Italian and Latino Immigrants Across the 20th and 21st Century in New Haven, Connecticut

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New Haven, Connecticut is a city that proudly parades its long relationship with Italian immigration and culture. The influence of the Italian immigrants is still visible in the form of Italian flags, markets, and restaurants scattered throughout the city. Old neighborhoods such as Wooster Square, once a concentrated neighborhood of Italian-American immigrants, now welcomes tourists and visitors to indulge in a tourist friendly version of the area’s charm and ambiance. These remnants of Italian influence are the result of a major wave of European migrants into New Haven during the first half of the 20th century. The charm of neighborhoods like Wooster Square seems to overshadow the reality and the struggles that generations of Italian-american immigrants in the past faced for decades in the 20th century. New Haven today is still a very diverse city with a population that is roughly 68.2% non-white, and 15.8% foreign born with the prevailing immigrant and ethnic group being composed of Hispanic/Latinos.1 For many of the earliest generations of Italian-American immigrants, a major frontline where they experienced American society was in public schools, and the experiences of early 20th century Italian-American immigrants may offer us some insight into what shaped the present day climate in schools across New Haven, and subsequently how Latin-Americans experience schooling in New Haven today. For the purpose of this paper I will ask and seek an answer to the question: How did schooling, language, and opportunity affect the experiences of Italian youth in the early 20th century and how does this compare to the experiences of Latinos today in New Haven, Connecticut?

The experiences of Italian-Americans are significant to understanding the changes that New Haven has made in its policies and responses to its Immigrant populations, particularly Latin American immigrants. Both Italians and Latin-Americans migrated to New Haven in major waves and created systemic changes to the city’s schools and population. As of 2012, New Haven recorded a hispanic/latino population comprising 26% of the total population, also representing 40% of New Haven’s school population.2 In the early 20th century, Italians also represented 25% of the overall population and 41% of school populations.

Although both groups have their differences, culturally and ethnically, both are proportionately composed of non-english speaking, roman-catholic individuals who were/are darker-complexed than their caucasian and northern european peers.3 Both groups migrated to the United States in search of economic and social stability, but education was either an obstacle or a means of social and economic mobility and their experiences were typically dependent on how New Haven approached non-english speaking or bilingual students, and also the opportunities that it presented to these immigrant populations.

In this research paper, I will delve deeper into the most relevant issues which affected the experiences of Italians and Latinos in New Haven. How the city has changed its educational approaches towards english-language learners and immigrant students has changed vastly since the arrival of Italian immigrants, and the rates at which they achieve social and economic prosperity. On one hand, Italians of the 20th century experienced varying social and political pressures that undermined their cultural and familial roles, a lack of educational opportunities, and poor attitudes and approaches towards non-english speakers, making school and education an obstacle. On the other hand, Latin-americans of today would have a different experience than Italians in the 20th century, as New Haven has made reforms to increase opportunity and positive reception of these students, coupled with the immigrants’ own higher-expectations and reverence for education than that of the Italians.

Stephen Lassonde’s historical interpretation of Italian-immigrant experiences described in his book Learning to Forget: Schooling and Family Life in New Haven’s Working Class was my inspiration and the backbone of my research on Italian immigrant students. While there is significant literature and research on the broader topic of Italian-Americans, Learning to Forget is a rare piece which gives a direct scope into New Haven’s Italian diaspora between 1870 and 19404 and also interprets how New Haven’s Italians experienced society, labor, family, and most importantly-schooling. Today, Latinos have a significant influence on New Haven, as they are the prevailing immigrant group. The Community Foundation for Greater New Haven is an organization which is heavily involved in the New Haven community, especially in marginalized poor and immigrant communities. Their mission is defined as: “To create positive and sustainable change in Connecticut’s Greater New Haven region by increasing the amount of and enhancing the impact of community philanthropy.” This organization has published many data-heavy reports on New Haven’s demographics. For this research I will be using their 2015 report Understanding the Impact of Immigration on Greater New Haven as it offers 20+ pages of data specific to the impact and experiences of New Haven’s many immigrant groups.

Part I: Italian-Americans in New Haven, Connecticut

During the peak of migration years (1900-1930), Italian-Americans arriving in New Haven would be experiencing not just an foreign society, but a society which was also rapidly changing in its response to immigrants. Between 1870 and 1911, Connecticut was passing a series of compulsory education laws which would put rigid restrictions on attendance, and child labor. The passing of these laws may have seemed like a benevolent effort on behalf of educational reformers at the time, but that these laws undermined many values and expectations of Italian parents, and put more emphasis on assimilation than inclusion for the Italian students. At the time, Italian parents were skeptical and resentful of the system. Many of these family’s had traveled from southern Italy or Sicily5, and were typically unskilled to low-skilled laborers who expected children to contribute economically to the family, thus making the education system and compulsory laws as an obstacle rather than an institution for social mobility. However, some of the resent of these Italian parents may have been justified as many times schools were “educating” these students less than they were “dealing” with them.

Isolation or segregation was common in many cities at the time. While New Haven took a less vocal approach, other cities, such as Boston even “actively discouraged poor and immigrant children from attending school by expressing openly their contempt for them and consigning children to the city’s most inferior facilities” (Lassonde, p. 54). Despite efforts to pressure Italian youth into assimilating, they assimilated at what the city considered an extremely slow pace. By the 1920s, southern Italian immigrants had outnumbered the cities more familiar immigrant groups, the Irish and Jews.6 Unlike their Jewish and Irish peers, Italians often did not speak English when they began school and subsequently, Italian students were consistently low-proficient or illiterate. In the early days of IQ testing (WWI era), there was speculation that the inability for Italian students to achieve in education was ultimately due to “racial deficiencies” (Lassonde, 57). Eventually by the 1930s the blame for illiteracy amongst Italian students was shifted from “racial deficiencies” to the slow pace at which Italian students learned English. Several key factors played a role in the reasons for the slow pace at which Italian students learned English: (1) Italians were often concentrated in their own neighborhoods, such as Wooster Square, Forbes Avenue, or Union Avenue7 where Italian was the primary language. ( 2) Italian parents had little education themselves, and valued labor and family life more than self-development and socialization which schools were promoting. And finally, (3) There were no English-Language acquisition programs for Italian students. With no incentive or opportunities presented to learn English, Italian students were typically much older than their grade level peers, and only attended schools until no longer legally obligated.8

For Italian students, Language was only one of the obstacles that prevented them from being successful in the classroom. Not only did Italian students struggle with language and literacy, but their parents were also barely literate. Italian students struggled with not just a lack of opportunities, but a lack of incentive. Older generations had been conditioned for years to hold little value for education,9 and their harbored resentments were only amplified by the restrictions schools and lawmakers put on their children. For many years, Italian parents were uninvolved and unconcerned with their children’s educational outcomes. Despite efforts to resist from both parties, inevitably, there came a turning point. Around the depression years, compulsory school attendance laws became more effectively enforced, and subsequently, child and adolescent truancy dropped as more children were staying in school longer (Lassonde, 192). Inevitably, both parents and students began to recognize high school’s opportunity for both social and most importantly, occupational mobility and, according to Lassonde, parents “surrendered their faith in the past for the promise of a more affluent future for their children” (Lassonde, 187). The result was a reversal of roles and compromises. Italian children became more economically dependent on their parents for longer, but parents recognized these changes would ultimately lead to more prosperous and thriving future generations.  By World War II european immigration was tapering off, and after a series of political and social movements, it reached a near-standstill for most of the 20th century. At one point, more than 40,000 ethnically identifying Italian’s resided within New Haven. Today New Haven’s Italian diaspora has a population of less than 3,90010. Italians are blended into New Haven’s community almost seamlessly, and are much less a topic of political discussion than that of tourists who visit the area’s Italian restaurants and markets.

Part II: Latin-American immigrants in New Haven

Today, New Haven’s prevailing immigrant group is Latin-American immigrants, primarily migrating from Mexico, Ecuador, Colombia, and Guatemala.11 While New Haven’s population is overall much larger today than in the early 20th century, Latin-American immigrants and ethnically identifying hispanics represent almost the same portion of the population that Italian’s did-26%. Today, about 1 in 8 New Haven children are immigrants, and 1 in 5 children have at least one foreign-born parent.12 Despite similarity in numbers, Italian students and Latino students are unlikely to have similar experiences in New Haven’s schools due to more recent reforms, changes to curriculum, and more positive attitudes and perceptions of education amongst today’s latino immigrant groups. Instead, the unfortunate experiences and early outcomes of Italian immigrant students offer us reason to support these positive changes, rather than reverse them.

One of the major factors contributing to illiteracy and low-proficiency of Italian students was the slow rate at which they learned English. In reality, most students suffered from having no english-language acquisition programs, and in many of the earlier cases, only went to school to avoid truancy and violation of compulsory attendance laws. While today’s schools are now required to provide English language tutoring programs to aid students as they learn English, New Haven is a city which has expanded beyond simply offering ESL (english as a second language) and ELL (english language learner) courses. In new haven’s schools, more than 60 languages are spoken, and 23% of children identify with a language other than English as their primary language. Spanish is only second to English as the most spoken language amongst students.13 The New Haven school district prioritizes these students by offering tutoring, and language acquisition classes and offer even more specific programs for Spanish-speaking students. The district’s “Newcomer” program groups Spanish-speaking students by grade (K-8) into their own classrooms where language acquisition is a priority (students typically have 10 to 30 months of experience with English). Other and older students partake in ELL or private ESL courses, but some form of language acquisition is mandatory as per Title III, a federal program known as the English Language Acquisition, Language Enhancement, and Academic Achievement Act (a part of No Child Left Behind). Outcomes are positive for students in the program, by about five years, the students are 80% proficient in English, a stark difference from the Italian immigrants of the early 20th century. 14 New haven even boasts a bilingual inter-district magnet school, the John C Daniels School of International Communication, where students participate in curriculums that are taught in English, Spanish, and Mandarin-Chinese. In a report published by the Community foundation for Greater New Haven, the reasoning for concepts such as bilingual programs was “The variety exposes all students to different values and experiences, which prepare them to work in diverse environments and live with tolerance later in life.”15

Unlike the experiences of Italians, the concept of inclusion versus assimilation is stronger in the city’s response to today’s immigrants than it was in the past. Specifically, Latin-American immigrant youth and parents also report more positive feelings towards the system. Like Italians, many latin-american immigrants are low skilled laborers who come to work in manufacturing, or agriculture. Unlike Italians, Latin-Americans of today have more positive perspectives on Education, and are more likely to view it as a means of upward mobility for their next generation. 97% of surveyed children of immigrants in New Haven proclaimed education as “critical” to their future in the U.S.16, reflecting the likelihood of more positive attitudes and less resentment at home towards education. Among its many programs which benefit immigrant students, New Haven also created the New Haven Promise Scholarship Program to help foreign-born students (regardless of immigration status) pay for college. Overall, the city has an increased awareness and many immigrant-friendly organizations. In 2009, the city also launched a district-wide campaign with harsher punishment for under-performing teachers and more funding for community outreach programs. The results of this campaign were significant, as student achievement went up nearly 20 percentage points across the board17.


All in all, Italians and Latinos are comparable groups in both numbers and demographics, but their experiences in New Haven’s public schools vary greatly. In the early years of the 20th century, Italian’s lacked opportunity to learn english, and subsequently succeed in the classroom, leaving many students illiterate or barely proficient until they were old enough to leave school. This form of passive discrimination continued until the expansion of secondary school, and Italian youth and parents finally gave into the reversal of their cultural roles and norms. Had Italians immigrated to New Haven today, they would have experienced a very different climate, one that puts english-language acquisition first so that the student can succeed, and one that encourages and embraces the diverse nature of their public schools through bilingualism, and community involvement.


1 “New Haven City, Connecticut Data” U.S. Census Bureau.  2014  <

2  Page 5, Figure 02:  “Understanding the Impact of Immigration on Greater New Haven”  The Community Foundation For Greater New Haven. 2015.  <>

3 “Hispanic/Catholic Fact Sheet.”  2014  <>

4  Lassonde, Stephen. “Learning to Forget: Schooling and Family Life in New Haven’s Working-class 1870-1940.” Yale University Press. New Haven, CT. 2005.

5  “Immigration:  Italian.”  Library of Congress Online.  <>

6  Preface, 19:  Riccio, Anthony. “The Italian American Experience In New Haven”  SUNY.  2006.

7 Riccio, Anthony. “The Italian American Experience In New Haven”  SUNY.  2006.

8  Pages 57-59:  Lassonde, Stephen. “Learning to Forget: Schooling and Family Life in New Haven’s Working-class 1870-1940.” Yale University Press. New Haven, CT. 2005.

9  Pages 57-59:  Lassonde, Stephen. “Learning to Forget: Schooling and Family Life in New Haven’s Working-class 1870-1940.” Yale University Press. New Haven, CT. 2005.

10 “Understanding the Impact of Immigration on Greater New Haven”  The Community Foundation For Greater New Haven. 2015.  <>

11 “Understanding the Impact of Immigration on Greater New Haven”  The Community Foundation For Greater New Haven. 2015.  <>

12Page 6: “Understanding the Impact of Immigration on Greater New Haven”  The Community Foundation For Greater New Haven. 2015.  <>

13  Zahn, Brian.  “More than 60 Languages Spoken in New Haven Schools.”  the New Haven Register. 9 January, 2016.  <>

14  Zahn, Brian.  “More than 60 Languages Spoken in New Haven Schools.”  the New Haven Register. 9 January, 2016.  <>

15 “Understanding the Impact of Immigration on Greater New Haven”  The Community Foundation For Greater New Haven. 2015.  <>

16  Page 14: “Understanding the Impact of Immigration on Greater New Haven”  The Community Foundation For Greater New Haven. 2015.  <>

17  “New Haven Public Schools”  US Department of Education.  2009.<>

One thought on “Italian and Latino Immigrants Across the 20th and 21st Century in New Haven, Connecticut”

  1. Emma, this essay raises an interesting historical comparison between Italian American and Latin American experiences of schooling, language, and opportunity in New Haven at different points in time. The thesis contains interesting claims, but a stronger essay would have crystalized these ideas more clearly. Based on what you wrote, you seem to be arguing that Italian Americans in the early 20th century tended to view schooling as an obstacle, while Latin Americans in the early 21st century are more likely to define education as opportunity. If this paraphrasing is accurate, then perhaps this essay would benefit from clearer wording about this obstacle-opportunity distinction. In the body of the essay, you persuasively use Lassonde’s book to show how many working-class Italian immigrant families viewed the public school system and compulsory attendance laws with resentment. By contrast, the claim about Latin American positive orientations toward schooling does not have robust support, and relies on this 97 percent survey figure (which you acknowledge as representing all immigrants in New Haven, not just Latinos). Overall, the essay contains rich ideas, but it’s still hard to tell whether the obstacle-opportunity difference is more about the contrasting time periods rather than these specific immigrant group orientations toward schooling.

    One small but important point: in your next writing assignment, be sure to capitalize proper nouns (such as non-English speaking, Roman Catholic individuals from northern Europe). Learn more at

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