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Sharing the Story of the Boston Italians

by Stephen Puleo

Stephen Puleo's latest book is The Boston Italians: A Story of Pride, Perseverance and Paesani, from the Years of the Great Immigration to the Present Day. His previous books include Due to Enemy Action: The True World War II Story of the USS Eagle 56, and Dark Tide: The Great Boston Molasses Flood of 1919, a critically-acclaimed Boston-area bestseller.

Puleo As the paperback edition of The Boston Italians is released this month, I wanted to make a few observations about readers' reactions to the book since the hardcover’s debut a year ago. I have received hundreds of e-mails and spoken to nearly two thousand people at presentations throughout the Boston area; the response has been overwhelmingly positive and heartwarming – from Italian-Americans and others – and has fallen into two main categories.

First, there is the resounding opinion that the book was long overdue; that it's simply about time Boston’s second largest ethnic group was the subject of a "non-Mob" book. That the real story – one of Italian immigrants overcoming enormous odds and paving the way for their children and grandchildren to achieve remarkable success – needed to be told.

The second reaction, surprising to me though equally gratifying, has been the need for Italian-Americans to share their family stories. Virtually every e-mail I receive starts out with, "My grandfather arrived at Ellis Island in 1910," or, "My parents raised seven children even though their only income was my what my father earned as a pushcart vendor in Haymarket," or, "Mr. Puleo, your story reminded me so much of my own..." It's as though these readers have wanted to share their stories for a long time but weren't sure how to do so. The Boston Italians has tapped into that demand and provided the outlet, and I am honored that I had the opportunity to write this story for the first time.

It all goes back to the first generation. More than half the book covers what I colloquially refer to as the Great Immigration and Settlement Years, stretching from the beginning of the Italians' arrival in Boston up to the onset of the Great Depression. These were the most crucial years of the Italian experience in America, and define to this day how Italian-Americans view their own heritage and how other Americans assess us. The people who defined these first fifty-plus years were the immigrants themselves, who struggled to get to America, overcame hardship once they arrived, contributed their sweat to help build a country, carved a place for themselves and their children in the American mainstream, and forged an ethnic identity that still evokes pride one hundred years later.

As the years go by, and history provides distance and the opportunity for fresh assessment, their sacrifices and accomplishments appear all the more remarkable.

Think about their struggle. Between 1880 and 1921, more than 4.2 million Italians entered the United States, as many as ninety five percent of them through Ellis Island in New York (No other ethnic group during the Great Immigration period sent so many immigrants in such a short time.) Nearly eighty percent of them were from villages and hill towns of Southern Italy and Sicily where they had tilled the land, fished the sea, or worked with their hands, and fled their homeland due to impoverishment; more than half were illiterate, or barely literate, in their own language.

When they arrived in America, some settled in small mining towns or on farms, but the overwhelming majority flocked to America’s large cities and quickly established tight-knit, insular enclaves, Little Italies, like Boston's North End, which acted as buffer zones of comfort and familiarity in the midst of a strange and hostile urban landscape that was strewn with pitfalls and prejudice. 

It was within the cocoon of these enclaves that most Italians settled, purchased property, worshiped, shopped, socialized, and in some cases, worked. It was from these enclaves that Italians ventured out, albeit slowly, to expand their job opportunities, learn English, and finally, assimilate into American culture. 

My book looks at Boston Italians within the broader context of the overall Italian experience in America, and that includes why so many left Italy seeking a new life in the first place. More than any other major ethnic group, Italians' life experiences in the Old Country directly affected their patterns of settlement, manner of living, reliance on family, process of assimilation, and relationship with other Americans.

There's another reason this book means so much to me, and I think, to readers: the story of the Boston Italians is my story, too. Three of my four grandparents were immigrants (my maternal grandmother was born in America). My two grandfathers and paternal grandmother arrived virtually penniless, with few skills, and unable to speak English. My paternal grandfather was barely literate in his own language. Both my grandfathers eventually became citizens and entrepreneurs; my grandmother never obtained her citizenship and was even classified as an "enemy alien" at the outset of World War II, despite the fact that three of her sons would eventually fight overseas while serving in the United States Army. My paternal grandparents settled in the North End and stayed for years; my maternal grandfather spent a few years there before moving to the nearby city of Everett. Theirs were the quintessential experiences of Italian immigrants.

My parents and aunts and uncles also shared the experiences of thousands of other children of Italian immigrants. Several of my aunts worked in the garment industry, which was flooded with Italian-American women in Boston. As a young girl, my mother worked in my grandfather’s cobbler shop, lighting the small stove to provide heat in the wintertime and waiting on customers after school, contributing to the family business as thousands of other Italian-American schoolchildren did. My father and two of his brothers served in World War II, which was a defining period for Italian-Americans, one in which they were forced to prove their loyalty to America as the United States battled not just Germany and Japan, but Mussolini’s Italy.

I wove the Puleo story through the course of The Boston Italians because it is illustrative of the overall fabric of the Boston Italian experience, a rich and colorful tapestry of enduring strength and value, one held together for one-hundred-and-thirty years by the legacies of struggle, perseverance, hard work, and the bond of family.

In addition to providing pleasure to readers of all nationalities interested in Boston and immigration history, I hope my book helps continue the resurgence of interest and pride among Italian-Americans, in Boston and elsewhere, in our heritage and our history.  One Italian-American journalist said that our appetite to know our ancestors is fueled by our desire to build "a spiritual bridge between [our] Italian past and [our] American future." 

Only with the presence of such a bridge, spanning generations, can we summon their wisdom and example to guide and inspire our own journey.

I hope The Boston Italians provides such a bridge.