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Birds of Passage, An Italian Immigrant Coming of Age Story

Joe Giordano, author of Birds of Passage, An Italian Immigrant Coming of Age Story, released October 8th, 2015

The great wave of Italian immigrants to the United States started after Italy’s consolidation in 1871, but il Risorgimento, did not create a nation. As one statesman put it, “Italy has been made. Now we must make Italians.”

The south of Italy, or Mezzogiorno, spoke different languages, had been dominated for centuries by foreign powers, and had distinct cultures. Many in the north of Italy held southern Italians in disdain. The south was already poor when Italy was united. The economic policies imposed by the north made economic conditions worse. As a result, many Italians emigrated to North and South America to find work.

In Argentina, Italians were early immigrants and welcomed. Pope Francis’s parents were Italian immigrants. In Brazil, Italians replaced freed blacks on coffee plantations. Treated little better than slaves, Italians moved to other pursuits. Today the richest state in Brazil, Sao Paulo, has more people of Italian heritage than the founding Portuguese.

The Italians who arrived in New York found the Irish and Tammany Hall running the city. If an Italian wasn’t a mason, a tailor, a barber, or a shoemaker, and didn’t open a shop with his family, he was consigned to manual labor. The padroni system for finding employment was Italians exploiting Italians. Workers were often recruited in Italy and controlled by a padrone in New York who took a cut of their wages. As new immigrants to the U.S., Italians occupied the bottom rung on the socio-economic scale. Often, they were used as “human steam shovels” to build the skyscrapers and subways of New York.

Birds of passage was the name given to Italians of the late nineteenth and early twentieth-centuries because they were the first U.S. immigrants who returned to their home country. Many made multiple trips to earn money in the States. After World War I, when U.S. immigration laws tightened, Italians could no longer guarantee their return, so many decided to stay. That’s when they brought their families.

As with the character Guido Basso in Birds of Passage, both my grandfathers were ragmen. Their labor was dirty and backbreaking, but they were their own padrone. My father was the last immigrant in my family. He acquired just a seventh-grade education before he set out to work. Unemployed for a long period during the Great Depression, he found a job in a warehouse. Working rapidly to impress the boss, he reached up for a box. Someone had left a vase on top. The glass knickknack slipped and shattered onto the concrete floor. My father was fired on the spot. Not deterred, he started his own business. My mother was one of five daughters employed at home doing piece work so her family could earn enough money to leave the tenement. Eventually her family purchased a home in Brooklyn.

As a boy, when my father and I passed a man doing hard manual labor, he would say to me, “See that? Go to school.” Many of my fellow Italian-Americans stand upon the shoulders of parents and grandparents who were intrepid enough to try and make a better life in a new country. Birds of Passage is not about my family, but I’m old enough to have known Italians born in the nineteenth-century. In the novel, I tried to capture how Italian immigrants of past generations thought and acted.


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