A Different Immigrant NarrativeNovember 17, 2015 at 12:05 pm | Posted in Uncategorized | 2 Comments
These days many of us are thinking about the security risks that accompany admitting Syrian immigrants to the U.S., and, sadly, to France. Sometimes it helps to step back and remember that earlier conflicts over immigration, even some that were fairly violent, had a happy ending.
The current movie “Brooklyn,” for example, is the story of two members of once-hostile groups, the Irish and the more recently arrived Italians, literally falling in love. It’s also a fictional version of the story that Paul Moses tells in his new book, An Unlikely Union: The Love-Hate Story of New York’s Irish and Italians ( New York University Press, 2015. 368 pp. Hardback: $35; eBook: $14.04.) Here’s a slightly revised version of my review of that book that appeared recently in Gumbo, the monthly publication of the Grail in the U.S.
Initially, readers—in Oregon, for example, or Louisiana—may wonder why they should read the story of a struggle between two white ethic groups in New York City between 1850 and 2001. But a glance at today’s headlines provides a ready answer: the hostility over immigration, and between previous immigrant groups and those just arriving, is as fierce as ever.
The author of An Unlikely Union, Paul Moses, is an award-winning journalist and professor of journalism at Brooklyn College. He is also a superb storyteller. And part of the story is his own—from pretend rumbles between Italian and Irish kids at his 1960s parochial school here in Brooklyn, to how he (half-Italian, half Jewish) came to marry an Irish-American girl, Maureen. The primary narrative, however, addresses the evolution of the two wider ethic groups from outright enmity in the nineteenth century to collaboration and even merger by the end of the twentieth.
The story, in some senses, is economic, with poor Irish Catholic immigrants whose families fled to the U.S. during and after the Potato Famine of the 1840s fighting equally poor Italian immigrants who arrived several decades later. Some of this played out on the New York waterfront, where Italians served as strike breakers till some of them realized that starting unions, not fighting them, would pay better in the long run.
Another dimension of the struggle unfolded in the Catholic Church, where the Irish immigrants who had identified for centuries with the papacy over against the English monarchy deeply distrusted Italian immigrants who supported the overthrow of the monarchical Papal States in 1870. An even darker chapter in the competition involved gunfights between Irish and Italian gangs struggling to control the streets of New York. And then there was politics, with Big Tim Sullivan’s Tammany Democrats eventually being defeated by Italian Republicans like the half-Jewish half-Episcopalian Fiorella LaGuardia, and eventually, Rudy Giuliani.
Moses attributes much of the gradual resolution of the hostility of the two groups to their shared religion. Indeed, his stories of Irish-American bishops and priests coming to terms with Italian priests and nuns over how to minister to the arriving immigrants are some of the most eye opening. My own personal favorite is Mother (later St.) Francis Xavier Cabrini, who had come with some of her sisters to work in the Italian community, refusing outright to return to Italy when New York Archbishop Michael Corrigan ordered her to do so. Moses also attributes much of the eventual cessation of hostilities between the two groups to Catholic sisters, in this case, primarily Irish ones, who helped Italian immigrants assimilate into U.S. culture during their time in parochial schools.
My other favorite chapters address the roles of music and food in bringing about peace between the two groups. The Irish came to realize that pizza tastes a lot better than potatoes and cabbage. And reading about the singing contests between Bing Crosby and Franck Sinatra almost brought tears to my eyes; my own mother, whose grandmother was an Irish servant, simply adored Frank.
Moses acknowledges that economic factors were as significant in the laying down of arms by the Irish and the Italians as they were in starting the hostilities. These include how families from ethnically segregated urban areas became neighbors in the New York suburbs after World War II, and how rising income levels during the post-war economic boom healed a lot of wounds. He also acknowledges the role that race played—how the Italians “becoming white,” as the Irish had before them, gradually eliminated at least one cause of hostility between them—though it certainly didn’t improve the situation of African Americans.
There’s always a danger that a book like An Unlikely Union will serve as a “happy narrative” –-making readers feel optimistic without facing up to the difficulties and complexities of the story. Indeed, one of the most discouraging aspects of the current immigration conflict, in this country at least, is that it’s led by the descendants of immigrants, people like Paul Ryan and Bobby Jindal, who seem to think that they rose up the economic ladder through their own hard work. But a book like this one can also help us to understand that things such as rising wages and racial reconciliation really can reduce anti-immigrant prejudice. God willing, this realization in turn will inspire us to get out there and fight to bring such changes about.