n Italy, immigration is usually seen as a disruptive force. Immigrants are often portrayed as thieves, murderers, and job stealers. Italian media does little to resist these misleading social representations. Biased stereotyping only increases in-country hostility towards foreign nationals, especially those of different ethnicities and race.
Italian media coverage of the North African “immigration emergency” in the Italian island of Lampedusa a year ago was a case in point. During the Arab uprisings, many North Africans fled their countries and sought refuge in Italy’s southern port of Lampedusa. This led former Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi to travel to the island and announce he would take it upon himself to deport extracomunitari and clandestini (Italy’s two favorite descriptions of illegal immigrants) within “48-60 hours.” In a decidedly not funny remark, he also declared that he would nominate Lampedusa for a Nobel Peace Prize for having endured the invasion so well. Pietro Bartolo, a physician responsible for treating immigrants in emergencies, went on the record recommending an urgent evacuation of the immigrants or have the island fave “a significant risk of a health disaster,” a comment that implicitly projected an unflattering view of the desperate refugees.
What many Italians consistently fail to remember is that Italians were once among the planet’s leading immigrants. In his book “L’Orda” (The Horde), Corriere della Sera reporter Gianantonio Stella astutely traces the history of Italian immigration to the United States in the early 1900s, detailing how Italian migrants were seen by Americans as “ignorant and lazy beings” as well as “murdering Mafiosi.”
Richard Gambino’s “The Vendetta” reproduces an early 20th-century illustration from an American newspaper depitcing the Italian quarter of New Orleans as a place where all Italians are part of the Camorra, a branch of the Italian Mafia. Many Italians found these stereotypes unfair and deeply threatening, as well as hurtful and incorrect.
Perhaps the most shocking confirmation of early anti-Italian racism comes from a U.S. Congressional report on Italian immigration released in October 1912. The document described Italian immigrants as “of small stature and dark color, dirty as they avoid water, and foul as they are prone to wearing the same clothes for weeks on end.” It continues: “Our [American] women avoid them [Italian male immigrants] as they are ill-looking savages…” and then derides the U.S. government for providing easy border access to these “criminals.”
Sadly, some Italians say much the same about immigrants now residing in Italy. “Ma noi eravamo diversi,” they reply, when challenged on what seems like hypocrisy (“But we were different.”). They were economic migrants escaping difficult times in Italy who found riches thanks to the American Dream.
But why can’t the same be said for Libyans and Tunisians, who come to Italy for reasons almost identical to those that spurred the 100-year-old Italian flight to the United States? Multiculturalism may have fallen short in Britain — or so some say — but Italy has yet to understand what the word means.
I live in London and the UK immigration situation is complicated to say the least. But compared to Italy, the UK is heaven-and-a-half. University quotas, work schemes, and political representation for ethnic minorities help guarantee immigrant access. Though more can always be done, these policies have a progressive edge.
Italy by contrast has yet to elect its first black political representative. Even Mario Balotelli, an Italian football player born to Ghanaian immigrant parents in Palermo, has admitted enduring racist abuse while playing for the Italian national team. In a football-loving nation such as Italy, this is cause for concern.
So when will Italy begin to accept immigration as a positive force? It might help to make Robert Guest’s book “Borderless Economics” a mandatory read for all Europeans. Guest, the business editor of the Economist magazine, details how immigrant networks create wealth, spread ideas, and foster innovation. Italians need only look to U.S., a nation of immigrants, and still a global superpower, to see Guest’s point. In all likelihood there are more rich Italians in the United States than in Italy.
The point is that we’re all the same. We may travel to different countries in search of new experiences or better fortunes, or stay in our home country because we feel ties with our land and countrymen, but once upon a time we were all migrants. What matters is that we are welcomed and treated equally.
Trust me, I’ll be cheering loudly if Super Mario scores for Italy in the European Championships this summer. He’s one of us, and that’s what counts.