At last night’s Sweetser Lecture

“The Boston Italian story,” author Stephen Puleo told his Wakefield audience last night, “is a true American success story. It’s a story that, if you are of Italian American heritage, you should be incredibly proud of.”

Puleo’s new book, “The Boston Italians: A Story of Pride, Perseverance and Paesani,” is dedicated to his parents. In a touching moment at last night’s Sweetser Lecture, the author’s pride in his heritage shone through as he introduced Rose and Tony Puleo, who were seated in the front row. Puleo noted that his father was celebrating his 82nd birthday.

Stephen Puleo is the author of two previous books, “Due to Enemy Action: the True World War II Story of the USS Eagle 56,” and “Dark Tide: the Great Boston Molasses Flood of 1919.”

His newest book is rooted in the thesis he wrote on Italian immigration while obtaining his master’s degree at UMass Boston.

Puleo said that while Italian immigration started in the last quarter of the nineteenth century, the great bulk of that immigration to the United States and to Boston came in the first decade of the twentieth century. Some 80 percent of those immigrants were from southern Italy and Sicily, Puleo explained, and “most were dirt poor and illiterate, even in their own language.”

Puleo talked about the hardships and obstacles facing Italian immigrants in a new country where the entire way of life was completely foreign to them.

“Somehow they are expected to step off the boat and make do” in this radically different culture, Puleo said. “What’s absolutely remarkable,” Puleo noted, “is that they do make do, and they strive and they overcome these challenges and they thrive.”

Puleo pointed out that in little more than a century, just a couple of generations removed from those humblest of beginnings, Italian Americans now exceed the national average in college graduates, in medical and law school students, as well as in income and business executive positions.

“We owe that to those first folks who arrived here with nothing,” Puleo insisted. “I call them the original Greatest Generation.”

Puleo explained that it is important to understand why these immigrants, many of whom had never traveled beyond their hometowns in Italy, came to the United States.

A convergence of factors had come together in southern Italy in this period, Puleo pointed out, that made life there almost intolerable. Malaria outbreaks, volcano eruptions, earthquakes, excessive taxes imposed on the south by Rome, and a cash poor economy made Italians question what kind of lives they and their children could expect if they stayed.

After making the heart-wrenching and courageous decision to leave behind their villages and everything they knew, Puleo noted, the immigrants who arrived in Boston’s North End and other city neighborhoods tended to settle according to the regions and the towns that they came from.

Staying with their own had the advantage of easing the transition from the southern Italian countryside to a completely alien way of life in the American cities, Puleo explained. At the same time, it tended to delay assimilation into American culture.

Puleo noted that Italians faced some of the worst discrimination encountered by any immigrant group in the United States, but were able to make great strides during the toughest periods of American history, such as the Great Depression. Puleo said that his own maternal grandfather came to Boston in 1921 and moved to Everett in 1935 where he opened and operated a well-known cobbler shop.

After World War II, Puleo explained, Italian Americans began moving from the city to Boston’s suburbs in greater numbers. But the North End remained a strong center of Italian-American life in the Boston area through the 1960s, and to a lesser degree still has that pull even today, according to Puleo.

Puleo concluded by talking about the importance of countering a more recent form of ethnic stereotyping, where Italian Americans as a group are painted as silk suit-wearing mob types and criminals. This linkage remains all too pervasive, in Puleo’s view.

Puleo traces the stereotype back to the “Godfather” movies. Puleo insists that it’s okay to love great movies like “The Godfather” and to enjoy TV programs like “The Sopranos,” as long as it’s understood that these characters exist only on the periphery of the Italian-American story.

“The main part of the story,” Puleo stressed, is what Italian Americans did “to build lives, to purchase homes, to raise families and to pull themselves up quite literally from nothing.”

Puleo said that the best way to pay tribute to the original immigrants is to summon their character, their wisdom and their example to guide and inspire our own lives.

“I can’t think of a better way to repay them for the gifts they have given us,” Puleo said, “and I can’t think of a better way to continue the Italian-American success story.”

[This story originally appeared in the May 8, 2007 Wakefield Daily Item.]


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