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Sicilian Immigration Page

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Couple Photo Left: Photo of fishing boat in Terrasini Sicily - date unknown


The Birds of Passage

Most Sicilian immigrants never planned to stay in the US permanently. There is even a special phrase that was coined for Sicilians: "Birds of Passage" since their intent was to be migratory laborers. Even though about 75% of Sicilian immigrants were farmers in Sicily, they did not wish to farm in the US (as it implied a permanence that did not figure in their plans). Instead, they headed for cities where labor was needed and wages were relatively high.

Many Sicilian men left their wives and children behind because they expected to return (and many, many did). In any event, for many Sicilian immigrants, migration could not be interpreted as a rejection of Sicily. In fact, it is a defense of the Sicilian way of life, for the money sent home helped to preserve the traditional order. Rather than seeking permanent homes, they desired an opportunity to work for (relatively) high wages in the city and save enough money to return to a better life in Sicily.

On Causes of Troubles

Although southern Italy's troubles can be attributed to exploitation by their own people, I don't believe it is fair (or historically accurate) to attribute all the suffering to northern Italians alone. In fact, for centuries in all of Italy the entire peninsula was divided into feuding states, with foreign powers often ruling over one or several states. In this chaotic situation, the feudal system ruled the economic system. Specifically, the feudal system allowed hereditary land possession to determine one's political power and social status, so many poor Italians had almost no opportunity to improve their lives. But it is true, that southern Italians suffered more hardships than those in the North

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On Life in Sicily

Records show that 1904 is the earliest date there is official mention, in the St. Louis City Directories, of a Joseph Ciaramitaro, peddler, living at 1229 Foster al, (ie, alley entrance). This may have been their first home in St. Louis.

Often the farmers lived in harsh conditions, residing in one-room houses with no plumbing or privacy. In addition, many peasants were isolated due to a lack of roads in Italy. Landlords ruled the land—and charged high rents, low pay, and provided very unsteady employment. The idea of immigrating to America was attractive because of the higher wages American workers received. For example, agricultural workers who farmed year-round would receive a meager 16-30 cents per day in Italy. A carpenter in Italy would receive 30 cents to $1.40 per day, making a 6-day week’s pay $1.80 to $8.40. In America on the other hand, a carpenter who worked a 56-hour week would earn $18. Besides the already unfortunate situation of many Italian farmers, a 19th century agricultural crisis in Italy led to falling grain prices and loss of markets for fruit and wine. Specifically a disease, phylloxera, destroyed grape vines used to produce wine. Therefore, the United States was pictured as a nation with abundant land, high wages, lower taxes, and interestingly enough, no military draft.

On Discrimination

Sicilian-American immigrants often faced unjust stereotypes and discrimination, sometimes even from other Italians. Tensions between Italian regions had not been entirely resolved with unification, and northern Italians had sayings that unjustifiably painted Sicilians as untrustworthy and dishonest.

A more persistent stereotype linked all Sicilian Americans to the Mafia, and continues to be perpetuated through films such as “The Godfather” that portray Sicilians in this light. As the Mafia is of Sicilian origin, Sicilian Americans were stereotyped as Mafia-linked to an even greater degree than Italian Americans in general.

Despite stereotypic pressures, Sicilian Americans have continued to thrive in the cultural climate of America, with many professionals: physicians, attorneys, intellectuals, actors, directors, musicians, athletes, and politicians of notable prominence.

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On Sicilian Life in a New World -

And so... to America we came, hundreds upon hundreds of thousands until we were more than four million. We faced overwhelming prejudice, poverty and the isolation of being in a strange and unfriendly country. The majority came to the US when they were very young with high hopes for a better future for themselves and their families. They found that not only were the streets not paved with gold but that they were expected to pave them. We soon discovered that we were here to do the dirty work that nobody else wanted to do. We came to a place that considered us and treated us as less than equal. We were regarded as low class, stupid and inferior.

We learned to speak English, we found jobs, we started our own businesses. We joined unions and we even formed our own unions. We bought our own homes and we succeeded in spite of the prejudice, discrimination, and less than friendly welcome we received in the US.

(thanks for much of the above to "The World's Work" written in 1902 and to Wikipedia)

On Fishing Life in a New World -

Not all of the Sicilian Immigrants were farmers or fruit peddlers, some were fishermen. The earliest of them discovered the Port of Boston. As their numbers there inclreased, the families settled in and they all worked together to make a better life.

Everyone worked hard. The wives and children helped too. Soon their trade and their fleets increased in number and size. The families grew, the children married and sons joined their fathers. The Sicilian fishermen not only bettered their lives and their families lives, but they built a thriving community there, and have been recognized as a valuable part of the growth of the City of Boston.

For an article on the history of Sicilian Immigrant Fishermen, click here: The Italian Fleet of Boston

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Bob Corbett