Fascinating PBS series explores history of “The Italian Americans”

Thanks to a society largely dominated by pop culture, the view of Italian-Americans among most of their fellow citizens might fall within the realm of The Sopranos or The Godfather, or even Jersey Shore. While elements from each of these can be found in Italian-American society, there are, as with every other group, things that are perhaps less recognized and celebrated. The new two-night PBS series The Italian Americans, following in the footsteps of the network’s similarly themed Latino Americans and The African Americans, looks to give the full history of Italians in America.

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Each hourlong episode in the four-part series covers a span of time leading up to today. The series begins around 1890, when the first wave of Italian immigrants began coming to America. The initial episode introduces the idea of family among Italian-Americans, how important it has remained, and also how it (along with racism from others) helped keep them out of mainstream American culture for a long time. That sort of closed community resulted, to some degree, in the rise of organized crime, with its notable Italian-American figures. Organized crime in reality and in films and books is covered later in the series, but the program is largely a celebration of the more positive elements that Italian-Americans brought to our society. This ranges from the time during World War II when they fought for the United States against their motherland (despite being considered “enemy aliens” here at home), to their substantial contributions to music and other arts, and more.

Contributing to the series are noted Italian-Americans such as actor John Turturro, writer Gay Talese, Rep. Nancy Pelosi, Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia (the first Italian-American on the court) and many others, with actor Stanley Tucci serving as narrator. Even non-celebrity contributors to the program, like historians and average citizens, are Italian-Americans, and they all lend great insight, often told from a personal perspective, to the story. To writer/producer John Maggio, who oversaw the series, we have to say, “Fantastico!”

The Italian Americans airs Feb. 17 and 24 at 9pm ET on PBS (check local listings).

Episodes of The Italian Americans (All Times ET)

“La Famiglia (1890-1910)” — Feb. 17 at 9pm. A brief history of the Italian Risorgimento provides the context for the great flight from the mezzogiorno region. By the late 19th century, Italians begin to put down roots and “Little Italys” spring up in urban areas throughout the U.S. But the first generation, holding onto language and culture, is branded “outsiders” and mistrusted by non-Italians. In New Orleans, this mistrust explodes into violence and 11 Italian Americans are murdered by an armed mob. Meanwhile, in San Francisco, a second-generation Italian American saves his community from disaster while creating one of the greatest financial institutions in America.

“Becoming Americans (1910-1930)” — Feb. 17 at 10pm. At the turn of the 20th century, more than four million Italians immigrate to America. Leonard Covello is forced to give up his “old world” ways and adopt American mores, including changing his name; Arturo Giovannitti, a new immigrant, leads the largest labor strike of 1912, when Italian Americans push for better working conditions and wages. Italian Americans are forced to worship in the basement of churches controlled by the Irish archdiocese; anarchists Sacco and Vanzetti are executed, reinforcing stereotypes that plague Italian Americans today; Prohibition breeds a new kind of criminal who takes a shortcut to success.

“Loyal Americans (1930-1945)” — Feb. 24 at 9pm. The second generation of Italian-Americans enters the labor movement, politics, sports and entertainment. Fiorello LaGuardia becomes mayor of New York City. Joe DiMaggio, the son of a San Francisco fisherman, becomes a baseball powerhouse and an American hero. But with the outbreak of World War II, loyalty to America is questioned and those of Italian descent are forced to choose between two nations at war.

“The American Dream (1945-Present)” — Feb. 24 at 10pm. This episode considers whether the specter of organized crime may always plague Italian-Americans, despite assimilation. Gov. Mario Cuomo, son of Italian immigrants, struggles to straddle both worlds, while his sons’ success promises assimilation and acceptance. Antonin Scalia becomes the first Italian-American appointed to the U.S. Supreme Court, and Congresswoman Nancy Pelosi is the first woman and Italian-American elected Speaker of the House.

6 Comments

  1. will you be repeating the Italian Americans anytime again this year 2015? thanks I saw the first one and missed the second one. it was wonderful.

  2. A fantastic start of the hidden history of Italians in America. Loved the show as did everyone I know, but we need more of this series to continue. The scholars you tapped have so much more to share and the historians who wrote about Italians have a huge body of work now to draw from. Please continue this!

  3. I know so little about my Sicilian family. A second generation American, my grandfather died before I was born leaving behind his family and their business. My father, the only son out of 4 surviving children, only allowed English to be spoken. We were Americans. Now so many of the family are separated and the past is lost. There is such an air of secrecy. Like many others I dream of finding our village and putting the pieces together.

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