Italians in Los Angeles: Guide to a Diverse Community


Italians in Los Angeles: Guide to a Diverse Community

[Revised, from: Preliminary Survey of Italian Folklife in Los Angeles (Introduction), Los Angeles: for the Folk and Traditional Arts Program, Department of Cultural Affairs, 1990 (revised 2005), by Luisa Del Giudice, Ph.D., Founder-Director, Italian Oral History Institute (1994-2007). All rights reserved.]

Demographics: Los Angeles: Fourth Italian City in the U.S. According to the most recent OSIA profile of Italians in America, based on the Year 2000 Census, Italian Americans are the nationís fourth largest European ancestry group (after Germans, Irish, English), counting 15,700,000 or 6% of the entire U.S. population. Self-identification as "Italian American" increased by 7% since the 1990 census, Italian is the fourth foreign language most frequently spoken in U.S. homes, and 66% are white-collar workers. Here are some statistics regarding California and Los Angeles Italians: California is the third state in the U.S. with highest numbers of Italian Americans (1,450,000), after New York and New Jersey. Los Angeles is the 5th metropolitan area in the U.S. with highest numbers of Italian Americans (after New York, Philadelphia, Boston, Chicago): 568,000 (of a total metro population of 16,373,000). Among U.S. cities, Los Angeles ranks 4th in numbers of Italian Americans (95,300 out of a total population of 3,695,000). When "Italian" and "California" are mentioned in the same sentence, Northern California normally springs to mind, yet San Francisco has a total of only 39,200 Italians, out of a total population of 776,800óalbeit in a more condensed geographic area.

(Statistics drawn from: "A Profile of Todayís Italian Americans," A Report Based on the Year 2000 Census, compiled by the Order Sons of Italy in America, OSIA, http://www.osia.org, see CLUBS, ASSOCIATIONS & SOCIETIES)


An Invisible Community? These statistics may be somewhat surprising because there is no publicly-identified "Little Italy" in Los Angeles. The earliest Italians were to be found at the historic center of the city, that is, El Pueblo (See ITALIANS AT EL PUEBLO); they were later closely associated with Lincoln Heights, and , the area around although the area around St. Peterís Italian Church in what is( now Chinatown), but today are difficult to locate. There is some debate about if, where, and when, any of these locations could properly be considered a , was once known as ìLittle Italy,î as we have come to appreciate this term vis-‡-vis other American geographic contexts. The majority of Italians seem to have been assimilated into the American mainstream and have ceased to "cluster," accounting for the perception that Italians in Los Angeles are often invisibleóeven to themselves. (This online project, in fact, was created, in part, to help make the Italian community more visible to Angelenosówhether of Italian heritage or not.)

While in the 1980's Los Angeles' Èlites came to savor Italy's culinary arts, its design innovations, and its fine arts, not surprisingly a majority of local Italians (most of remote peasant origin) and their culture remained decidedly less visible. The negative effects of WWII on Italian ethnic identity, its relative waning during mid-century (until the ethnic revival of the 70's) was more corrosivein the U.S. than in other countries where Italians immigrated (e.g., Canada). In Los Angeles this process of assimilation may have been even more rapid than in the East. The more tolerant and spacious California human environment did not make ethnic solidarity and geographic cohesion such strong psychological imperatives. Further, Italians of the earliest immigration, predominantly northern, were few and proved more readily assimilable than the subsequent numbers of immigrants from Southern Italy. Many descendents of these pioneers may vaguely remember that a grandparent was Italian or that their parents spoke Italian (amongst themselves only) or that they ate foods dimly recognized as Italian derived (e.g., polenta), but may not feel particularly "Italian" today. The situation has vastly altered in recent decades, as even 3rd-and 4th-generation Italian Americans, no longer ambiguous about their heritage, came increasingly to reclaim that heritage, to be interested in contemporary Italian culture, enrolling in Italian language courses and traveling to Italy themselves. As although, as the 2000 Census reports indicates, more Americans are generallybegan identifying themselves as Italians. This new-found cachÈ in all things Italian (but especially food, design, and travel), has made Italians and Italian culture clearly more visible in Los Angeles.


Italian Immigration to Los Angeles. Greater Los Angeles contains various historical strata of Italians: l) limited 19th-C. immigration from the Northern regions of Italy (Piedmont, Liguria, Lombardy and Ticino, western Tuscany); 2) larger numbers of Southern Italian (Puglia, Sicily, Calabria) in the early part of the 20th-C (although immigration quotas limited these numbers); 3) post-WWII immigration of Italians from all the above (but especially the South), from the Atlantic States (notably N.Y., Mass, Pennsylvania), a sprinkling from other Western States (i.e., Colorado), and even from South Americaó"trans-migrants" who have undergone a longer acculturation process than most, and; 4) recent individual middle-class or "white collar" "immigrants" (n.b. who might eschew this very term), primarily in in business and in the professions. This growing presence of transient or ìtransnationalî Italians, numerically insignificant yet culturally and economically influential, might be considered part of Italyís ìbrain drain.î They often represent outposts of Italian government and commerce (gravitating toward the Italian Consulate, the Trade Commission, the Istituto Italiano di Cultura), academia & industry (the sciences and technology), entertainment, the arts, and food-related businesses (see: FOOD, Introduction). This trans-oceanic set represents contemporary Italian culture and tends to remain distinct and separate from the larger established local Italian American community, and may be found primarily on the Westside.


Italians and Italian Americans. Amid this diversity of Italians, a self-selection process naturally occurs. Indeed, a genuine gulf seems to exist between Italian Americans and contemporary Italiansólittle interested in "folk" or "ethnic" manifestations of tradition. Since the vast majority among the historic Italian American community has rural and small town roots, however, traditional forms of folklife are the patrimony, whether acknowledged, remembered, or not, of this group. The historic community of Italians (now of 2nd, 3rd, and 4th generation) who do form associations, have tended to make the preservation of cultural heritage and the celebration of town and regional festivities, a priority(See CLUBS. ASSOCIATIONS & SOCIETIES). Post-economic boom Italians (1960s-) instead have a markedly different experience of Italian history and culture and have more often arrived as middle class professionals. Increasing economic parity and various other factors (e.g., shared work and educational milieux, recent experiences of Italian travel among older immigrants) though, have helped blur such boundaries between Italians and Italian Americans in recent years. Some forms of ethnic revival have also made various aspects of Italian folk culture (festivals, foods, music, customsómore generally accepted, known, and celebrated. For instance, traditional Italian music from the oral tradition, never before shared on concert stages before a general public, is showing greater appealóeven among Americans of Italian descentóas it becomes better known (See PERFORMING ARTS, Music, Traditional). . Indeed, this Italian ìrootsî music, more in tune with World Music tastes, is being rediscovered by young descendants of immigrants, who are generally less interested in the choreographed ìfolk musicî typical of Italian American festivals and heritage events (e.g., staged red, white and green, tambourine-shaking, ìgenericî tarantella dancers).

Suburban diffusion. Early Italians (See ITALIANS AT THE PUEBLO),primarily involved in agriculture (truck farming and vineyards), were also to be found in rural areas such as the San Fernando and San Gabriel Valleys, out through Upland, Cucamonga into San Bernardino County (cf. Guasti Winery, see INTRODUCTIONS, Historical Resources, Further Reading: Italians of Southern California, DíAmico). The early urban cluster spread from the Plaza at El Pueblo to Lincoln Heights, and in the post WWII era fanned further eastward to suburban communities such as Alhambra, Monterey Park, Glendale, San Marino, and northward to Los Feliz-Vermont and even Encino, not to mention Santa Barbara or San Diego. Today, according to the informal census provided by the Italian newspaper's circulation (See MEDIA, Publications, L'Italo-Americano), ethnically loyal Italians can be found in Highland Park, S. Pasadena, Alhambra, Arcadia, Covina, Encino, Northridge, Woodland Hills, Burbank, Glendale. Further, many Italians participate in the Italian Catholic Federation (See CLUBS, ASSOCIATIONS & SOCIETIES, Religious), affiliated with approximately 60 parishes (30 in Los Angeles, l0-12 in San Gabriel, about the same in San Fernando, and miscellaneous others). Because the ICF somewhat limits non-Italian participation in its chapters, their presence in the diocese is some indication of the demographic diffusion of the Italian community in Los Angeles.


San Pedro (See INTRODUCTIONS, San Pedro: Italian Fishing Community; See CELEBRATIONS, Folk Festival). While the downtown cluster (St. Peter's Italian Church, Casa Italiana, and Italian Hall) may loosely be construed a ìLittle Italyî (although resident Italians are now rare in that area), San Pedro may today represent one of the few visible local nuclei of Italians and may approximate a ìLittle Italyî of sorts (although outward diffusion, and the changing fishing industry, is changing this community as well). This clustering on the Los Angeles landscape has arisen for a unique reason. Until recently, San Pedro was geographically discrete and occupationally compact due to its function as Los Angeles' port, and due to what was formerly a significant fishing industry. Two predominant Italian groups held a major role in that local industry (even though they leave no trace in the Los Angeles Maritime Museum!). San Pedro Italians come from two Italian island fishing communities: Ischia and Sicily. Although they arrived in the migrations of the early 20th C (the Sicilians later), the autonomous nature of this group's trade, and the relative geographic compactness of San Pedro, fostered the preservation of ethnic loyalty.

San Pedro Italians and Los Angeles Italians may see each other as separate communities andmay even perceive the other as better preserving Italian culture, but both communities are actively working on behalf of cultural preservation and commemoration through various community initiatives and forms of public works. While San Pedro appears to be a more compact and conservative community (something of an "urban village"), the Italian community of Los Angeles, centering around St. Peter's Church and Casa Italiana hosts small and large-scale activity and events. San Pedro has fewer formal Italian American associations, while Los Angeles and environs, has many more (See CLUBS, ASSOCIATIONS & SOCIETIES). In San Pedro, Ischitani have gravitated toward the Italian Catholic Federation(through their parish churches, such as Mary Star of the Sea, while Sicilians are represented in great numbers in the Italian American Club and in the Trappeto (prov. of Palermo, Sicily) Club. They celebrate these patron saint days: Saint John Joseph (for the Ischitani); St. Joseph and St. Rosalia for the Sicilians, and St. Peter (Italian American Club). In past decades the Fisherman's feasts (now in decline) were a major expression of the Italian community's traditional culture. (See COLLECTIONS, Archives).


Fragmentation and Unity. The extreme diversification of Italians (e.g., the North-South split, marked regionalism, and a sense of attachment to oneís hometown) are all too well-documented in Italy and among immigrantsto bear repeating here. On the one hand, this diversity presents a richness of culture,while on the other, it creates obstacles when concerted effort and unity of action are called for. The opposite pull between diversity and homogeneity may create ambiguities of cultural allegiance, although much of this cultural specificity has become less marked in the last few decades. For instance, for many older immigrants (particularly those who lived through the xenophobic war years when national loyalties were tested), American allegiance and patriotism needed to be explicit Several associations formed during those years tended therefore to stress the American side of the Italian American equation, The Italian side of their hybrid identity however, continued to promote splinteringódefying many a St. Peterís priest called to the community to administer to the notoriously factional community (See: INTRODUCTIONS, Historical Resources, Further Reading, St. Peterís Italian Church). A need for unifying Italians seems to have been broadly felt in the 1970's and continues to reverberate on up to the present. A residual splintering effect (due to regional and social origins, along with present economic and geographic factors) has generally thwarted clarity of direction and impact, and may even have contributed to the Italian community's relative invisibility. Some club charters actually preclude banding with other similar clubs, in order to better preserve their individuality. Recent developments however indicate that this splintered reality may be changing.

St. Peterís Catholic Church and the Scalabrini Order (See RELIGION). The Scalabrini Fathers (Missionaries of St. Charles), under the energetic Father Luigi (Donanzan), proved a major unifying force in the Italian community. The Scalabrinians, whose mission it is to serve the needs of migrants and refugees (founded by Giovanni Battista Scalabrini in 1887 to assist immigrants to the Americas), continue to minister to social and cultural needs as well as to the strictly material and pastoral. Under Father Giovanni Bizzotti, St. Peterís expanded this mission, by serving as a soup kitchen to the areaís migrants and the homeless. The order managed the Italo-Americano (the Italian newspaper) until recently, organized Italian classes, encouraged town feast days and diverse other traditions. Perhaps the most important work of all, however, was the expansion and rebuilding of Casa Italiana as a social and cultural centeróa symbolic home for the scattered Italians of the Southland. Its expanded and modernized banquet and meeting facilities, dedicated in 1972 (recently refurbished), have been used by almost all Italian organizations and is considered a major community site e (See COMMUNITY SITES). The Scalabrinians also increased attendance at the dwindling St. Peter's Italian Church (the only national parish in the Southland), and built Villa Scalabrini (the retirement center for Italian seniors, See: SENIORS). They had a monument to the Italian immigrant erected at Casa Italiana, and they have relocated the shrine of Mother Cabrini (the first Italian American saint) to the retirement facility. The fund raising campaigns for these events have provided visions of Italians rallying behind a common cause.


Common Causes. he Federated Italian Americans of Southern California (an umbrella organization) has made greater strides recently in working for common cause among the Italian organizations of Los Angeles. It organizes civic celebrations such as Columbus Day (and coordinated the Italian community's Columbian Quincentenary in 1992)óas well as mediating more recent public protests against this celebration! It engages in a variety of Italian initiatives as the largest corporate body of Italian organizations in the Southland. The renewed interest in their Italian residents abroad, on the part of the Italian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, has resulted in recent Italian Consuls (e.g., Massimo Roscigno, Diego Brasioli, Nicola Faganello) proving more sympathetic and open to the Italian American community. The new-won right of Italians abroad to vote in Italian elections may have contributed to this development(See CLUBS, ASSOCIATIONS & SOCIETIES,Com.It.Es). The local Italian community has been much encouraged by this turn of events, as the consular presence becomes a further unifying force, helping to bridge the gap between transatlantic Italians and Italian Americans, and between Italian American factions. An issue of public concern, brought to the communityís attention in the 1980ís, and more clearly in focus in the early 1990ís, further helped galvanize the community. Historic research revealed thatItalians had had a significant presence in early Los Angeles history (cf. Rolle, Ricci Lothrop, Bruce Poole). The Italian community (under the leadership of Maria Luisa Cooper) became vocal in its desire to re-appropriate and preserve the Italian Hall in the El Pueblo de Los Angelesóin the very heart of the city, and to make this history better known. Their goal became the preservation and restoration of the building and the creation of an Italian American Museum (under the guidance of Jean Bruce Poole, then curator of the Historic Monument and Gloria Ricci Lothrop, California historian.. This project became a disputed political issue as commercial and ethnic factors blurred, dividing Mexican-merchant and Italian-community plans for the building (See: "Italians Have a Legitimate Los Angeles History, Too," by Gloria Ricci Lothrop, Los Angeles Times, June 19, 1990, p.7). Petitions were signed and a public hearing held, at which Italian leaders turned out in number. Plans for the Museum were approved, a major campaign was underway to collect testimonies and documents regarding Italian Hall was initiated, and more importantly, funds to preserve it were gathered. The Pueblo, indeed, continued to become multiethnic, as Italians, Chinese, and other early historic communities in this area, worked to reestablish their presence there. Although an initial exhibition on the early Italian community was unveiled in 2008, the Museum however, awaits completion. The building and/or preservation of Italian sites, giving the community spatial tangibility therefore, has provided Los Angeles Italians several occasions for practicing unity.