Popular Science Monthly/Volume 65/August 1904/Italian and Other Latin Immigrants




ITALIAN immigration was insignificant until 1880. In that year we received about 12,000 Italian immigrants, and since that time the number increased steadily until the year 1891, when 76,000 arrived in the United States. This number was not exceeded until 1899, when the total yearly Italian arrivals began again to increase and in the past year (1903) leached the astounding total of 233,546. Eighty-five per cent, of this total was made up of southern Italians. The following tables indicate the distribution of Italians landed in the United States in 1903:

North Italians.

State. Number of North Italians. Ratio to Total North Italians Landed.
New York 9,452 25 per cent
Pennsylvania 7,641 20 "
California 5,369 14 "
Illinois 3,163 8 "
Massachusetts 2,233 6 "
Connecticut 1,242 3 .5 "
Michigan 1,209 3 .5 "
New Jersey 1,158 3 "
All other states 6,142 17 "
Total 37,429 100 per cent

South Italians.

State. Number of South Italians. Ratio to Total South Italians Landed.
New York 91,774 47 per cent
Pennsylvania 42,096 22 "
Massachusetts 13,731 7 "
New Jersey 9,970 5 "
Illinois 6,637 3 "
Connecticut 6,301 3 "
Ohio 5,372 3 "
Louisiana 4,815 2 "
Rhode Island 3,515 2 "
West Virginia 2,096 1 "
All other states 9,210 5 "
Total 196,117 100 per cent

In considering Italian immigrants it is necessary to recognize the differences existing between northern and southern Italians. The northern Italian is taller, often of lighter complexion, and is usually in a more prosperous condition than his brother from the south. The northern Italian is intelligent, can nearly always read and write, and very often is skilled in some trade or occupation. He compares favorably with the Scandinavian or German, and his desirability as an migrant is seldom questioned. He usually leaves Italy through the representations of friends in this country, and therefore comes here with a definite purpose, and is not at the mercy of a 'padrone.' On the other hand, the southern Italian, short of stature, very dark in complexion, usually lands here almost destitute. His intelligence is not higher than one could imagine in the descendant of peasantry illiterate for centuries. He can seldom read and write, and invariably is an unskilled farm laborer. He has little money and often has no definite purpose, and naturally must depend on some one who speaks his language. In this way he falls into the hands of the 'padrone.'

The early Italian immigrants were of the itinerant class—rag-pickers, organ-grinders, etc., but after 1870 these were succeeded by the Italian peasantry of the south, who were forced by economic conditions and poverty at home, to emigrate. They came here at first to supply the demand for unskilled laborers, occasioned by the great industrial activity following the civil war. In a majority of instances these immigrants were brought here and taken charge of by padroni and Italian bankers and were sent by the padroni in every direction where their labor was needed. The Italian peasant is peculiarly susceptible, by reason of his ignorance, to any system of blackmail or extortion. In Italy, for years the Camorristi terrorized and imposed tribute upon the ignorant peasantry, and it was natural that, following this experience, they should continue to be victims to the same practises in another form. Italians of superior educational and intellectual attainments in America have been as unscrupulous and vulture-like in the treatment of their ignorant brethren, as were the Camoristi in the zenith of their power. The extortioners in America have been known as padroni and bankers. Just when the padroni first appeared in America is open to question. He was much in evidence toward the close of the civil war, when the demand for laborers was out of all proportion to the supply. At this time contractors and manufacturers could contract in Europe for large numbers of laborers without violation of law, by reason of legislation enacted in 1864. This privilege gave the padroni their opportunity. Previous to that time their importations were almost all peddlers, organ-grinders, harpers and other itinerant musicians.

In the beginning the American employer of labor, in his anxiety to secure a large amount of cheap labor for some particular enterprise, would apply to an Italian immigration agent for a certain number of men. The agent, or padrone, in turn would secure the men through sub-agents in Italy and have them shipped across on prepaid tickets, for which he charged a liberal commission. Upon their arrival, the agent, or padrone, boarded them at immense profit, pending their distribution here, and received his compensation from the American contractor, who took it out of their prospective wages. The contract of supplying the workmen with food and shelter while working was often in the hands of the same man. Sometimes the padrone was also banker, and, if so, he charged exorbitant rates for sending the laborer's meager savings to Italy. He also counted on the chance, which came to him in a majority of cases, of making a profit on their return tickets to Italy.

Later these agents, or padroni, became independent of the American contractors. Instead of procuring men for the contractor and depending on him for their remuneration, they became wholesale importers on their own account and induced large numbers to emigrate from Italy, by promises which seemed to open fairyland to the Italian 'cafone.' They always insisted on a contract for one to seven years. The men were farmed out to whoever would pay the padrone for their labor, usually as laborers with pick and shovel. The padrone boarded his people, charged them for all necessary things at exorbitant rates, and at the end of the year the laborer had very little coming to him. Nor was the system of slavery confined to men. Women were included and frequently placed in houses of prostitution. Little children were brought here in the same way and forced to black boots or sell newspapers, flowers or fruits, for the benefit of the padrone.

The traffic in helpless humanity, as carried on by padroni twenty-five years ago, has been gradually checked. The importation of women and minor children was first stopped by governmental action, aided by philanthropic societies. The wholesale importation of labor was not stopped, however, until after the passage of the first contract labor law in 1885. The enforcement of this law, aided by the hearty cooperation of the Italian government, finally ended the degrading practise. The padrone system, as it once existed, is now a matter of history. The skeleton of the padrone exists, but he is now nothing more than an employment agent, a high-priced and unlicensed employment agent, it is true, but with less of the absolute power over the peasant, which in the past made their relations those of master and slave.[1]

Probably the so-called Italian banks are as potent a means of extortion as the padrone system itself. The padrone is sometimes a banker, and, if not, is always in league with one. Between them they take advantage of the child-like credulity and ignorance of the Italian laborer, and fleece him of his last dollar.

The southern Italian concerns us most in considering the desirability of the Italian immigrant. His northern brother need give us no more concern than the representatives of the United Kingdom, Germany or Sweden. The most striking feature presented by Italian immigration is the comparatively small number who engage in farming, despite the fact that 85 per cent, of this immigration is made up of the peasant class. This phenomenon can be explained by the fact that the immigrant is both poor and ignorant. His poverty forces him to accept whatever work is offered. His ignorance and inability to speak our language prevent him from learning the possibilities of American agriculture. He looks with distrust on an agricultural occupation, as likely to be unremunerative and enslaving, as he found it at home. Then the rural life at home was very different from rural life here. In Italy the peasants for the most part live in big villages or towns, and go to their work early in the morning, returning to their home in the evening, so that when the day's work is done they can rejoin their family among thousands of their own kind.

The crowding of Italians into our large cities can be understood if one studies the padrone system and padrone banks. The poor, ignorant laborer is at the mercy of the padrone and banker, and if he could leave, does not know where to go. He has no friends to show him the way, to inform him of the homestead law or of the wages paid farm laborers. But he finds friends (?) speaking his own language in the great city who will get him a 'job,' and so he stays in the city. He is sent out on contract labor and probably in the fall, when the work is done, arrives in the city again with very little money to face the winter. Often he finds it cheaper to pay the steerage rate and go back to sunny Italy than to stay in cold New York, where fuel is a necessity and provisions dear.

The Italian as an agricultural immigrant is a success, and the regrettable feature of Italian immigration is the small percentage who go to rural communities. Italian agricultural colonies in and around Vineland, N. J., are prosperous and growing. The Italians in Texas have been uniformly successful in rice and cotton culture, truck farming and vine growing. They have been very valuable in Louisiana, Mississippi and other southern states, as a substitute for the unreliable, shiftless negro. Their success in California, where they found the climate particularly suited to them and their favorite occupation, vine and fruit growing, has been one of the features of the development of California. The report of the Italian Chamber of Commerce, San Francisco, 1897, gave 47,625 Italians living in the 56 counties of California, almost all engaged in agriculture, owning 2,726 farms. Eight hundred and thirty-seven business concerns had a capital of $17,908,300, the total capital for Italian business men, ranchers and farmers aggregating, according to this report, $114,325,000.

Italians have been established near many of our largest cities upon truck farms, and in almost every instance are successful. The Italian colonies in Alabama are thriving and prosperous communities, with schools and churches.

The average stature of Italians is very much below the medium, but, nevertheless, they are wiry and muscular and capable of prolonged physical exertion. The country-bred Italian bears the insanitary conditions of the tenement houses very badly. He succumbs to disease as a result of tenement house conditions more readily than the Hebrew, who for generations has been a dweller in the crowded insanitary districts of large towns and cities, and has acquired a certain degree of resisting power against diseases due to overcrowding, filth and lack of pure air and sunlight. Italian children reared in the Italian quarter of New York, Boston, Philadelphia or Chicago are prone to tubercular disease and rickets, and compare unfavorably with children brought up in Sicily or Italy. Consumption is frequent among tenement-house Italians, although extremely rare in recently arrived immigrants.

Mentally the Italian immigrant is what might be expected of peasantry whose average illiteracy is 48 per cent. However, the possibilities of the Italian peasant, properly educated, are very promising. They are very quick to learn, have a deftness of hand which adapts them to trades requiring manual skill, and their artistic sense is always developed, though it sometimes does violence to the esthetic color sense of hyper-critical Americans.

The moral standard of the Italian family is very high, and Italian women are deservedly noted for the homely virtues, which make womanhood, of whatever nationality, revered.

The crimes charged to the Italians are usually crimes of violence, actuated by revenge for real or fancied wrongs. These are outgrowths of the custom of taking the law in their own hands in a country where the poor had little or no redress from the law. But in the aggregate of crime the Italian, by reason of his sobriety, presents a better record in this country than many of the races commonly classed as desirable. The Italian seldom becomes a public charge, because of his willingness to work at any kind of labor that offers. He does not become pauperized. He applies for and receives charity less often than many of our other city-dwelling immigrants. He is frugal and, in spite of the robbery to which he is subjected by padrone or banker, manages to save some of his earnings. If he has no other prospect, when winter, lack of work and poverty stare him in the face, he usually has the price of steerage passage to Italy, and migrates to reappear at some more opportune season. This migratory tendency of the Italian laborer has caused a great deal of comment upon his value to the country. There is little doubt that the Italian goes back and forth between Europe and America more than any other people. They have earned the title of 'birds of passage' by their habit of flitting back and forth and have been accused of sending vast sums of money home and, in many instances, of going home to live in luxury on the money they earned in America.

Instances are recorded where Italians have arrived in America as immigrants, who admitted having been here six or seven times before. It is certain, however, that the Italian laborer, in a majority of instances, gradually gets accustomed to American ways and finds things at home more strange on each succeeding visit, and eventually loses all desire to live permanently in his native land. He goes back and forth to see his old parents, to escape destitution in a New York tenement when out of work, or to arrange, if he is prosperous enough, to bring his family here.

Nothing illustrates the growing permanency of our Italian immigrants with greater force than the ever increasing proportion of women and children now recorded among Italian immigrants. Whenever the Italian is able to shift for himself, when he is independent of the padrone and Italian banker, he is likely to be a permanent and useful citizen. The sums alleged to have been sent to Italy by Italian laborers here have been grossly exaggerated, and it is doubtful if any Italian, successful enough here to acquire a competence, could escape Americanization, or have any desire to live in Italy after having adopted American ideas of living. The Italian laborer sends money to Italy to his aged parents or to his wife, to help pay rent, taxes and other burdens at home. He does this from a high sense of filial or marital duty, for the Italian never forgets his duty to either parent or wife, and surely this devotion is commendable; but his desire in many instances is really to establish a home and bring his dependent ones here to live with him.

The Italian is gradually becoming independent of the padrone. He is also beginning to learn the splendid possibilities for independent effort in agricultural pursuits. That there is a great field for him is shown by his success wherever he has been led in the right direction. To make the Italian uniformly successful it is only necessary to lead him out into the country, away from the vitiated atmosphere of the tenement and slum. No place is better fitted for him than our southern states, and no immigrant is better fitted for playing a part in the development of those states than the Italian. He requires the pure air of the country and the geniality of the southern winter, and by his skill and industry in intensive farming, he can make the sandy soil of the pine land productive or reclaim the swamps and lowlands, which have lain fallow for years. He can give the southern planter his reliable thrifty labor to replace the erratic improvident negro, and can introduce and carry to perfection the vine growing and wine making, which have made southern, California famous. These are some of the possibilities of the Italian immigrant, if properly directed, but his mode of life in the great cities, where the vast majority of Italians lives, presents quite a different picture. Here we find the 'Italian quarter,' which is responsible for most of the prejudice against the Italian immigrant. In these colonies we see the Italian at his worst, physically and morally, but, as has been pointed out, he crowds the Italian quarter because there is no alternative for him, in his ignorance of our language and customs. Instead of being led into the country, where the labor is needed, he is induced to stay in the 'quarter' by his more fortunate countryman, padrone or banker, who expects to increase his profit thereby.

The philanthropists, Italians or Americans, who will direct the Italian to his proper place in the rural districts, will do a grand work for the Italian immigrant, for the states to which he will contribute his skill and labor and for humanity in general.

The Italians are the principal factor in our Latin immigration, but we also receive French, Spanish, Portuguese and Eoumans.

Immigrants from France rank high as desirable additions to our population, but the desirability of French-Canadian immigration has been the subject of much discussion. Much of the disfavor into which the French-Canadians have fallen is due to their effect upon labor conditions in New England. It is estimated that from fifty to seventy thousand of these French-Canadians come to the New England factory towns, for temporary employment, each year. When the price of labor rises they come in large numbers and when the wages decrease large numbers return. It is said that many French-Canadian farmers send their families to Fall River and other New England towns to earn money and return with their savings to Canada. Their standard of living is very low and, as they regard their sojourn as temporary, they make little attempt to better it, but subject themselves to hardship and self-denial m order to increase the amount of money which they hope to take back with them to their Canadian homes.

The enforcement of the child labor laws and the reduction of the number of working hours for women, by the state of Massachusetts, has had a marked effect upon the unfair competition of the cheap child labor and unlimited working-day, which were features of the French-Canadian invasion. Organization of the French-Canadians has been beyond the power of the labor unions, and they are a factor in depressing wages in the textile trades, although the influence in this direction of the competition of native labor in the south must not be overlooked.

The French-Canadians are among the best lumber men and river drivers in the world, and have been valuable in this industry in northern Michigan and other border states. They are not very thrifty, and usually spend their money freely. After the timber is stripped off, they have more inclination to follow the receding timber line and live in the lumber towns than to take up the cleared land for farming.

In New England more of these people are becoming permanent settlers than formerly, and among those who show an inclination to permanence, the standard of living is improving, in imitation of their English, Irish and American neighbors.

Portuguese immigration in 1903 amounted to over eight thousand souls. They have the highest proportion of illiterates of any European race, their percentage of illiteracy being about 70 per cent. They also bring less money per capita than most other races. In spite of these facts, a study of Portuguese immigration reveals many excellent qualities, and chief among these are their permanency, peaceable disposition, thrift and skill in fruit growing and truck farming. The behavior of Portuguese immigrants undergoing inspection at Ellis Island is characterized by extreme gravity and almost absolute silence. They present a striking contrast to the animated vivacious Frenchman or jabbering Italian, and after landing make quiet, law-abiding citizens. About 38 per cent, of the number landed last year were females, and nearly 25 per cent, were children, indicating the large number of families and their evident intention to settle permanently. Their distribution here is peculiar, and 93 per cent, of the total landed last year went to three states, Massachusetts, California and Ehode Island. They are practically the only race from southern, central or eastern Europe which does not send the majority of its immigrants to New York or Pennsylvania. The following table indicates the number and geographical distribution of Portuguese landed in 1903:

State. Number Landed. Ratio to Total Number Landed.
Massachusetts 5,691 68 per cent
California 1,057 12 .5"
Rhode Island 1,029 12 .5"
New York 475 5 "
Connecticut 114 1 .5"
All other states 67 1 "
Total 8,433 100 per cent

The Portuguese in Massachusetts and Rhode Island are engaged in fishing, market-gardening and fruit growing. They have taken up abandoned farms in those states, particularly in the Cape Cod district, and have been successful in agriculture where others have been discouraged. In California they have been very successful as fruit and vine growers. Their skill in intensive farming enables them to establish themselves upon tracts of land which are unproductive to ordinary agricultural crops and methods, and by truck farming and fruit growing they make a living upon farms neglected by native farmers.

Physically they are undersized, but are remarkably free from disease and physical defects. Seventy per cent, of the males are unskilled laborers, and their natural trend, unlike other southern Europeans, is toward the agricultural districts. Even the Portuguese fishermen about Cape Cod are giving up this pursuit and taking up farms in that vicinity with their usual success. There is plenty of room for these agricultural Portuguese immigrants in this country, particularly in the south, and their coming will greatly increase the productiveness of any state with waste land, or farms that have been abandoned for a more fertile section.

Little need be said of Spanish immigration, which is small, but of excellent quality. Their total in 1903 was only 3,297. In striking contrast to their neighbors, the Portuguese, they exhibited over $50 per capita, and their illiteracy was only 9 per cent. They show less inclination to become permanent settlers, however, than the Portuguese, as evidenced by the small number of women and children among them. A large proportion was made up of merchants, professional men, students, marines and skilled mechanics, and less than 1,000 were classed as laborers.

The Roumanian, or Rouman, immigrants are classed as Latins, and in their appearance and speech resemble that group of peoples. The Roumanian people numbers about 5,000,000, most of them in Roumania. Roumans are also found in considerable numbers in Hungary, Transylvania, Bessarabia and the Balkan states. They are descended from a blended stock, made up of Roman colonists and disbanded soldiers, and the Illyrian and Thracian inhabitants of Macedonia at the time of the Roman conquest (146 B.C.). The whole of Macedonia was, up to the seventh century and the coming of the Slav, occupied by a Latin-speaking race. The Slavic conquest forced the Roumans in great numbers to their brothers north of the Danube, and many were carried farther by the wave of invasion—as far west as the Tyrol. The Roumans in Macedonia are skilled in metal working and the building trades, but we receive comparatively few Roumans from either Macedonia or Roumania. Eighty-five per cent, of our Roumanian immigrants come to us from Austria-Hungary—and they are practically all unskilled laborers. Although classed as Latins and speaking a Romance tongue, they show, in many cases, evidence of fusion with other races, Magyar and Slav. The Rouman type is short and dark, and they are usually free from disease and have a fairly good physique.

They bring very little money—less than ten dollars per capita—but, being unskilled laborers, seldom become public charges. They are an industrious people and possess in a marked degree the pride of race common to all peoples of Roman blood. In desirability these various Latin peoples might be rated higher than the Italians, but their numbers are relatively so insignificant that more extended notice is unnecessary.

  1. The padrone system as it exists to-day is graphically described by John Koren, Esq., in a bulletin published by the Department of Labor.