An Italian American is an American of Italian descent and/or dual citizenship. The phrase refers to someone born in the United States or who has immigrated to the United States and is of Italian heritage.
In the 1930s, Italian Americans voted heavily Democratic; since the 1960s, they have split about evenly between the Democratic (37%) and the Republican (36%) parties. The U.S. Congress includes Italian Americans who are regarded as leaders in both the Republican and Democratic parties. The highest ranking Italian American politician is currently Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) who became the first woman and Italian American Speaker of the United States House of Representatives, and former Republican New York City mayor Rudy Giuliani was a candidate for the U.S. presidency in the 2008 election, as was Colorado Congressman Tom Tancredo. Geraldine Ferraro was also a vice-presidential candidate in 1984. Two of the nine U.S. Supreme Court justices--Antonin Scalia and Samuel Alito--are Italian-Americans, appointed by Republican Presidents.
Italian-Americans have served an important role in the economy of the United States, and have founded companies of great national importance, such as Bank of America (by Amadeo Giannini in 1904), and companies that have contributed to the local culture and character of U.S. cities, such as Petrini's Markets (founded by Frank Petrini in 1935), among many others. Italian-Americans have also made important contributions to the growth of the U.S. economy through their business expertise, such as the management of the Chrysler Corporation by Lee Iacocca, and the creative innovations of Martin Scorsese for film companies such as Columbia Pictures and Warner Brothers.
Many Italian Americans still retain aspects of their culture. This includes Italian food, drink, art, annual Italian American feasts, and a strong commitment to extended family. Italian Americans influenced popular music in the 1940s and as recently in the 1970s, one of their major contributions to American culture. In movies that deal with cultural issues, Italian American words and lingo are sometimes spoken by the characters. Although most will not speak Italian fluently, a dialect of sorts has arisen among Italian Americans, particularly in the urban Northeast, often popularized in film and television.
Among the most characteristic and popular of Italian American cultural contributions has been their feasts. Throughout the United States, wherever one may find an "Italian neighborhood" (often referred to as 'Little Italy'), one can find festive celebrations such as the well known Feast of San Gennaro in New York City, the unique Our Lady of Mount Carmel "Giglio" Feast in the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn, New York, Italian feasts involve elaborate displays of devotion to God and patron saints. Perhaps the most widely known is St. Joseph's feast day on March 19th. These feasts are much more than simply isolated events within the year. They express a "typically Italian" approach to life and are taken very seriously by the communities who prepare them. Feast (Festa in Italian) is an umbrella term for the various secular and religious, indoor and outdoor activities surrounding a religious holiday. Typically, Italian feasts consist of festive communal meals, religious services, games of chance and skill and elaborate outdoor processions consisting of statues resplendent in jewels and donations. This merriment usually takes place over the course of several days, and is communally prepared by a church community or a religious organization over the course of several months.
Currently, there are more than 300 Italian feasts celebrated throughout the United States. These feasts are visited each year by millions of Americans from various backgrounds who come together to enjoy Italian delicacies such as Zeppole and sausage sandwiches. Though in past, and still unto this day, much of Italian American culture is centered around music and food, in recent years, a large and growing group of Italian American authors are having success publishing and selling books in America.
Some of the authors who have written about everyday, hardworking Italians are Pietro DiDonato , Lawrence Ferlinghetti , Dana Gioia , Executive Director of the National Endowment for the Arts; Daniela Gioseffi , Winner of the John Ciardi Award for Lifetime Achievement in Poetry, and Helen Barolini, author of The Dream Book, a collection of Italian American women's writings. Both women are American Book Award Winners and pioneers of Italian American writing, as is poet, Maria Mazziotti Gillan These women have authored many books depicting Italian American women in a new light. They, along with several other poets and writers, can be found at Italian American Writers
Among the scholars who have led the Renaissance in Italian American literature are professors Richard Gambino, Anthony Julian Tamburri, Paolo Giordano, and Fred Gardaphe. The latter three founded Bordighera Press, Inc. and edited From the Margin, An Anthology of Italian American Writing, Purdue University Press. These men along with professors like novelist and accomplished critic, Dr. Josephine Gattuso-Hendin of New York University, have taught Italian American studies far and wide, at such institutions as The City University of New York, John D. Calandra Institute , Queens College (CUNY), and The State University of New York at Stonybrook, as well as Brooklyn College, where Dr. Robert Viscusi, founded the Italian American Writers Association , and is an author and American Book Award winner, himself.
As a result of the efforts of magazines like VIA: Voices in Italian Americana, and Italian Americana, and many authors old and young, too numerous to mention, as well as early immigrant, pioneer writers like poet, Emanuel Carnevali, "Furnished Rooms," and novelist, Pietro DiDonato, author of "Christ in Concrete " --Italian Americans are beginning to read more of their own writers. A growing number of books featuring ordinary, hardworking Italians--having nothing to do with criminality--are published yearly to confront the cruel television and Hollywood stereotyping of this ethnic group. (See "Stereotypes," below.) Famed authors like Don DeLillo, Gilbert Sorrentino, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Gay Talese, John Fante Tina DeRosa, Kim Addonizio, Daniela Gioseffi, Dana Gioia, to name a mere few who have broken through to main stream American literature and publishing, are changing the image of Italians in America with their books, stories, poems and essays far too numerous to site. Many of these authors' books and writings are easily found on the internet and on Italian American Writers as well as in bibliographies online at Stonybrook University's Italian American Studies Dept. in New York or at The Italian American Writers Association website The cultural face of Italian Americana is widening and changing daily to combat stereotyping by American movies and television.
In some Italian American communities, Saint Joseph's Day (March 19) is marked by celebrations and parades. Columbus Day is also widely celebrated, as are the feasts of some regional Italian patron saints, most notably St. Januarius (San Gennaro) (September 19) (especially by those claiming Neapolitan heritage), and Santa Rosalia (September 4) by immigrants from Sicily. The immigrants from Potenza, Italy celebrate the Saint Rocco's day (August 16) feast at the Potenza Lodge in Denver, Colorado the 3rd weekend of August. San Rocco is the patron saint of Potenza as is San Gerardo. Many still celebrate the Christmas season with a Feast of the seven fishes. In Cleveland, Ohio, the Feast of Assumption is celebrated in Cleveland's Little Italy on August 15. On this feast day, people will pin money on Blessed Virgin Mary statue as symbol of prosperity. The statue is paraded through Little Italy to Holy Rosary Parish. For almost 25 years, Cleveland Catholic Bishop Anthony Pilla would join in the parade and mass due to his Italian heritage. Pilla resigned in April 2006, but he still celebrates.
While most Italian-American families have a Catholic background, there are various groups of Italian-American Christians who have chosen to practice Protestant Christianity for various reasons. In many cases, families may have decided to worship regularly at a local non-Catholic parish with which they and their community identify, but keep with the Catholic tradition in schooling their children at Catholic parochial or private schools, as well as fully participating in Catholic worship when attending Catholic churches for whatever reason. In some cases, there are individuals and families who have become resentful or disenchanted with the Catholic religion, and completely leave the Church, no longer considering themselves as being a part of the Catholic traditions in any way. Many joined the Episcopal Church because of disagreement with local Catholic Church leadership while still retaining much of the liturgical form. Many converted to Evangelical Christianity because they did not agree with the ritualistic nature of the Catholic religion, as well as their belief that Catholics have an incorrect interpretation of certain doctrines concerning the Magisterium, the Virgin Mary, the Saints, and the doctrine of Transubstantiation.
There are many ex-Catholic Italian-American members of mainline liberal Protestant churches, such as the United Church of Christ, most of whom left the Catholic Church because they thought it to be too doctrinally conservative. There are also a significant number of ex-Catholic Italian-American converts to the Unitarian Universalist Church. Fiorello La Guardia was an Episcopalian (on his father's side; his mother was from the small but significant community of Italian Jews). Frank Santora is an ex-Catholic Italian-American pastor of Faith Church, a large Evangelical megachurch in New Milford, Connecticut. There is a small charismatic denomination, called the Christian Church of North America, which is rooted in the Italian Pentecostal Movement that came out of Chicago in the early 1900s. It should also be noted that the first group of Italian immigrants to Trenton converted to the Baptist denomination. In the early 1900s, a number of Protestant denominations and missionaries worked in urban Italian American neighborhoods of the Northeast. Max Lucado——bestselling author, alumnus of Abilene Christian University, and preacher in Churches of Christ——is a prominent example of an Italian-American in non-Catholic ministry.
As a result of the large wave of Italian immigration to the United States in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the Italian language was once widely spoken in much of the U.S., especially in northeastern and Great Lakes area cities like Rochester, Chicago, Cleveland, and Milwaukee, as well as San Francisco, Saint Louis and New Orleans. Italian-language newspapers exist in many American cities, especially New York City, and Italian-language movie theatres existed in the U.S. as late as the 1950s.
Today, Prizes like The Bordighera Annual Poetry Prize founded by Daniela Gioseffi, Pietro Mastrandrea and Alfredo di Palchi with support from the Sonia Rraiziss-Giop Foundation, and Bordighera Press, which publishes the winners in bilingual editions, have helped to encourage writers of the diaspora to write and read in Italian. Chelsea Books in New York City and Gradiva Press on Long Island have published many bilingual books also due to the efforts of bilingual writers of the diaspora like Paolo Valesio , Alfredo de Palchi , Luigi Fontanella. Dr. Luigi Bonaffini of The City University of New York, publisher of The Journal of Italian Translation at Brooklyn College, has fostered Italian dialectic poetry throughout his homeland and the USA. Joseph Tusiani of New York and New York University , a highly distinguised linguist and prize winning poet born in Italy, paved the way for Italian works of literature in English and has published many bilingual books and Italian classics for the American audience, among them the first complete works of Michaelangelo's poems in English to be published in the United States. All of this literary endeavor has helped to foster the Italian language, along with the Italian opera, of course, in the United States. Many of these authors and their bilingual books are located throughout the internet.
Author Lawrence Distasi argues that the loss of spoken Italian among the Italian American population can be tied to U.S. government pressures during World War II. During World War II, in various parts of the country, the U.S. government displayed signs that read, Don't Speak the Enemy's Language. Such signs designated the languages of the Axis powers, German, Japanese, and Italian, as "enemy languages". Shortly after the Axis powers declared war on the U.S., many Italian, Japanese and German citizens were interned. Among the Italian Americans, those who spoke Italian, who had never taken out citizenship papers, and who belonged to groups that praised Benito Mussolini, were most likely to become candidates for internment. Distasi claims that many Italian language schools closed down in the San Francisco Bay Area within a week of the U.S. declaration of war on the Axis powers. Such closures were inevitable since most of the teachers in Italian languages were interned.
Despite the pressures of the US government during World War II, now more than ever, children of Italian heritage, especially paternal heritage, are given Italian names, and raised in traditional Italian ways. The Italian language is still spoken and studied by those of Italian American descent, and it can be heard in various American communities, especially among older Italian Americans. During the late 20th and early 21st centuries, interest in Italian language and culture has surged among Italian Americans. Today's Italian American youth no longer take for granted the impressive contributions Italians and Italian Americans have made to Western civilization, especially in the areas of fine art, music, science, philosophy, law, medicine, education, literature, architecture, and cuisine.
There is, however, a dilemma for Italian Americans who consider re-learning the language of their ancestors. The formal "Italian" that is taught in colleges and universities is generally not the "Italian" with which Italian Americans are acquainted. Over eighty percent of Italian Americans are of Southern Italian origin, and the languages spoken by their families who arrived between 1880-1920 were dialects like Neapolitan and Sicilian, with perhaps some degree of influence from Standard Italian. Because the Italian of Italian Americans comes from a time just after the unification of the state, their language is in many ways anachronistic and demonstrates what the dialects of Southern Italy used to be at the time. Because of this, Italian Americans studying Italian are often learning a language that does not include all of the words and phrases they may have learned from family.
The situation is even more pronounced among Italian Americans whose ancestors came to the United States from Northern Italy. Italian Americans variously of Emilia-Romagna, Lombardian, Genoese, Marchigiano, Piedmontese, Venetian and other Northern Italian heritage are even further away linguistically from the languages of their ancestors through the contemporary standard Italian language.
However, the National Italian American Foundation, the National American Italian Association and other Italian American organizations have asserted that the Mafia in the United States have never numbered more than a few thousand individuals, and that it is unfair to associate such a small minority with the general population of Italian Americans.
States known for their high concentrations of Italian Americans include New York, New Jersey, Connecticut, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Massachusetts, Michigan, Maryland, Illinois, California, Ohio, Florida, and Louisiana. Among major cities across the country, New York City, Philadelphia, Chicago, Boston, Pittsburgh, Miami, and San Francisco have America's seven largest Italian communities.