Roosevelt's (FDR) program to bring the country out of the Great Depression.
An article in the peer-reviewed journal Transatlantic ("Beyond the New Deal") points out that "Italian-Americans were a key component of the coalition of ethnic groups" that helped to elect Roosevelt (Luconi, 2006). It is interesting to note that in the late 19th century (and early 20th century) many (if not a majority of) Italian-Americans sided with the Republican Party. They did so because they "…associated the GOP with economic prosperity in the aftermath of the 1893 depression that coincided with the return of a Democrat, Grover Cleveland, to the White House" (Luconi, p. 1). The support that Italian-Americans gave to the GOP was "consolidated" in "retaliation" for Woodrow Wilson's apparent disregard for "…claims of their ancestral country at the peace conference in Versailles" at the conclusion of WWI (Luconi, p. 1).
But in 1928 Italians began to migrate toward the Democrats mainly because Al Smith was running for president (he was the first ethnic candidate albeit he lost) and Italian-Americans identified with Smith's position which was to reject Prohibition. And in the 1930s the Italian-American community supported FDR because he proposed progressive social legislation that was good for workers. "Grateful to Roosevelt for the achievements of the labor unions" during the president's first four years, "Italian-American workers not only voted for the incumbent president in 1936, but they were also active in his re-election campaign" (Luconi, p. 7). In fact, in Aliquippa, and in Baltimore, Italian-Americans got heavily involved in labor unions, thanks to the Taft-Hartley Act (part of the New Deal) that guaranteed the right of workers to engage in collective bargaining.
Italian-Americans continued to vote Democratic and FDR's WPA projects were headed up by Italian-Americans in Pittsburgh, and in Boston, and in other cities as well. It's called political patronage -- support a candidate and if he is elected, you or your union or local party organization get some of the "political spoils" (Luconi, p. 8). Clearly the Italian-Americans in the 1930s caught on quickly to the ways of democracy in America, and by voting for FDR and supporting the New Deal, many Italian-Americans benefitted directly or indirectly vis-a-vis the New Deal programs.
Italian-American Press: Representations of Fashion, Food, and Fascism in the 1930s
As Italians immigrated to the United States in the 1930s, there were sharp contrasts in terms of the American culture when juxtaposed with Italian culture. This is not a surprising development when one culture suddenly immigrates to another very different culture. How did the Italian-American newspapers respond to these contrasts as far as their advertising was concerned? An article in the Journal of American Ethnic History (Zanoni, 2010) points out that there were conflicting images presented as far as the way of Italian-American women were supposed to look (compared with how they were expected to appear in Italy), and this contrast had political overtones as well.
In order to sell an Italian product called Florio brand marsala (a wine from Italy), the largest Italian-language newspaper in the U.S. In the 1930s (Il Progresso Italo-Americano) published a display ad showing "three incredulous men gawking at the body of a fashionable, but scantily clad, thin woman in lingerie" (Zanoni, p. 33). According to Zanoni, one of the men in the display ad asked the attractive, thin woman how she could "…conserve the beautiful complexion of a young girl," and she responded that the key to her figure is drinking eggnog each morning made with Florio's marsala.
It "…nourishes me, without making me gain weight and keeps my body slim and my spirit awakened," she said in the display advertisement (Zanoni, 33). The point of the author presenting this incident is that the advertisement was basically promoting a "particular type of fashion -- and weight-conscious femininity" that was of value in the United States but was at odds in Italy (Zanoni, 33). In fact this kind of femininity was "reviled by fascists in Italy during the 1930s"; indeed, fascist dictator Benito Mussolini had given money to the Il Progresso Italo-Americano newspaper, Zanoni continues. The American model of a thin woman was totally rejected in Italy, which shows (according to Zanoni) that Italian nationalists valued, yet sent mixed-messages to Italian women consumers both at home and abroad" (33).
Zanoni goes on to explain that between 1850 and 1930, Italians in America published "more than a thousand periodicals in Italian," and many were well-financed daily newspapers (36). In fact many female immigrants -- who were "illiterate and spoke local dialects" when they arrived in America -- actually learned how to read and write because they were "increasingly responsible for managing and protecting remittances…" received from family in Italy (Zanoni, 36). Moreover women became literate in the U.S. In part because they had access to education, to print newspapers and magazines, Zanoni explains.
When a pro-Mussolini immigrant (Generoso Pope) took over Il Progresso in 1927, Mussolini had good reason to believe he could use the American immigrant press to continue strong "networks between Italy and Italians abroad" (Zanoni, 37). That said, Zanoni emphasizes that just because Italian-Americans in the 1930s supported Mussolini (in part because of propaganda printed in Il Progresso and other publications), that doesn't mean they were fascists as well.
However, an important point in this scholarly article is that Italians in the 1930s suffered discrimination-based partly on "restrictive immigration laws"; in addition, Italian-Americans also suffered due to the "global Depression" and from the antipathy of non-Italian-Americans who did not see Mussolini in the same light at the immigrants did. While there certainly was discrimination during the 1930s, the Il Progresso and other Italian-language newspapers paid a great deal of attention to Italian women, Zanoni continues on page 39. The women's pages were called "Per Voi, Signore," and offered information on "…the latest fabrics, color combinations, and accessories including hats, shoes, handbags and jewelry," and the "sheer amount of space" that newspapers gave to Italian women was a perhaps unintentional way to unite Italian-American women. In a vague way, the space given over to women was liberating for Italian-American women: rather than being "rooted only within the fixed boundaries of marriage, family or work," the woman herself could be an individual and created her own identity and self-expression (Zanoni, 41).
In conclusion, there is an enormous volume of historical information about Italian-American immigrants, and only a small amount of those materials relate to the stereotypes that the movies and television and books have exploited.
Anderson, Dale. 2006. Italian-Americans. New York: Gareth Stevens.
Cavallero, Jonathan J. 2004. "Gangsters, Fessos, Tricksters, and Sopranos: The Historical Roots
Of Italian-American Stereotype Anxiety." Journal of Popular Film and Television.32: 50-63.
Lee, Sandra S. 2008. Italian-Americans of Newark, Belleville, And Nutley. Mount Pleasant,
SC: Arcadia Publishing.
Luconi, Stefano. 2006. "Italian-Americans and the New Deal Coalition." Transatlantica.