Originally published by Bridge Apulia-USA N.2, 1997
Re-published by L’Idea N.67, 1997
There is a conspicuous peculiarity in the flow of Italian immigration in the United States, from the earliest days of colonization of America to the late 1800s. Up to the 1850s, its influx was barely a trickle, and though an appreciable increase appears in the 1880s, such advance was comparatively of minor relevance. In the 1890 census, only 182,580 Americans were Italian born. By the next census, though, the population of Italian born residents of USA had skyrocketed to 484,703 (748,855 if the computation includes first-generation Americans having parents born in Italy).
Furthermore, up to the 1890s, 75% of the Italian immigrants were males between the age of sixteen and forty-five. Only in the latter years of that decade, families started to meet the head of the household, allowing them to create the proper niche to establish themselves permanently in this country.
Unfortunately, this increase in the volume of immigration brought many a burden with it. One of them is the sharp intensifying of prejudice and often overt discrimination against people of Italian descent. In 1789 the historian David Ramsey proudly defined the Italians as one of the ten nationalities from which the original stock of this country originated. By the early 1900’s many newspapers defined the Italian race as inferior and degraded, insinuating that intermixture with the prevailing Anglo-Saxon population, if practicable, would be detrimental. It was against this background that the first wave of Apulian immigrants arrived in this country.
Further obstacles aroused by the absence of kinship within the Italian community. Unlike other Italians, who found large communities of people from their own region, if not of their own town, many Apulians struggled in their isolation. Persistent to the point of stubbornness, these Apulians did not give up on their attempts to integrate, regardless of the difficulties and impediments they found across the way.
Customary of those early migrations was the ultimate return to the motherland, where these ex-emigrants kept the dream of “Lamerica” alive for the following generations. With time, some of these Apulians remained in the United States and formed small, closely-knit communities. This allowed an easier path to the newcomers.
The bulk of the early immigrants remedied either a job within the shovel and pick crews of the developing Chicago area or a much-fancied position in the port of New York as longshoremen. Hardly any Apulians settled outside these two major metropolitan areas until the 1960s.
There are exceptions to this trend, and they are the ones that shine the most, such as Rodolfo Valentino, the star of the Silent Movies, or Fiorello LaGuardia, whose impressive handling of the New York City mayoralty is still redeemed as unique and unmatched.
The new surge of immigration that brought the majority of Apulians to these shores occurred in the early 1960s. Whereas a large percentage of the previous Apulian immigrants was uneducated, the post-war years brought a new immigrant, reminiscent of the early years of colonization, when Italians were officers of the Revolutionary Army, printers, philosophers, teachers, administrators and much more. These new immigrants merged with the system, integrating without losing their identities, conquering enviable positions in the political, social and economic structure of the Nation.
Although most of the Apulians clustered in the two aforementioned metropolitan areas, substantial Apulian communities may be found in Hoboken, New Jersey, and in Port St.Lucie, Florida. These communities do not represent all the Apulian towns since most emigration to the United States originated from the province of Bari. There are large groups of people that can trace their roots to towns such as Mola Di Bari, more than 20,000 live in Brooklyn alone, and Molfetta. In New York City alone people from Mola Di Bari can count on five social or cultural clubs.
Although you can also encounter an ex-inhabitant of the provinces of Lecce or Foggia, what is missing for these people is the communal life, since they cannot find any organization or even neighborhood with any sizable participation of “paesani”, that is, people from the same town.
Activities often are initiated by associations of particular towns, but encompass a larger community, made of citizens of various Apulian villages. The religious parades, such as the one of the Santi Medici or of Maria SS.Addolorata, involve large participation in the Italian community as a whole. The social gatherings, such as the Sagra del Polpo or Miss Puglia USA, tend to be more specifically aimed at the Apulian community.
The strength of the Apulian presence in the United States can be measured by the magnitude and importance of its representatives in the field of the Arts. Silvester Stallone and Marco Cristino are universally known in the film industry; Domenico Mazzone and Vincenzo Palumbo have excelled in the sculpting media; Natale Rotondi and Gino Caporale have brightened our lives with their painting masterpieces, while Angela Sciddurlo Rago has delighted us with her theatrical works.
Apulians, though, are now conspicuous in all the major professional fields, medicine, law, engineering and education, and in the business world. Michael Pesce is a judge from the New York State Supreme Court; Silvana Mangione is president of the Italian Committee on Emigration for the New York and Connecticut area, while Corrado Manfredi is the owner of the largest family-run automobile dealership in the New York metropolitan area, just to name a few of these respected citizens.
The Apulians are hence a well established and respected group of the Italian community in the United States. They have earned their position in lesser years, but certainly not with less sacrifice than any other Italian.
Their social status is so determined that they are the only regional group with their own periodic, L’Idea, a quarterly published in Brooklyn in the Italian language.