I first read the following text in our Italian class. The teacher covered up the last two paragraphs and the citation at the end and asked us to guess who the author was speaking about. I thought the passage was a metaphor and that it was about some wild or undomesticated animals. Here is the text interspersed with an occasional explanatory paragraph.
“They are generally of small stature and dark skin. They don’t love water, and many of them smell because they wear the same clothes for weeks. They build shacks of wood and aluminum in the suburbs, quite close together.
When they manage to get closer to the city center, they rent expensive but decrepit apartments. Usually two appear looking for a room with the use of a kitchen. After a few days they become four, six, ten. They speak languages incomprehensible to us, probably antique dialects. Many children are used to begging, often in front of a church. Women in dark clothing and older men plead for mercy in petulant and plaintive tones. They have many children who they struggle to maintain and they are very united among themselves. It is said that they are committed to theft and, if stopped, can become violent. Our women avoid them not only because they are unattractive and wild, but also because of widespread rumors there are rapes committed after ambushes in the streets when the women are returning from work.
Our government has opened our borders and, above all, has not understood how to select from those who come into our country to work and those who think they can live on gimmicks or even criminal activities.”
Can you guess who the author is talking about? The report continues…
“I propose that preference be given to those from the Veneto and Lombardy, slow of thought and ignorant, but more willing to work than others. They are suited to homes that Americans refuse so that their families can remain united, and they do not dispute salaries. The others, those who are referred to in this first report, come from southern Italy. I invite you to check the documents of origin and repatriate them. Our security must be the first concern.”
–Report from the Inspectorate for Immigration in the U.S. Congress on Italian immigration into the United States, October 1912—
From the 1880s until about 1920, more than 4 million Italians came to America. There are many reasons, many of which are tied to circumstances in Italy following unification in 1861. (I will address this in a future post.) Nonetheless, prejudice was rampant in the United States; see, for example, my post on Sacco and Vanzetti, October 19, 2017.
I subsequently did a little research on this passage. Apparently, there are more than 3,500 web pages from Italy that cite this text. Yet, the original source has not been located. One inquisitive individual even wrote to the librarians at the Library of Congress who were not able to locate the original document. While I do not want to perpetuate a fabricated story (if this is one), I ask that readers view this passage as yet another example of prejudice, xenophobia, and racism—and we have no shortage of that around the world then and now.