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BYU research shows how “Little Italy” got more Italian in America

New research by a BYU historian shows that Italian immigrants in Utah and across America became more “Italian” after leaving their homeland.

Professor Mark Choate’s book, “Emigrant Nation: The Making of Italy Abroad,” now published by Harvard University Press, reveals that Italian immigrants had to overcome regional differences and forge a national identity in America.

“Here in Salt Lake City, they were viewed as Italians and not as Sicilians or Lombards,” Choate said.

Utah’s Italian immigrants will be spotlighted in the KUED documentary “Our Story: Italian-Americans in Utah,” which airs Sunday, June 22, at 3 p.m. In the film, Choate will discuss Italian immigrants on a national level, using material from the main themes of his book.

As a recently united country between 1859 and 1871, the Italian government wanted to help the emigrants create their identity abroad as Italians rather than natives of specific regions. Without a strong national conscience, Italy used tactics of teaching the national Italian language, creating Italian associations such as sport teams and supporting celebrations of Italian holidays.

“The Italian government spent a lot of resources to get people to be part of a larger group, an Italian group that would have more power when it came to things such as negotiating work and keeping their Catholic religion,” Choate said.

Despite the differences that separated these regional Italian immigrant groups, they were all tied together by the Italian tradition of food, in both Utah and the east coast. Immigrants used new food innovations such as dried pasta and canned tomatoes shipped from Italy to maintain their diet habits. As a result, Italian food became one of America’s most popular cuisines.

Food was a tradition that brought Italians together, and also created a new market for the country of Italy and jobs for Italian immigrants.

“These emigrants created a national market for these Italian products,” Choate said. “Their neighbors would see them drinking these Italian wines and eating their authentic Italian cheeses and cuisine and these restaurants would not just serve Italian immigrants but also their neighbors at large.”

John Agnew, a UCLA professor and expert on Italian history and geography, says Choate’s research answers why Italians abroad seem more ‘Italian’ than those at home.

“In this lively and amply documented study, Choate shows that between 1885 and 1915 Italian governments sponsored an emigrant colonialism among Italians worldwide that they hoped would invigorate the making of a ‘global nation’ both at home and abroad,” Agnew said. “This book sheds light on how people leaving home helped reconstitute the identity of those they left behind.”

Choate is an assistant professor of history at Brigham Young University. He received a Ph.D. from Yale University and studies Western European history from the nineteenth century to the present, concentrating on migration, race, Fascism, colonialism, politics and culture.

Writer: Ashley Gessel

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