There is a close, almost uncanny resemblance between the Italian immigrants who arrived in the United States in great numbers from 1890 to 1924 and the Latino immigrants who began arriving in great numbers in the late 1960s.
Both the Italians and the Latinos came from an old country whose government and culture were characterized by ineffective centralism and in which trust in institutions was extraordinarily, and justifiably, low. Individual initiative was discouraged and rewards came only to those in privileged positions. They began their journey at a time when population was growing rapidly but economic growth was producing little or no perceptible improvement in living conditions and was lagging behind that in other countries, especially the United States.
What began as a migration of work-seeking men, intending only to sojourn in the new country and send money home, became a migration of whole families, though there was much movement back and forth between the new and old countries. The Italians, who came at a time when many other immigrants were arriving from Eastern Europe and elsewhere, never became the largest visible immigrant group in any major city. The Latinos, in contrast, became the numerically dominant ethnic group in several large metropolitan areas.
Both groups of immigrants, having little trust in institutions, relied heavily on hard work and family. They were willing to take the most menial jobs, though Italian women avoided domestic service. More often than was common in the new country, wives stayed home to take care of children. The authority of the father in the home was strong. Rates of family formation and stability were higher among both groups than among other economically struggling groups in the new country.
Both the Italian and the Latino immigrants, though nominally Roman Catholic, showed less than total attachment to the Catholic Church in America, which under its Irish hierarchy had little resemblance to the folk Catholicism, with local saints and festivals, that they had known in the old country. But over time they responded differently: Second- and third-generation Italians tended to become conventionally Catholic, while first- and second-generation Latinos often were attracted to the Protestant evangelical churches that also were drawing many converts in Latin America.
Neither the Italian nor the Latino immigrants placed much value in education: The schools were just another institution in which they had little trust. Their children tended to leave school early, usually to work, and relatively few went on to college. Italian children nonetheless mastered the English language in school, while Latino children, cordoned off in Spanish-speaking “bilingual education,” sometimes failed to master English well enough to qualify for good jobs. Despite publicity about Italian organized crime and Latino gangs, neither group had crime rates far above the American average.
The Italians and the Latinos showed relatively little interest in politics. They became naturalized U.S. citizens less often than other immigrant groups, and even those that did become citizens were not likely to register and vote. Coming from societies in which government was mistrusted, and in which politics was typically rigged, they did not see government as a savior and were not much interested in getting on government payrolls. They did not gravitate in a uniform way to either of the two American political parties. Instead, their party preferences seemed to result from some combination of attitudes formed in the particular part of the old country from which they came and their responses to the political situation they found in the state and city where they lived. It never made much sense to speak of a single “Italian vote” or “Hispanic vote.”
The Italians were stereotyped as revolutionary anarchists and violent criminals, though only a very few Italians were either. The Latinos were characterized as welfare seekers and criminals, though in fact they worked exceedingly hard and often did not apply for welfare benefits for which they qualified. Their move upward in American society was quiet: They maintained strong families and, despite below-average education levels, rose in income and occupation status each generation. They produced some sports heroes and entertainment figures — mainly baseball players and singers. But they suffered serious insults in the public realm — Franklin Roosevelt’s “dagger in the back” comment for the Italians, and California’s passage of Proposition 187 and the Elian Gonzalez case for Latinos.
[Editor’s note: When Italy invaded France in 1940, U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt said, “The hand that held the dagger has struck it into the back of its neighbor.” The comment evoked a sterotypical image of Italian criminality. Proposition 187 was a 1994 California ballot measure that sought to deny most forms of state aid to illegal immigrants. The measure passed but was later invalidated by the courts.]
Italians responded by proving their loyalty to America in the crucible of World War II, while Latinos, unlike many of their neighbors, quietly persevered in hard work and family stability.
By the early 1970s, Italians seemed to have become interwoven into the fabric of American life. Despite the Godfather movies, the Mafia stereotype seemed to be fading into the past. In the Watergate crisis, two Italian-Americans, Judge John Sirica and Chairman Peter Rodino, played key roles in upholding the rule of law. Later, the highly publicized success of automaker Lee Iacocca and the unanimous confirmation of Antonin Scalia as a Supreme Court justice showed that Italian-Americans were moving into the top ranks of American life on merit.
As for Latinos, their convergence at this writing is obviously far from complete, as their numbers are augmented by hundreds of thousands of new immigrants every, year. Their assimilation has been retarded by bilingual education and has not been much advanced by racial quotas and preferences.
Nonetheless, signs of convergence are apparent in that U.S.-born Latinos have reached median income levels in the Los Angeles area; an assimilated but unapologetically Latino middle class is quietly growing. The desire of young Latinos to learn English, to advance themselves by hard work, to take advantage of the opportunities that are so plentiful here, so much more plentiful than in their parents’ old countries, are quietly interweaving Latinos into the fabric of American life.
The material for the articles in this section, written specially for the Sentinel, comes from The New Americans, by Michael Barone, published this year by Regnery Publishing Inc. Barone is a columnist for U.S. News & World Report and a frequent guest on network television interview shows. Considered one of the nation’s foremost political historians, Barone is a graduate of Harvard University and Yale Law School, and co-author of the biannual Almanac of American Politics.