The Italian diaspora is one with a long and extensive history and provides one of the definitive immigration narratives in the world. It can be divided into three major stages. The first of which occurred during the unification of Italy, between 1861 and 1900. The second stage occurred in the first half of the 20th Century, bookended by the two World Wars.
The third stage occurred in the aftermath of the Second World War. This was caused by a wealth of factors, mainly economic. The country was plagued by widespread poverty, which caused millions to seek a better life elsewhere.
The onset of industrialisation in the latter half of the 19th Century also caused problems among a traditionally agricultural and rural country. In the latter waves, political instability caused by the rise of fascism and the outbreak of the Second World War left many disillusioned and seek new lives elsewhere. Most uniquely was the rise of organised crime, an issue which plagued Southern Italy in particular and caused droves of Italians to leave.
The Italian diaspora scattered around the globe in an extended period of mass immigration. The Americas were overwhelmingly favoured with the United States being a significant hub. 17 million consider themselves Italian Americans and they are amongst the most prevalent immigrant populations in the country. Other major centres in the Americas include Argentina, wherein over 60% of the population claims Italian ancestry. Brazil’s statistical information is notably ambiguous, but is believed to boast a considerable Italian population, particularly in the city of Sao Paolo.
Northern European countries such as the United Kingdom, Germany and France also boast major Italian populations, as does Australia, particularly the city of Melbourne. As one of the largest and most widespread diasporas in the world, the Italian population’s story is long and complex, differing from country to country. It is important to break it down generally before delving into each individual country.
The first wave of Italian immigration was triggered by the unification of Italy, a long and arduous process which took much of the 20th Century to complete. Even once the country had reunified, the ramifications were significant. At the time of its eventual unification, the population was a total of 24 million. Over the course of the first wave of immigration, 7 million of the country’s population fled abroad, over 25% of the total. The majority of these immigrants hailed from the country’s North (2/3), while a sizeable minority hailed from the South (1/3). Prior to Italy’s Unification, the countries were ruled by the feudal land system. This ensured a significant undertaking of the redistribution of land, which was poorly executed and left millions with insufficient allotments or none at all. Cities such as Naples were significantly weakened as it lost almost all of its political power, which encouraged many of its inhabitants to leave. The majority settled in nearby European countries although a significant minority sought out new opportunities in the Americas and Australia.
The second wave of Italian immigration occurred at the beginning of the 20th Century and lasted up until the 1940’s. This is arguably the most significant of the three waves, peaking in the 1910’s. 9 million Italians in total, the majority of which hailed from the more rural, agricultural South, left for the Americas, settling primarily in the United States, Argentina and Brazil. Emigration reached a high point in 1913, during which 873,000 left the country for a new start abroad. Factors behind this immense mass migration were varied, and included political, social and economic reasons. The rise of fascism under dictator Benito Mussolini was a clear trigger. This alienated considerable swathes of the country’s population, already disillusioned by the economic distress that had gripped the country in the wake of the First World War. As the fascist government consolidated control, 1.5 million fled abroad. As it tightened its grip, emigration was effectively halted due to restrictions in policy. To put in perspective the scale of Italian immigration during these two periods, it is believed that a total of 40 million Europeans fled for abroad, 16 million (40%) of which were Italian.
The third major wave, as was the case with many countries around the world, occurred in the wake of the Second World War. With fascism toppled with the ousting and execution of Mussolini, the scars of years of war, poverty and oppression were too much to bare for many, who instead opted to start again overseas. Large parts of Italy were left devastated by the conflict in the Second World War, prompting many to relocate overseas out of necessity.
The Italian diaspora in the United States is one of the latter countries most prevalent and ubiquitous immigrant populations. It has spread throughout the country, with most urban centres claiming a large Italian population. Italian-American is very much a singular cultural identity of its own, with unique customs. Italian mass immigration occurred during the first two phases of Italian emigration, peaking around the late 19th Century/early 20th Century. New York City, a metropolis very much symbolic of the American Dream, was the most significant destination for Italian immigrants to the United States, with a ‘Little Italy’ neighbourhood quickly popping up in Lower Manhattan. Despite the implementation of restrictive immigration policies in the 1920’s, the Italian community of New York continued to grow and assimilate well into the city life, throughout the working and upper classes. Other cities with significant Italian populations include Philadelphia, Boston, Newark, Providence, Chicago, San Francisco and Los Angeles. While the Northeastern United States boasts the largest community, it is ubiquitous throughout the country and has left a massive cultural imprint.
The Italian community of Argentina is equally massive albeit lesser-known outside the country. Italian communities in Argentina date back to as early as the late 18th Century. It exploded, as was the case with all Italian immigration to the Americas at the turn of the 20th Century. Between 1880 and 1920 it is estimated that 2 million Italians settled in the country due to domestic discord at home. Buenos Aires, the country’s capital city, quickly became a major Italian hub, with a quarter of the population being of Italian birth by 1914. The population skewed heavily male and generally hailed from agricultural backgrounds.
In the wake of the First World War, immigration halted, particularly as fascism took root and froze emigration. It was not until the aftermath of the Second World War when Italian immigration to Argentina began again in large numbers due to the devastation wrought upon the country. Due to the pre-existing community in Argentina, the country proved to be major draw for Italians looking for a new start abroad. It is believed that nearly 400,000 Italians arrived in Argentina in the decade after the war. Immigration to Argentina gradually lowered as Italy underwent a major economic revival in the 1950’s and 1960’s but the community remains intact today and a major part of the country’s multicultural identity.
Brazil is another major hub of Italian immigration, but the specific numbers are notably difficult to estimate and change from source to source. The Italian government believes that there are over 30 million Brazilians of Italian descent today. As Italy sank deep into crisis following the difficult unification process, Brazil became a popular destination. Having banned transatlantic slavery following external pressure from the British, Brazil struggled to adapt to the new labour shortage. Despite a large racist, eugenicist lobby in the higher echelons of Brazilian government, they conceded the need to rely on immigration to stimulate the flagging economy.
These two events coincided and facilitated a large wave of Italian immigration to Brazil towards the end of the 19th Century. Italian colonies were established, with the first wave of immigrants mainly hailing from the North. They were initially mistreated, which caused a brief halt of immigration rates. Between 1902 and 1920, over 300,000 Italians settled in Brazil, far less than in the United States and Argentina. The removal of subsidies was a factor as was the publication of Italians’ mistreatment in Brazil. Immigrants suffered under the lack of labour laws and were effectively slaves working in large-scale farms known as latifundias.
Despite this, the population gradually assimilated over time and overcame mistreatment. Italians became well-known for achieving considerable success throughout the country. The population is widely dispersed throughout the city, with Sao Paolo being the major hub. The city is home to the second-largest Italian population outside of Rome. Belo Horizonte is also a major hub, with 30% of its population being of Italian descent. Italian immigrants played a hugely significant role in the industrialisation of Brazilian cities and remain one of the most prevalent yet well-assimilated minorities in the country.
The Italian diaspora has a lengthy and sometimes confusing narrative, which is a testament to just how widespread it is. Throughout the Americas and elsewhere, the Italian immigrant story is one of the most successful in history, an example of finding a new life elsewhere whilst retaining your roots. The community is widely scattered around the world and its culture has been readily embraced over time throughout. Its immensely popular cuisine and the variants of it which exist throughout the world, are symbolic of its success.
Main image: Mulberry Street, along which New York City’s Little Italy is centered. Lower East Side, circa 1900. This image is available from the United States Library of Congress’s Prints and Photographs division.