They became Italian in America. Like Ira Berlin who famously wrote about African Americans in the United States, Sebastian Fichera argues that the American context defined Italian identity. He focuses on San Francisco from the Gold Rush of 1849 through the twentieth century, but also pays as much attention to events in Italy to show the process of migration and community building in this famous and significant Western city.
Fichera’s book is full of rich details about the Italian immigrant experience. It is here that he makes his most valuable contribution to the field of immigration and Italian studies. He paints a vivid portrait of Italian immigrants in San Francisco who may not have succeeded as miners in the mid-nineteenth century, but did well in the city as businessmen and entrepreneurs, taking full advantage of new opportunities on the West Coast. We do not learn much about Italians who failed here, however. The view is overwhelmingly positive. Although Italians’ business success may well have been true, as Fichera demonstrates through extensive family histories, it was not just because Italians were especially hard-working or inventive. It was also because Italians (particularly, Southern Italians) who had been ostracized in Eastern urban areas and in Midwestern cities such as Chicago, benefited from the presence of Asians (including Filipinos) and Mexicans. These racialized groups were present in great enough numbers in California to allow Italians and any other European immigrant community a measure of social, economic, and political equality denied them elsewhere in the United States. In California and San Francisco Italians were allowed entrée into most labor unions and accepted fully as white, long before that happened further east.
Fichera details how Italians self-consciously built community from the bottom up in San Francisco’s North Beach in contrast to the top down approach to statehood occurring in the sending country of Italy. «It was after all by means of an immigrant community that the first steps toward mainstream America were bound to take place» (p. 29). His chapter on the development of North Beach as the center of San Francisco’s Italian community includes an analysis of property ownership and business growth, but also cultural and social developments that defined community life. He argues that Italian club life and social work served as a «bridge across the divide between immigrant and host society» (p. 113) and led towards an increasing measure of assimilation into the American city even as community building remained integral. Fichera focuses on individuals to make his case and tell the story of community from the bottom up. For example, Ettore Patrizi, who edited the popular Italian language newspaper L’Italia, is credited with «helping weave all these different strands of civic life together into a single community» (p. 117). The author includes stories about music and opera to fill out the richness of Italian life in San Francisco, always through the narrative histories of individuals and families. He devotes an entire chapter to Italian wine-making as the signature contribution of this immigrant group.
However, there was no «host» community in San Francisco that was in any way a homogenous American one. San Francisco politics and society was an amalgam of interest groups and ethnicities. Like all of California, San Francisco was in essence multi-racial and multi-cultural with often violent conflicts and clashes between groups. Sometimes described as an «instant city», San Francisco and urban California generally suffered for the lack of any established social order. The society that Fichera juxtaposes against the evolving Italian one simply did not exist. There is mention of the Irish, but little attention to other immigrant groups, no mention of blacks, Japanese, or much analysis of the Chinese community in the multiracial mix of San Francisco.
Fichera explores crime and the role of the mafia in Italian life in San Francisco (although he minimizes its importance). He acknowledges Italians’ support of Mussolini, but considers it somewhat lukewarm and naïve rather than as vigorous as it actually might have been. Instead of showing the complexity of multiple allegiances, he documents leaders who were targeted unfairly by a biased American government for their political activism during the pre-World War II years.
As scholarship, the book suffers from a lack of real inquiry about the Italian experience in San Francisco that might show the extent to which Italians benefited from the racism and marginalization of other groups, and the role Italians played in that discrimination. Fichera might have done much more to outline the complexity of the migration experiences of Italians, marginalized elsewhere but accepted readily as whites and Americans in an environment that was radical politically, mired in labor activism and social unrest, and culturally and racially mixed. There is no comparative analysis between other cities in California such as Los Angeles and Oakland. The larger political, social, and economic context of California is missing too.
It is the rich detail of family and individual stories that makes San Francisco’s Italian community come alive in Fichera’s telling as beautiful, thriving, and above all, successful. «Italy’s loss had become California’s gain» (p. 76) suggests Fichera in a somewhat breathless assessment of the experience of families such as the De Domenicos, the Fugazis, the Gianninis, the Fontanas, and in the experience of Italians in San Francisco generally. Italian Americans are going to love this book for that reason.
Carol Lynn McKibben (Stanford University)