Saturday, July 08, 2006

Invasion of the Garlic Eaters

Sen. Rick Santorum said it the other day. He's not against immigrants. Immigrants have been a vitalizing force in America. But, those who come here, he said must "do it by the rules."

Joe Vento said much the same thing. Vento, owner of Geno's Steaks in South Philly, caused a international stir when he posted a sign in his window that said, simply:

This is America.
When ordering, speak English.

It was aimed, Vento said, not at foreign tourists, but at locals (read: Mexicans) who had infiltrated the Italian Market area and were refusing to assimilate -- learn the language, act more like Americans.

What he wanted, as Vento explained to one reporter, was to "go back to the 19th century, play by those rules."

The implication was clear.

Unlike the illegals of today, our immigrant ancestors came to this country legally, worked hard at assimilating, and became true Americans. They played by the rules.

It's a vision that resembles a Hallmark Hall of Fame episode.

Working title: American Dreamers.

And most of it is pure bunk.

The facts are these:

Most of the immigrants who came to America were neither educated nor wealthy nor refined. They were illiterate peasants who were castoffs from their countries of origin. They truly were, to quote Emma Lazarus, the "wretched refuse" of foreign shores.

Those who moved to the cities lived in squalid enclaves. They were viewed -- variously -- as dangerous, drunken, smelly, swarthy, stupid, inferior, mongrels. They labored at menial jobs in horrid conditions for sub-standard pay.

First-generation immigrants rarely assimilated and died with only a tenuous grasp of English. The children of urban immigrants often tended to crime, particularly the Irish and the Italians.

It has taken some immigrant groups -- especially non-Anglo, non-English speaking groups -- four or five generations to cast off their label as aliens.

Why did they come here, then and now?

To quote Willy Sutton, because this is where the money was. This is where the jobs were. This is where some relative lived -- a brother, an aunt, a sweetheart, a few cousins from your village.

In some cases, they were seeking riches. In most cases, they simply were trying to avoid starvation or death at the hands of their enemies. America -- a vast, booming adolescent nation -- was the place that offered hope for a better life.

How did native Americans react to these new arrivals? Always with fear, often with repulsion, sometimes with hatred.

Some 19th century immigrants -- the Irish, to be precise -- drove natives into a frenzy of fear and loathing, not only because they were an inferior people, but because they were Roman Catholic and, therefore, slaves to the Pope and determined to hand over this nation to a ruler seated in the Vatican.

It was a fear put to rest -- among most, but not all Americans -- only after 1960, with the election of John F. Kennedy.

The Irish didn't help by being -- unlike the more docile Germans -- aggressive and obstinate, prone to drink and violence. In other words, when struck, they hit back.

At least the Irish spoke English, or some pidgin variety of it.

The immigrants from southern and eastern Europe who came later in the 19th century did not. Nor were they fair-haired or blue-eyed. They were dark, swarthy, strange folk -- alien to the core.

My great-aunt Josephine, who grew up in late 19th century South Philly, had a name for the Italians immigrants that aptly summarized her disdain. She called them "The Garlic Eaters."

John Fiske, the American historian who popularized Darwin's work in the U.S. put it succinctly. In traveling in Italy, he reported back: "The lowest Irish are far above the level of these creatures."

By the late 1800's. nativists had a new vocabulary to discuss the immigrant problem -- the language of science. Anthropological studies, precise and "scientific" measurement of craniums and Darwinian theory were used to demonstrate that these new arrivals were inferior peoples, lacking in mental capacity and unsuited for citizenship.

For instance, here are the observations of a Professor Edward A. Ross, observing Italian arrivals: "Steerage passengers from a Naples boat show a distressing frequency of low foreheads, open mouths, weak chins, poor features, small or knobby crania and backless heads!"

The fear, then and now, was that these aliens would intermingle with American stock and create a mongrel race. (In fairness, that's exactly what happened.)

As the scholar Carl Wittke noted in the early 20th century: "What disasterous results awaited a country in which 50 Roumanian or Italian peasants would have a perfect army of offsprings in several generations, whereas the stock of 50 Harvard or Yale men would probably be extinct within the same length of time."

What Wittke could not foresee was that Harvard men would later marry the grand-daughters of those Italian immigrants and send their quasi-knobby craniumed offspring to Yale.

Procreation, it turns out, is an agent of assimilation.

Between 1880 and 1920, scholars estimate that one in three of all the Jews living in eastern Europe emigrated to American, a total of two million. In the 10 years between 1900 and 1910, more than two million Italians arrived in the United States.

This wave of aliens repulsed Americans. Political commentators debunked the "myth of the melting pot" and predicted these late arrivals would never assimilate. A mongrel nation was on the horizon unless something was done to stop it. They found a way.

After World War I, scientific racialism and political isolationism combined to create a rigid quota system to stifle immigration. The quotas, particularly the ones in a 1924 law passed by Congress, targeted southern and eastern Europeans.

When the senator's father, Aldo Santorum, and his parents entered this country in 1931, they were among the lucky few.

The quota system had reduced the legal flow of Italian immigrants from 200,000 a year to 3,845 a year after 1924, though there is evidence that double that number entered illegally each year.

As to the rules prior to that, there were none to speak of.

With few exceptions -- an 1882 U.S. law that excluded the Chinese being the most notable -- there were no restrictions on immigration between 1802 and 1921.

No Green cards. No literacy tests. No quotas. No loyalty oaths. No nothing.

If you were white and your were reasonably healthy, you were free to enter. After five years, we were permitted to become a citizen (and your local ward leader would be more than happy to file the papers for you, so you could vote for the candidate of their choice.)

You did not have to show English-language proficiency. You did not have to demonstrate an understanding of American government and history. Hell, you didn't even have to be able to read.

You were a citizen.

Between 1820 and 1920, more than 30 million immigrants came to the United States under these "rules."

They included all of my ancestors. They probably included yours.

A postscript:
Here is what Benjamin Franklin thought of certain immigrants of his day. He makes Joey Vento sound like Pericles. Posted by Picasa


Blogger Bobo said...

Noboby is claiming that life was easy for immigrants when they arrived. The point Mr. Vento and Senator Santorum are making is that no special accommodations were made for those folks as they have today. Where I differ with their views has to do with our business culture. As America becomes a more service related business environment where every customer counts, companies can no longer afford to exclude potential customers and, dare we say, incorporate services that many find are antithetical towards societal integration. To many business owners Green is the common denominator and if having phone or support services in Spanish as well as English gets them an expanded client base ... so be it. If today's culture existed 100 years ago, less bigotry, goverment mandated minimum wage, etc. companies would have services to gain their business, Press 1 for English, Press 2 for Italian, Press 3 for Yiddish, ...

11:11 AM  
Blogger rasphila said...

Very well put. It's amazing how many Americans don't know their own history—or, for that matter, their own family history. My ancestors include a horse thief, a non-English speaking German stowaway, and a few others who were similarly humble but not quite as interesting. Most people I know are just as polyglot. That is a good thing in my book. It makes us stronger and more vibrant.

We only have one relative, a very distant one, that we don't talk about. His name was Richard Nixon.

12:11 PM  
Anonymous phillydem said...

Outstanding! The truth is finally putting on its shoes.

12:24 PM  
Anonymous phillydem said...

Of course there were no "special accomodations" for immigrants from the peak years of European immigration. The fact is before FDR's New Deal there weren't any "special accomodations" for anybody. Each American was pretty much left on their own to sink, swin, die or depend on the charity of family or strangers.

1:54 PM  
Blogger Piltdown Man said...

Tom -

Thanks (again) for what amounts to a solid lesson in Civics, that long-abandoned school subject.

My family background includes an Eastern European blacksmith-turned-bootlegger, a man who, perhaps, exemplifies what American's have always been good at; turning lemons into lemonade!

On the other hand, What Senator Santorum exemplifies (to me, at least) is the ability of some American's to attempt to profit from their family background, be it good or bad...

Piltdown Man

9:54 PM  
Blogger NE Suburbanite said...

Northeast Philadelphia where I reside is ofttimes accused of having once been a place where W.A.S.P.s -- such as me -- got to live the good life, and unfairly so, while those of ethnicity, Roman Catholics especially, were forced to suffer at its mercy in other parts of the city. Yet there's no evidence to support this whatsoever if you read The Bristol Pike by the Rev. S.F. Hotchkin, published in the early 1890s, which describes in great detail what Northeast Philadelphia was like at that time. For if Roman Catholics were being discriminated against if they tried living up here back then, all I can say is may we all be so lucky to get to experience such type discrimination! For of all the churches in Northeast Philadelphia, St. Dominics, which was built in the 1850s, was by far the most prominant and impressive. Furthermore, one of the most highly praised Northeast Philadelphia citizens at that time was J.D. McFadden, who lived on one of the most beautiful of all of Northeast Philadelphia's estates -- Waveland -- which was located where the Holmesburg Shopping Center is today. And guess what, folks. He was a Roman Catholic. And the Rev. S.F. Hotchkin, who was an Episcopalian minister, sang nothing but the highest praises of him in that book of his. Add to this that in all my own recollections of growing up here in Northeast Philadelphia from the early 1950s into the late 1960s there was never any looking down on the Irish or Italian or Jewish around here that I can recall. All that came later, right around the time Rizzo became mayor, and the W.A.S.P.s up here became the rapidly waning minority...

5:07 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

No, the data show that Spanish speakers don't learn English as quickly as prior groups of immigrants. Joey Vento is in good academic company.

"Overall, the rates of speaking only English for a number of contemporary groups suggest that Anglicization is occurring at roughly the same pace for Asians as it did for Europeans, but is slower among the descendants of Spanish speakers." Alba, Richard D. "Only English by the Third Generation? Loss and Preservation of the Mother Tongue Among the Grandchildren of Contemporary Immigrants" Demography - Volume 39, Number 3, August 2002, pp. 467-484

"This article uses data from the 1980 and 1990 U.S. Censuses of Population to examine the English language skills of natives and immigrants. It finds that lack of fluency in spoken English is rare among native-born Americans, including among the teenage and adult children of recently arrived ethnic groups. The vast majority of immigrants also speak English well. However, since the 1950s fluency among new immigrants has declined by 0.3 percentage point per year, because of the shift in source countries from English speaking countries and from continental Europe to Latin America and East Asia. The Language Ability of U.S. Immigrants: Assimilation and Cohort Effects." Geoffrey Carliner
International Migration Review, Vol. 34, No. 1 (Spring, 2000) , pp. 158-182.

Guess you forgot to review the academic literature, huh Tom--didn't fit your agenda.

Also, how do you explain groups like the Vietnamese who immigrated and thrive within twenty years?

Five generations? Bunk.

8:55 AM  
Blogger Chris said...

your and your facts tom ferrick. facts aren't needed in this debate, emotions are!

It's rather amazing that many of our brethren so against immigrants are Santorum, Tancredo, Barletta, Vento...

10:41 AM  
Blogger Chris said...

the last anonymous is skewing stats, not Ferrick.

"However, since the 1950s fluency among new immigrants has declined by 0.3 percentage point per year, because of the shift in source countries from English speaking countries and from continental Europe to Latin America and East Asia."

DO you know what this means? It means that more immigrants are coming from non-English speaking countries, not that they are learning English at a slower rate on an individual level. The GROUP of 'immigrants' is learning slower simply because a higher percentage of them HAVE to learn.

I believe Tom also forgot to add that Japanese and Italian residents of this United States were rounded up during World War II and segregated, the Japanese to an extreme degree. It's never been easy for an immigrant, and event their offspring.

10:44 AM  
Blogger ACM said...

The most bizarre experience of my summer so far was catching Scarface for the first time (on AMC last night) and having one of the ad breaks be an anti-immigrant ad from Rick Santorum. Yeowch -- classy stuff.

Oh, and for Anon., there have always been "desirable" and "undesirable" immigrants; some generations ago, the Chinese were the feared immigrants; before that, the Italians or the Irish were considered dirty and impossible to educate. Now all of that seems laughable, and yet you don't seem to question your assumption that Vietnamese immigrants do fine on their own while the Latino immigrants are hopeless. The more things change, the more they stay the same...

11:30 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Who cares if your ancestors were horse thieves and such. Maybe you guys are good-for-nothings who don't speak English ;P

12:07 PM  
Anonymous HospitalityGirl said...

Tom, did your relative pass this line about "garlic eaters" on to Frank Capra to use in "It's A Wonderful Life"? Cranky old Mr. Potter uses it to refer to the Italian family in the movie.

1:47 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

My family is English, Irish, French, German, Polish and Russian; I married a WASP and our children are spectacular. Here's to diversifying the species! I welcome the Latino immigrants-as well as all others. This is the land of plenty. We have much to share, as well as much to learn.

5:22 PM  
Blogger Michael Katz said...

Your challenge to the romantic view of earlier immigration is exactly right. Early twentieth century immigrants were much less literate than native-born white Americans, took the worst jobs, and had high rates of poverty. It took the advent of labor unions and the welfare state to move them toward the American middle class after World War II. Today, Mexican immigrants show faster rates of English-language acquisition and occupational improvement than did Poles and Italians in the early 20th century. For data on these points see the recent book by me and Mark J. Stern, One Nation Divisible: What America Was and What It Was Beoming (Russell Sage Foundation, 2006). --Michael B. Katz

8:46 AM  
Blogger nalathecat said...

The Italians who came to this country assimilated so well, that we now (still, in 2006) have "Little Italies" in many eastern cities.
Does anybody actually think a Little Italy was created by marketers as a great place for restaurants and a way to attract tourists?
Also, to those who have a problem with "Press One for English"; have you always been that lazy? For crying out loud

8:05 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

The Italians were so welcome here that they were on the receiving end of the largest lynching recorded in American history.

As to the commenter who asked to explain the rapid assimilation of Vietnamese, one of the main reasons the Vietnamese managed to assimilate well here is that a large number of immigrants, perhaps the majority, were from professional classes in Vietnam. Many were workers in the South Vietnamese government, educated bureaucrats. Obviously those who have a high degree of education and speak English are going to assimilate easier here than poorly educated, unskilled workers, which comprise the majority of Latinos.

1:54 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

LEGAL immigrants are welcome, not thoes who dismiss our laws and demand equal treatment. Welfare, Medical coverage, and a drivers license. Go to Mexico as and see if the Mexican goverment will give these things to you for free.

5:20 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

It's so easy to generalize about groups of people. I hear no mention of the many emigrants who were turned away because they had no job waiting for them, or no friends close by their port of entry or no sponsor. If you examine ship manifests from about 1882 and on you will see those notes with each foreign passenger. True, knowing English was not a requirement for residency, but most attempted to assimilate into our melting pot and become a naturalized, contributing citizen of our great country using English as their first language. This emigrant vision obviously has deteriored over the years since my grandparents emigration in 1907 and 1911.

1:10 AM  

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