An Historical Overview

An Historical Overview

[By Gloria Ricci Lothrop, Ph.D., W. P. Whitsett Professor Emerita, CSU Northridge. Reproduced with permission. All rights reserved.]

A hold-over from the days when the area now
known as Chinatown housed large numbers
of Italians

"The story of the Italians of Los Angeles is a relatively unexamined chapter in migration history made more challenging by the dearth of archival sources. This largely unknown chronicle is at once fragmentary, diverse and, above all, unique.

It is, however, an aspect of local history deserving considerable attention for several reasons. It provides an opportunity to examine Italian settlement in a hospitable Mediterranean environment offering familiar opportunities for rural enterprise. In a community, which even when small, reflected a cosmopolitan mix, Italians with their southern European culture and Catholic heritage, were welcomed in a land deeply influenced by its Hispanic colonial heritage as allies aligned against a minority of Asians and indigenous residents. As a result, there was no widespread discrimination which forced Italians to live in segregated communities. Their consequent dispersal facilitated a marked degree of assimilation.

A second factor which distinguishes the history of Los Angeles Italians is the distinctiveness of its waves of immigration. Italian explorers and adventurers and agriculturalists, largely from northern Italy constituted the pioneer community. The second half of the nineteenth century witnessed the influx of Piedmontese vintners and a few Tuscan entrepreneurs, along with a cluster of fishermen from Ischia and Sicily, constituting a trans-migrant vanguard to the Pacific coast.

In the decade following World War I the Italian population of Los Angeles nearly doubled from 9,650 to 16,851, reflecting a broader diversity of regional groups and a wider range of educational and economic backgrounds. Some emigrÈs achieved comparative prosperity in sales and manufacturing; others were members of southern California's growing film industry, and yet others were political activists protesting Italy's Fascist regime or government functionaries advancing Mussolini's message of Italianit‡ to the 7th generation. The fate of some became entangled in the acts of war as the migrants found themselves declared enemy aliens and restricted, removed or interned in isolated concentration camps.

The postwar growth of Los Angeles had a significant impact upon the Italian community. By 1960 it had grown to include Italian war brides and first- and second-generation Italians making their way west from New York, Massachusetts, New Jersey, Ohio and elsewhere.

In more recent years the community has included a new type of Italian sojourner representing Italian business, fashion, and cinema. The ties of these newcomers to Italian culture is concerned and vital, though their ties to the community's earlier history are marginal. They represent yet another perspective to the unique and multifaceted Italian American community of southern California."