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The Extraordinary Journey Series
Paesani: The Story of Italian Culture in America
The average Italian immigrant arrived in the United States with $12.67 cents in their pocket. They left everything they owned, and everyone they loved, to create a new life in a new culture in a new country. Such daring defined the both the human condition and the human spirit during this extraordinary era of American history.
Who were the Paesani— these “fellow townspeople”? Where did they come from? Why did they come here? How did they get here? What did they do when they arrived? Their compelling stories are told from an immigrant’s perspective, to create an evocative experiential context for the audience. Nothing in our society today can compare with the risk-filled experience these Italian immigrants encountered. And with the passage of time, their voices and stories are becoming more and more rare.
Of the twenty-three million people who emigrated from foreign countries to live in the United States by the start of World War One, nearly five million were from Italy. 80% of these Italians were peasant famers from the southern provinces below Naples—the Mezzogiorno, “the land that time forgot”. The remainder came from the business and professional classes living in the north near cities such as Genoa and Milan. All sought to escape the consequences created by Italy’s social, political and economic stagnation. All were devoutly Catholic, and intensely campanilista—possessing a passion for their home region and an adherence to its traditions, customs and dialect.
After enduring a comfortless ocean voyage and completing an impersonal processing at Ellis Island, the Italians entered into an American culture predominated by people of western European ancestry. These once-immigrants were devoutly Protestant, and intensely disdainful of anyone who swore loyalty to the Pope, who had darker skin, who was unskilled, and who couldn’t speak English or even read at all. To many Americans, an Italian was a cultural infection of both contagious disease and religious superstition. Such dislike could be measured by America’s annual median income. In 1910, it was $666.00. For Italian Americans, however, it was $396.00.
Despite their inbred provincial prejudices, Italians in America banded into Little Italies, and began the complex and often painful process of Americanization. However, nearly half of the Italians who came to the United States returned to Italy with their savings, the highest rate of return for any ethnic immigrant group.
Those who stayed helped create modern America, profoundly influencing all facets of life here—in business, the sciences, the arts, and perhaps most importantly, in the values that fundamentally define a moral people. It is from these intimate Italian traditions, more than any historical detail, where Italian heritage continues its influence on the American way of life. From trippa to tarantella to Tosca, Italian culture in America reflects humble origins, profound piety and intense ethnic pride.
Paesani blends remarkable first-person recollections of Italian immigration and historical details that charactize these experiences with personal memories of Italian traditions that produced family values which continue to define Italian-American culture.
The film presents an entertaining range of archival imagery to recreate the extraordinary experience of leaving one’s village or town for one of Italy’s port cities, and then embarking on a rugged transatlantic voyage. For many Italians, this was the first time they had ever been beyond the fields they worked, or had seen the sea.
In addition to the slight baggage they brought with them, these Neapolitans, Calabrians, Venetians, and Sicilians also carried the anxiety of arriving through Ellis Island, where they knew not all of them would make it past the relentless gaze of immigration inspectors, medical doctors, or intelligence testers.
Sometimes immigrants were met in America by sponsors—a padrone—who, for a price, could arrange for housing and work. Sometimes already-established family members or neighbors from the same village in Italy served as a sponsor, and ushered the immigrant into a developed ethnic environment, where, as in the old country, family honor remained supreme and the father assumed a god-like authority.
This personal experience is framed within the national context of America’s immigration history through the use of photographs and archival footage from the Ellis Island Museum, the Library of Congress, the National Archives, the Italian American Museum, the Center for Migration Studies and historical societies located in key Italian communities across America.
Insightful commentary on the diverse customs and traditions presented in the documentary is provided by a engaging range of cultural commentators and common Italian-Americans, whose family backgrounds and personal photographs capture the singular experience of being Italian-American. Topics include cooking, courting, church, weddings, funerals, holidays and extend family relationships.
Additionally, WVIA is shooting original b-roll at important Italian-American festivals in the United States and in Italy, such as the Feast of San Gennaro, the Dance of the Giglio, La Festa Dei Ceri, and Columbus Day parades. This footage is shot in a graphic, cinematic style that colorfully composes a contemporary devotion to centuries-old Italian traditions. Evocative Italian folk music underscores many scenes to further imbue the film with a rich ethnic mood.
Older generations have always passed down values, beliefs and traditions to help younger generations identify with their name and their heritage. Yet, many people still don’t know who they are. Paesani celebrates and preserves Italian heritage through a poignant blend of first-person story telling, never-before-seen images and insightful humanist commentary. The film contributes to VIA Studios’ mission to make attractive public television documentary programming, and honors the courageous character our ancestors possessed to create a finer life for us today.