How ‘i lavatori forti’ of the fields and factories

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Italian immigrants and their families have long been regarded, in North America, as a hard-working ethnic group. Brought up hearing stories of ancestral struggles and hardships, Italian immigrants to North America embraced attributes for being fiercely motivated individuals, earning the nickname “i lavatori forti”, or “the hard workers”(Iacovetta, Pre). Regardless, their strong work ethic did not initially transcend into the classroom. Italians put the family and labor first, rather skeptical of what the North American school system would offer their children. Italian immigrants fought against the dominant ways of the school system, fearful of losing their cultural roots by embracing change. Consequently, Italian students were considered one of the lowest performing ethnic groups of the mid-1900s. Generational changes brought radical change to the upbringing of Italian-Americans and their performance in school.

Since social factors are the most important indicator in determining one’s academic achievement, an individual’s background has huge implications on learning in the classroom. With the rise of globalization, a large pool of immigrants has emerged in North America, which has been impacted by the North American way of life. Overtime, first generation Italian immigrants have had unique experiences in the U.S. school system, making huge strides in academia once they embraced aspects of North American culture. Since the early 20th century, their participation and approach to adopting and implementing aspects of American culture has increased. This behavior, apparent when Italians migrated to North America and combated much resentment for their way of life, did not transcend into the classroom initially. Over time, first and second generation Italians adapted to North American customs and cultures and with that, the school system. This transition throughout the mid to late 1900s and into the 20th century drastically increased the achievement of Italians, who originally performed poorly in the classroom. In this paper, I will observe how first and second generation Italian immigrants began to prioritize school over labor, and overall increased student achievement as an ethnic group by examining historical references, scholarly articles, and personal experiences. By doing so, Italians became Americanized and distanced themselves from the family. This paper discerns the changing experiences of first-generation Italian immigrants in New Haven, Toronto, and New York City within the last two centuries and studies the shift in Italian family and student behavior – from opposing the school system to succeeding within it.

The importance of the family

In the onset of immigration to North American, Italians, like many other ethnic groups, strived to keep the unspoken promise of clinging tightly to their culture living in a new country. To Italians, community was everything. They put a large emphasis on the towns they lived in, their “paesi”, where they lived and worked amongst each other and maintained a strong sense of community (Milione 1). As Dr. Vincenzo Milione, who studied the achievement of Italians since their migration to North American in the 1900’s states: “The fact that their role models did not go to work in a shirt and tie was less important to these youngsters than their ability to give their family a better than decent life style [sic] Papa owned a grocery store right on the block. It’ll be his son’s once he retires. The boy can work there, and learn the business…these possibilities and the fact that they were all respectable jobs were reasons enough why they didn’t consider the completion of high school a pressing necessity” (Milione 2). Social media was well played a large role in defining the Italian attitude toward community and school. Descendants of Italian immigrants and immigrants themselves took pride in the representations of characteristics in movies like “The Godfather”, where Italians, who found success outside of academia, were admired for their strong family ties, honor, and respect for the family. Such mentalities contributed to the 1990s a report by the New York City Board of Education depicts Italians as the ethnic group with the third highest dropout rate, where 1 in every 5 dropped out of high school (Milione 3). Italians were third to Hispanics and Blacks in high school dropout rates in 1988. Their attitude towards the family sets the stage for the low student achievement levels of Italian immigrants and their descendants in the school.

It is important to note that it was not solely the fear or stubbornness of Italians which provoked their reactions towards the North American school system. Rather, it was their inherent background that propelled them to negate the importance of schooling. Lassonde explains, “Given the contadino’s limited exposure to schooling in southern Italy, he could only have experienced the demands of the local schools as yet another manifestation of his cultural separateness – as the consequence of ethnic differences the marked off the host culture in which he dwelt as alien and hostile” (Lassonde 60). These Italian immigrants, the parents of soon-to-be Americanized children, could not conceptualize the kind of sacrifices that would be needed to comply with schooling in order for them to still maintain closeness to the family. The length of required years, the adoption of a new language and culture, and the independence and freedom it may bring their children were alive in the heads and hearts of Italians.

The family versus the school: Hardships faced

Stephen Lassonde’s account of schooling and family life of Italian immigrants in the 20th century, Learning to Forget, brings to life the way in which the school and the family often conflicted in values. Lassonde states: “Because schooling grated so against their conception of what children owed their parents, because Italian peasants customarily relied on their children’s earnings to meet expenses, and because schooling in the United States addressed subjects that appeared to usurp the rights of parents to inculcate in their children their own moral principles, they objected strenuously to these laws” (Lassonde 56). This stubborn attitude on the part of Italian families, which coincided with parental fear that the American school system would drastically alter and suppress their inherent culture, was expressed negatively on the part of Italian immigrant achievement levels. Lassonde particularly explores the reactions and experiences of Southern Italian families and students, claiming that they appeared “disinterested” in schooling altogether. Lassonde states: “…because most cared little about their children’s achievement in school, they did not insist on the use of English at home, as was characteristic of other immigrants who placed greater emphasis on schooling as a path to upward mobility” (Lassonde 58). In almost every form, schooling, for many Italian immigrant families, was a direct threat that impeded on the family’s’ ability to personally educate and instill certain values in their respective children.

Another Italian immigrant experience, the study and story of Leonard Covello and his family, represents the way in which the family and the North American school system were on opposite ends. Immigrants of New York, the Covello’s, like many other Italian immigrants, took pride in their name and the culture they brought with them. One evening, Leonard’s parents recognized his teacher had misspelled his last name on a report card. Instead of “Coviello”, the teacher had replaced his last name with “Covello”, because it would be easier to pronounce. What seemed like a trivial change, turned into an explosive argument between father and son. Leonard’s father was perplexed and insulted by the modification of their family name. A famous Italian proverb which Covello quotes in his own studies of his experiences and those of many other Italian immigrant families, best exemplifies the Italian sentiment toward embracing the North American way of life: “He who leaves the old way for the new knows what he leaves but knows not what he will find” (Lassonde 62).  Italian families, like the Covello’s, felt disrespected and attacked when their cultural practices and values were being faltered with.

Eventually, Leonard Covello became a teacher who worked to amend the broken system which had demeaned immigrant children. Shawn Weldon’s historical review on Leonard Covello describes his motivations for aspiring to create cultural plurism within the school system and stressing the importance of immigrant children in the school environment (Weldon 1). Covello’s numerous accomplishments that occurred in his adulthood include implementing a community centered school to integrate Italian and Puerto Rican children, serving as head of the Italian Department at DeWitt Clinton in 1920, teaching at various universities, and establishing a high school.  Identifying the struggle of Italian American children in the classroom, Weldon states that Covello “recognized that Italian American children were confronted by a dilemma in the public schools. They were expected to separate themselves from their native culture and language, including their families and communities, in order to meet the school’s expectations and to achieve academically. Covello sought means to ease the transition of immigrant school children into American life and to aid in their acculturation without separating them from their communities or native culture” (Weldon 1). Leonard Covello’s life serves to exemplify the level of achievements of Italian-American children who experienced first-hand the difficulties of assimilating to North American and schooling.

In Such Hardworking People, Franca Iacovetta writes of the hardships faced from Italian immigration in the mid1960s in Toronto, Canada. Italian children feared for their days in school due to the constant fights that broke out against the Canadian children. These reactions were in response to deep-seated hatred that surfaced because Canadian’s took Italian immigration as an event that rid the Canadians of their jobs (Iacovetta 109). The Italian worker was blamed for the lowered standard and wages in the workplace. On the other hand, Italians were disliked for their attitudes – indifferent to learning English and congregating in large groups together. For both cultural and economic reasons, Canadians maintained strong prejudices against Italians – a factor in the difficulty for Italians and their descendants to integrate.  

Cultural assimilation became a goal of the school system. School systems looked to transform the backward, stubborn children of immigrants, who were oftentimes ostracized for their behavior and attitudes. Referring to the cultural characteristics of Italians that led them to be scorned in Toronto, Iacovetta states, “North Americans made their prejudices clear by depicting Italians as ‘hot blooded’ and ‘culturally backward’ peasants” (Iacovetta 105). Resentment only grew as Italians, in their everyday lives, remained true to their customs and way of life, unwilling, for the larger part, to adapt to the North American way. For most Canadians, who held similar sentiments, schooling appeared to be the solution to rear Italian children to behave like Canadians and slowly distance themselves from the culture and customs they brought with them across the Atlantic.

Choosing sides

When student achievement for Italian immigrants sunk so low that it began to stun many, educators and policy makers concluded that a greater collaboration between the education system and Italian communities was in order. Such programs developed from “The Sons of Italy” organization which launched a nation-wide campaign to represent Italian-Americans in the best light by focusing on their achievements. Similarly, the Calandra Institute’s tutoring program, AMICI was launched. Milione articulates this by urging that this continue to be improved: “There must be mentoring programs that make our students aware of the necessity of advanced degrees and pointing them in those directions that will help them effectively understand the need and advantages of a post graduate degree (Milione 11). Similarly, Covello emphasizes this need for collaboration between family and school in his book The Social Background of the Italo-American School Child. Covello stresses the realities that Italian-American children faced in the classroom, constantly battling between their two cultures, which leads to issues with the school system: “because of the cultural duality of the child, the possibility that he may react violently against either the parental cultural or the American cultural or, what is very likely, against both simultaneously, is overlooked owing to lack of comprehension of, or even disregard of, difficulties of Italian school children in America” (Covello 331). For such children, attempting to be all American or all Italian had its downfalls – schools upset with children who would not conform and parents distraught at children who would not hold on to their Italian values. Eventually, it became clear that acculturation was necessary for Italian-American students to succeed both in and out of the classroom.

Embracing change brings achievement: A conclusion

            In the 1980s, Italian dropout rates peaked, bringing the ethnic group to third for highest dropout rates. Within a decade, significant changes took place, which have continued to occur in bringing student achievement to a high. Milione articulate this shift in stating: “as the parents became better educated, their views regarding where they wanted their children to be in the new millennium changed and with them the shifting of traditional perceptions regarding their children’s future as it pertained to education. Their children realize that it’s only through a solid formal education that they will reap the rewards our system affords those who can compete and create” (Milione 12). While Italians today are still not at the top of their classes, as an ethnic group, they have made significant improvements.

Today, first and second generation immigrant student achievement has soared in comparison to American-born students which puts a remarkable spin on the history of Italian-American students whose ancestors did not initially succeed in the classroom. An NBCLatino study by Sandra Lilley references data that states the inherent differences between immigrant children and their American-born peers which lead them to perform better in the classroom. A sociology professor at Johns Hopkins University, Dr. Hao, who is cited in her article, clarifies the attributes of immigrant children which become the difference makers: “Immigrants who come to the U.S. are self-selective; they overcome difficulties to create a better life, and foreign-born immigrant parents transmit this motivation, values and expectations to their children” (Lilley 1). While the values that Italian immigrants transcended on their children did not initially transcend into the classroom, with time, the essence of working hard to provide for the family, maintain strong relationships, and hold on to cultural values became working hard to succeed in the school system and realize the American Dream. It is these attributes that contributed to the mentality of “i lavatori forti”. When the descendants of these Italian immigrants were able to embrace the values and purpose of the North American school system, Italian student achievement soared. Instead of experiencing the school system as a waste of time that would pull children away from obligations of the family, over time, Italians were able to see the importance of schooling, and with that the opportunities it would give rise to. They were more than barbershop owners, bakery men, and housewives. They too, could aspire to more than their parents, grandparents, and extended family members had ever been.

This story of Italian achievement resembles the condition and circumstance in which I was brought up in. Born and raised in a purely Italian home, where my closest relatives, aside from my intermediate family, were an eight hour plan ride away, my expectations to maintain my Italian culture alive were high. The summers I spent in Italy with aunts, uncles, grandparents, and older cousins were spent explaining my experiences in the U.S. school system: long days spent studying, weekends prepping for exams and standardized tests, retreats, internships, programs to prepare me for college, college tours in excess. My grandparents especially, were never quite able to understand why I devoted so much time to things they had never worried about or come to know as routine as I had. “Do you help your mother clean the house?” “Are you learning how to be a good Italian woman?” These were the questions I was being asked, and my drawn-out answers about being too busy with school resulted in skeptical and unforgiving facial expressions. The stakes for me were high. Unlike the way it was for my parents, I would not be joining them in the workforce once I was of age. Unlike them, I would not be the child of parents who owned a restaurant. I valued the long hours I spent educating myself, but it was giving me a mentality much different from that of my family members back in Italy. Because they could not quite grasp the purpose of it, they have ultimately been unable to see the value in my education, regardless of all of the opportunities it has given me and the achievements I have made within it.

Ultimately, Italian student achievement was able to grow once Italian families embraced the systemic unit of the school as one that would bring prosperity and success to their children and further descendants. When the North American school system became a source of affluence and upward mobility, it was given more attention and care; this led students themselves to recognize its importance and to strive to achieve greater than they ever had before.


 Works Cited:

Covello, Leonard, and Francesco Cordasco. The Social Background of the Italo-American School Child. A Study of the Southern Italian Family Mores and Their Effect on the School Situation in Italy and America. Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1967. Print.

Iacovetta, Franca. Such Hardworking People: Immigrants in Postwar Toronto. Montreal: McGill-Queen’s UP, 1992. Print.

Milione, Vincenzo. Italian American Youth and Educational Achievement levels: How are we doing? New York.

Lilley, Sandra. “Study: First Generation Immigrant Children Do Better in School than US-born kids.” NBC Latino. N.p., n.d. Web. 03 Apr. 2014.

 Lassonde, Stephen. Learning to Forget: Schooling and Family Life in New Haven’s Working Class, 1870-1940. 2005. Yale University Press. Print.

 Weldon, Shawn. Leonard Covello 1907-1974. 1982


One thought on “How ‘i lavatori forti’ of the fields and factories”

  1. This essay raises a provocative question about how first and second generation Italian immigrants shifted their stance on employment versus schooling over time, and argues that as priorities changed, this ethnic group distanced themselves from family and increased student achievement.

    The body of the essay offers clear evidence of conflict and tension between Italian immigrant families and American schooling that surrounded their second-generation offspring. Good use of Lassonde, Covello, and Iacovetta sources in the middle sections. But the “importance of family” section was not as persuasive because it presented evidence from the 1900s next to the 1990s without noting that nearly a century had passed by, or clarifying that the generations of immigrants and their contexts may be very different across time.

    Also, the penultimate section on “Embracing change brings achievement” also left unanswered questions. You report that “Italian dropout rates peaked” in NYC in the 1980s (which surprised me since overall student dropout rates were higher one or two generations earlier before high school completion became more common). Furthermore, the essay asserts that “within a decade, significant changes took place . . . in bringing student achievement to a high,” (though the essay does not show any evidence of this). One factor may be that early 20th-century urban schools closely tracked “Italian” versus other ethnic groups, who a generation or two later may have become identified as “white” students (without ethnic tracking). If so, that would mean that Italian immigrant data would not be comparable over time, but perhaps could support your larger point of assimilation.

    Overall, you have clearly immersed yourself in a rich literature and are asking deep questions that have a personal meaning for you and your own family. I encourage you to explore this topic further in future coursework or personal exploration, and to share this essay with others who share these interests.

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