After the bombing of Pearl Harbor, PresidentFranklin D. Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066 onFebruary 19, 1942. This order authorized the Secretary of War to prescribe certain areas asmilitary zones, making way for the incarceration of JapaneseAmericans, German Americans and Italian Americans to concentration campslocated within the United States.These Internment Camps duringWorld War II were a blight on US history.
Many know the stories of how theJapanese were treated here in the United States during World War II. In factPresident Bill Clinton passed the Civil Liberties act in 1988 and issued apublic apology to the Japanese Americans and compensated the victims and theirfamilies. It has long been an historical misconception thatExecutive Order 9066 applied only to Japanese and Japanese-Americans living inthe western states. This was not true well at least not at first. Why was the story of the Italian Americanslost and not as relevant as the Japanese. In high school I read about theJapanese and what happened to their civil liberties during WWII but not onemention of what the Italian “enemy aliens” had to endure in any history book. Inorder to not repeat history we must acknowledge and learn from our past.
It wasas though the Italians were shamed to keep quiet. The stigma of Shame, a cultural Omerta alongwith the rush to Americanize and assimilate are variables on why the atrocitiesItalian Americans endured during World War II went unnoticed. Italian Americansalong with the German and Japanese Americans came to this country in droves toescape poverty many with dreams of a better life for their families. Accordingto the United States Census between 1880 and 1950 about 4 million Italiansemigrated to the United States half ofthem between 1900 and 1910 alone which was known as the 2nd great immigration stream. Themajority of Italians were fleeing rural poverty in Southern Italy and Sicily. Sicilian Immigrants such asmy Great grandparents Giuseppe and Margherita Di Mauro came through the UnitedStates during this time with their families.
They came through Ellis Islandwith the hopes and dreams of a better life. As they left their homeland along with theirpassport, Italian immigrants head to America were given this passage.”WhatIt Means To Be Italian …The immigrant should never abandon his feeling of thevalue of being Italian… Keep alive , at all times, the use of your mothertongue and the practice of your own institutions; bring up your children in a lovefor your fatherland and teach them the language, history and geography ofItaly. And evenif youassume the nationality of the country in which you settled, never deny andnever forget the subline moral inheritance of your ancestors and transmit toyour descendants the sacred flame of love of the distant fatherland. Thus willyou ever remain a true son of that world-extensive and strong Italy. LongLive Italy, Forever.” (Radin) These immigrants receivedthis excerpt along with their passports to serve as a reminder that “spaceand time placed no limit on their loyalty to the homeland.” (Rudin) My Family members came to UnitedStates in the late 1880’s and settled in New York and as they began to work andprogress forward many family members from Sicily joined them.
My Great Uncle Joe met his wife and decided to travel and live inCalifornia. Joe was my great Grandfather’s older sibling. He decided to live onthe coast and worked on the bay in San Francisco as a fisherman. At thestart of the war, Italian-Americans represented this nation’s largest group offoreign-born residents. There were five million of them, and all but the600,000 had become citizens. My great grandparents like manywere not naturalized before World War II.
The EO 9066 was the catalyst why my greatgrandfather Giuseppe naturalized in 1944 so that he would never have to endurethe humiliation and future injustices that had occurred. In 1941 only, forty two and a halfpercent of all the Italianimmigrants living in the United States had not gotten their US citizenships. In California, more than halfremained not naturalized. At thestart of the war, Italian-Americans represented this nation’s largest group offoreign-born residents. There were five million of them, and all but the600,000 had become citizens.
Curfews and confiscations were imposed on membersof this group within hours after Pearl Harbor, even before war was declared onItaly. Noted historian Stephen Fox exclaimed that in the early months of the war,Lieutenant General John L. De Witt, a general of the Fourth Army and WesternDefense Command in San Francisco, included all “enemy aliens” –Italians and Germans, along with the Japanese. After Pearl Harbor and within “Less than twoweeks later, General DeWitt was recommending that all enemy aliens 14 years ofage and older be removed to the interior.” (Fox) DeWitt was very paranoidabout spying by enemy nationals and pushed for the forced relocation of all”enemy aliens.” The Japanese relocation during World War II hasbecome so widely publicized in the media that it has overshadowed the lesser plightof Italian and German immigrants during the War. It has been literally forgotten by history andin many cases denied as untrue.
In an article in the San Francisco Examiner it stated that The UnitedStates was also at war with Hitler and Mussolini, but no Italians or Germanswere sent to concentration camps. Obviously, that was not true as evidenced bypersonal accounts.Enemyaliens were subject to an 8 PM to 6 AM curfew. Many enemy aliens lost theirjobs because due to these curfews and the travel restrictions. Approximately10,000 Italian Americans were evacuated from their homes located in the”restricted zones” along the California coast, including the San Francisco Bayarea and Los Angeles. Evacuees were often given very little notice before theirforced relocation.
Here is a personal account from my Aunt Ida Alagona, MyUncle Joe’s daughter.”Wewere having dinner when the military arrived. They came in and ordered papa andmy brothers Emilio and Giovanni to go with them. I was only 6 but I remember itas if it were yesterday.
My momma was screaming and pleading. She did not speakEnglish. One army pushed momma to the ground. Another to our brand-new radioand shattered it into pieces. The took my father and brothers and told us wehad to leave the coast of the Bay where we were living for years. Years laterwe did not discuss this.
We did not want to relive this, we had to becomeAmerican and we needed to stay silent.” (Alagona)Thereare many other accounts in February of 1942, two agents from the Department ofJustice arrived at the home of Santa Cruz resident Batistina Loero, who wasseventy-eight years old and weighed less than 100 pounds. Batistina did not speak any and they summonedher granddaughter who spoke English to explain to her that she was an an enemyalien who lived in a restricted area. She was in violation of federal law andhad 48 hours to move or face arrest. This woman had two grandsons serving inthe United States navy and had lived in her home for almost 50 years Even before war broke out, the FBIhad compiled lists of immigrants who were considered dangerous.
Among theItalians, there were journalists, language teachers and men active in anItalian veterans group. After Pearl Harbor, about 250 were sent to camps inMontana and elsewhere. They were seen as supporters of Mussolini. Gloria Ricci,a professor emeritus of history at Cal State Northridge, said her stepfather,the editor of the Italian-language La Parola newspaper in Los Angeles, wasarrested and taken to a camp in Missoula, Montana.In New York, the FBI arrested Metropolitan Operastar Ezio Pinza and released him without charging him three months later.
InSan Francisco, legendary baseball great, Joe DiMaggio’s father Giuseppe was restrictedfrom visiting his family restaurant on Fisherman’s Wharf. As an enemy alien, hecould not travel more than five miles without permission. Enforcement wasdifficult and on the East Coast, with its massive Italian population, there wasno forced relocation however in California, the order hit Northern Californiaharder than the Los Angeles area. Rosina Trovato while living in Monterey was told that her son andnephew had died at Pearl Harbor. The next day she was ordered to leave herhome. Then there was the confiscation of fishing boats, fleets all overCalifornia and Eastern ports such as Massachusetts. The government would paytheir owners, a nominal fee if at all.
They destroyed people’s livelihood. Railroadworkers were fired depending on what part of the country you were located. Mygrandfather served in the US Marine Corp. He was the only Italian in hisplatoon. He was treated like dirt. They gave him menial jobs are used slangwhen referring to him.
He was an American born in the United States. He spokeEnglish but he was treated poorly. My great Uncle Joe and his sons were shippedoff on a train with dark windows to a camp in Seattle WA. They stayed there for 18 months. His familycould not visit as they could not afford or were permitted to travel.According to United States Department of Justice many suicideswhich were not taken seriously, they did not take their lives because they weredepressed or lost a loved one this happened because these men and women weredespondent over their shameful status as enemies of their adopted country.
On Columbus Day, October 12, 1942, in a move designed purely togenerate political support, FDR had his Attorney General, Francis Biddle,announce that Italian nationals in the U.S. would no longer be classified as enemiesyet the silence remained.
These events stigmatized awhole population of Italian Americans into silence. Race played an important role in Americanization. TheItalians and Germans had an easier road to Americanization than the Japanese. Thisidentifies the advantage the Italians had over the Japanese at this time inrespect to being perceived as Americanizing. Many sources reportthe use of patriotism as a form of proving loyalty to this country. TheAmericanization was seen mostly through the young members of theItalian-American community. This shift is at once subtle and obvious whenconsidering the naming practices.
Changing a name from a purely ethnic sounding Francesco to frankor Luigi to Louis could be viewed as a sign of cultural assimilation. Frank andAnthony replaced Francesco and Antonio. Thiswas not unique to Italians. “The turn-of-the-century Jewish immigrantsalso employed this process of cultural assimilation through name changing aswell.
As the child’s name was called in class it had become more Americanized whichallowed the child to be less conspicuous and more accepted. Consider theawards that were given to children during this time period for displaying theirAmerican-ness by not speaking their parents’ language.” (Watkins and London) The need to blend and fit in as quickly as possible was amatter of survival. Shame would force a silence that could be hiddenbehind the efforts of Americanization. Hiding in plain sight, the Italianmen and women, mothers and fathers, brothers and sisters, becameAmericans. Being labeled “enemy aliens” by the authorities, the forcedrelocation from their livelihoods as though guilty of committing a crime,curfews, surveillance, the endlessness of stigmatizing elements might be enoughto force the submission of just about anyone; this was not freedom. Silentlysuffering and enduring despite the shame, and silently shedding a culture andembracing another in exchange for hope: these were the outward expressions of Omerta.The term Omerta is one I learned from my mother.
It speaks of thevalue placed on silence. Omerta is an extreme loyalty and solidarity againstthose in power. It is a term connected to the mafia. This Omerta may explainthe suppression of the actions taken against the Italian community in the 1940’sby not reacting. When those in authority are to blame for their personal misfortunesthen the Omerta is employed as a coping mechanism.
These stories were not toldin fact my mother did not find out until 2000 that these events occurred in ourown family. An argument can be made thatthe silence was forced upon the Italians. This argument is true. Italianswere not permitted to read Italian language newspapers or write letters inItalian. This would strictly limit the dissemination of information, bothwithin and without the community.
They even confiscated any forms oftechnology such as cameras and radios. This would limit the storytelling aspectof life. It will be conceded that this forced silence on the Italian communityhad an impact. Silence was forced upon the Italians externally and, itwill be argued, internally as a means of survival. Authority is somethingthat is generally respected and the authority of those in a new land mightproduce enough burden to the need for Omerta from an entire community.
“For decades, Italian immigrant families who lived through WorldWar II in the United States did not want to talk about the curfews,confiscations of fishing boats, forced moves from seacoast towns, policesearches of their homes and internments at Fort Missoula.” (Brooke) This reluctance to talk orOmerta explains why this period of our nation’s history has gone unnoticed. Unfortunately,”the archives are eerily silent about the experiences of Italian aliensduring the four to eight months they were removed from their homes andjobs.” (Brooke)That code of silence gavethose Italian Americans, so long ago, the strength of perseverance. Thepractice of Omerta quickly allowed them to bury this dark chapter in theirlives.
Burying it beyond the reach of their friends and family, thesilence of these events, emerged years later, not by a sudden divulgence, butby exploring the available information. After fifty years of silence, steps have beentaken to bring this unfortunate chapter of American history into the light. TheseCivil liberties violations which were uncovered led to a full investigative reportby the Department of Justice and Congress which was released in 2001 which led to the signing of the WartimeViolation of Italian American Civil Liberties Act into law. The stigma of Shame, a cultural Omerta alongwith the rush to Americanize and assimilate are variables on why the atrocitiesItalian Americans endured during World War II went unnoticed. If Americans regardlessof their ancestry can suppress these atrocities and events it may suggest thathistory can and will repeat itself.
We must learn from this time in history andnot suppress as we live in a post 9-11 world and these civil protections willhelp other enemy aliens in times of war.