After 1942. This order authorized the Secretary of War

After the bombing of Pearl Harbor, President
Franklin D. Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066 on
February 19, 1942.  This order authorized the Secretary of War to prescribe certain areas as
military zones, making way for the incarceration of Japanese
Americans, German Americans and Italian Americans to concentration camps
located within the United States.
These Internment Camps during
World War II were a blight on US history. Many know the stories of how the
Japanese were treated here in the United States during World War II. In fact
President Bill Clinton passed the Civil Liberties act in 1988 and issued a
public apology to the Japanese Americans and compensated the victims and their
families.  It has long been an historical misconception that
Executive Order 9066 applied only to Japanese and Japanese-Americans living in
the western states. This was not true well at least not at first. Why was the story of the Italian Americans
lost and not as relevant as the Japanese. In high school I read about the
Japanese and what happened to their civil liberties during WWII but not one
mention of what the Italian “enemy aliens” had to endure in any history book. In
order to not repeat history we must acknowledge and learn from our past. It was
as though the Italians were shamed to keep quiet.  The stigma of Shame, a cultural Omerta along
with the rush to Americanize and assimilate are variables on why the atrocities
Italian Americans endured during World War II went unnoticed.

 

            Italian Americans
along with the German and Japanese Americans came to this country in droves to
escape poverty many with dreams of a better life for their families. According
to the United States Census between 1880 and 1950 about  4 million Italians
emigrated to the United States half of
them between 1900 and 1910 alone which was known as the  2nd great immigration stream. The
majority of Italians were fleeing rural poverty in Southern Italy and Sicily. Sicilian Immigrants such as
my Great grandparents Giuseppe and Margherita Di Mauro came through the United
States during this time with their families. They came through Ellis Island
with the hopes and dreams of a better life.  As they left their homeland along with their
passport, Italian immigrants head to America were given this passage.

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“What
It Means To Be Italian …The immigrant should never abandon his feeling of the
value of being Italian… Keep alive , at all times, the use of your mother
tongue and the practice of your own institutions; bring up your children in a love
for your fatherland and teach them the language, history and geography of
Italy. And even
if you
assume the nationality of the country in which you settled, never deny and
never forget the subline moral inheritance of your ancestors and transmit to
your descendants the sacred flame of love of the distant fatherland. Thus will
you ever remain a true son of that world-extensive and strong Italy. Long
Live Italy, Forever.” (Radin)

 

These immigrants received
this excerpt along with their passports to serve as a reminder that “space
and time placed no limit on their loyalty to the homeland.” (Rudin)

My Family members came to United
States in the late 1880’s and settled in New York and as they began to work and
progress forward many family members from Sicily joined them. My Great Uncle Joe met his wife and decided to travel and live in
California. Joe was my great Grandfather’s older sibling. He decided to live on
the coast and worked on the bay in San Francisco as a fisherman. At the
start of the war, Italian-Americans represented this nation’s largest group of
foreign-born residents. There were five million of them, and all but the
600,000 had become citizens. My  great grandparents like many
were not naturalized before World War II. The EO 9066 was the catalyst why my great
grandfather Giuseppe naturalized in 1944 so that he would never have to endure
the humiliation and future injustices that had occurred.  In 1941 only, forty two and a half
percent of all the Italian
immigrants living in the United States had not gotten their US citizenships. In California, more than half
remained not naturalized.

 At the
start of the war, Italian-Americans represented this nation’s largest group of
foreign-born residents. There were five million of them, and all but the
600,000 had become citizens. Curfews and confiscations were imposed on members
of this group within hours after Pearl Harbor, even before war was declared on
Italy.  Noted historian Stephen Fox exclaimed that in the early months of the war,
Lieutenant General John L. De Witt, a general of the Fourth Army and Western
Defense Command in San Francisco, included all “enemy aliens” —
Italians and Germans, along with the Japanese.  After Pearl Harbor and within “Less than two
weeks later, General DeWitt was recommending that all enemy aliens 14 years of
age and older be removed to the interior.” (Fox)

 DeWitt was very paranoid
about spying by enemy nationals and pushed for the forced relocation of all
“enemy aliens.” The Japanese relocation during World War II has
become so widely publicized in the media that it has overshadowed the lesser plight
of Italian and German immigrants during the War.  It has been literally forgotten by history and
in many cases denied as untrue. In an article in the San Francisco Examiner it stated that The United
States was also at war with Hitler and Mussolini, but no Italians or Germans
were sent to concentration camps. Obviously, that was not true as evidenced by
personal accounts.

Enemy
aliens were subject to an 8 PM to 6 AM curfew. Many enemy aliens lost their
jobs because due to these curfews and the travel restrictions. Approximately
10,000 Italian Americans were evacuated from their homes located in the
“restricted zones” along the California coast, including the San Francisco Bay
area and Los Angeles. Evacuees were often given very little notice before their
forced relocation. Here is a personal account from my Aunt Ida Alagona, My
Uncle Joe’s daughter.

“We
were having dinner when the military arrived. They came in and ordered papa and
my brothers Emilio and Giovanni to go with them. I was only 6 but I remember it
as if it were yesterday. My momma was screaming and pleading. She did not speak
English. One army pushed momma to the ground. Another to our brand-new radio
and shattered it into pieces. The took my father and brothers and told us we
had to leave the coast of the Bay where we were living for years. Years later
we did not discuss this. We did not want to relive this, we had to become
American and we needed to stay silent.” (Alagona)

There
are many other accounts in February of 1942, two agents from the Department of
Justice arrived at the home of Santa Cruz resident Batistina Loero, who was
seventy-eight years old and weighed less than 100 pounds.  Batistina did not speak any and they summoned
her granddaughter who spoke English to explain to her that she was an an enemy
alien who lived in a restricted area. She was in violation of federal law and
had 48 hours to move or face arrest. This woman had two grandsons serving in
the United States navy and had lived in her home for almost 50 years

Even before war broke out, the FBI
had compiled lists of immigrants who were considered dangerous. Among the
Italians, there were journalists, language teachers and men active in an
Italian veterans group. After Pearl Harbor, about 250 were sent to camps in
Montana and elsewhere. They were seen as supporters of Mussolini. Gloria Ricci,
a professor emeritus of history at Cal State Northridge, said her stepfather,
the editor of the Italian-language La Parola newspaper in Los Angeles, was
arrested and taken to a camp in Missoula, Montana.

In New York, the FBI arrested Metropolitan Opera
star Ezio Pinza and released him without charging him three months later. In
San Francisco, legendary baseball great, Joe DiMaggio’s father Giuseppe was restricted
from visiting his family restaurant on Fisherman’s Wharf. As an enemy alien, he
could not travel more than five miles without permission. Enforcement was
difficult and on the East Coast, with its massive Italian population, there was
no forced relocation however in California, the order hit Northern California
harder than the Los Angeles area. Rosina Trovato while living in Monterey was told that her son and
nephew had died at Pearl Harbor. The next day she was ordered to leave her
home. Then there was the confiscation of fishing boats, fleets all over
California and Eastern ports such as Massachusetts. The government would pay
their owners, a nominal fee if at all. They destroyed people’s livelihood. Railroad
workers were fired depending on what part of the country you were located. My
grandfather served in the US Marine Corp. He was the only Italian in his
platoon. He was treated like dirt. They gave him menial jobs are used slang
when referring to him. He was an American born in the United States. He spoke
English but he was treated poorly. My great Uncle Joe and his sons were shipped
off on a train with dark windows to a camp in Seattle WA.  They stayed there for 18 months. His family
could not visit as they could not afford or were permitted to travel.

According to United States Department of Justice many suicides
which were not taken seriously, they did not take their lives because they were
depressed or lost a loved one this happened because these men and women were
despondent over their shameful status as enemies of their adopted country.  On Columbus Day, October 12, 1942, in a move designed purely to
generate political support, FDR had his Attorney General, Francis Biddle,
announce that Italian nationals in the U.S. would no longer be classified as enemies
yet the silence remained.  These events stigmatized a
whole population of Italian Americans into silence.

Race played an important role in Americanization.  The
Italians and Germans had an easier road to Americanization than the Japanese. This
identifies the advantage the Italians had over the Japanese at this time in
respect to being perceived as Americanizing.  Many sources report
the use of patriotism as a form of proving loyalty to this country. The
Americanization was seen mostly through the young members of the
Italian-American community.  This shift is at once subtle and obvious when
considering the naming practices.

Changing a name from a purely ethnic sounding Francesco to frank
or Luigi to Louis could be viewed as a sign of cultural assimilation. Frank and
Anthony replaced Francesco and Antonio. This
was not unique to Italians. 

“The turn-of-the-century Jewish immigrants
also employed this process of cultural assimilation through name changing as
well. As the child’s name was called in class it had become more Americanized which
allowed the child to be less conspicuous and more accepted.  Consider the
awards that were given to children during this time period for displaying their
American-ness by not speaking their parents’ language.” (Watkins and London)

 The need to blend and fit in as quickly as possible was a
matter of survival.  Shame would force a silence that could be hidden
behind the efforts of Americanization.  Hiding in plain sight, the Italian
men and women, mothers and fathers, brothers and sisters, became
Americans.  Being labeled “enemy aliens” by the authorities, the forced
relocation from their livelihoods as though guilty of committing a crime,
curfews, surveillance, the endlessness of stigmatizing elements might be enough
to force the submission of just about anyone; this was not freedom. Silently
suffering and enduring despite the shame, and silently shedding a culture and
embracing another in exchange for hope: these were the outward expressions of Omerta.

The term Omerta is one I learned from my mother. It speaks of the
value placed on silence. Omerta is an extreme loyalty and solidarity against
those in power. It is a term connected to the mafia. This Omerta may explain
the suppression of the actions taken against the Italian community in the 1940’s
by not reacting. When those in authority are to blame for their personal misfortunes
then the Omerta is employed as a coping mechanism. These stories were not told
in fact my mother did not find out until 2000 that these events occurred in our
own family.

An argument can be made that
the silence was forced upon the Italians.  This argument is true. Italians
were not permitted to read Italian language newspapers or write letters in
Italian.  This would strictly limit the dissemination of information, both
within and without the community.  They even confiscated any forms of
technology such as cameras and radios. This would limit the storytelling aspect
of life.  It will be conceded that this forced silence on the Italian community
had an impact.  Silence was forced upon the Italians externally and, it
will be argued, internally as a means of survival.  Authority is something
that is generally respected and the authority of those in a new land might
produce enough burden to the need for Omerta from an entire community.

“For decades, Italian immigrant families who lived through World
War II in the United States did not want to talk about the curfews,
confiscations of fishing boats, forced moves from seacoast towns, police
searches of their homes and internments at Fort Missoula.” (Brooke)

 

This reluctance to talk or
Omerta explains why this period of our nation’s history has gone unnoticed. Unfortunately,
“the archives are eerily silent about the experiences of Italian aliens
during the four to eight months they were removed from their homes and
jobs.” (Brooke)

That code of silence gave
those Italian Americans, so long ago, the strength of perseverance. The
practice of Omerta quickly allowed them to bury this dark chapter in their
lives.  Burying it beyond the reach of their friends and family, the
silence of these events, emerged years later, not by a sudden divulgence, but
by exploring the available information.  After fifty years of silence, steps have been
taken to bring this unfortunate chapter of American history into the light.

These
Civil liberties violations which were uncovered led to a full investigative report
by the Department of Justice and Congress which was released in 2001 which led to the signing of the Wartime
Violation of Italian American Civil Liberties Act into law. The stigma of Shame, a cultural Omerta along
with the rush to Americanize and assimilate are variables on why the atrocities
Italian Americans endured during World War II went unnoticed. If Americans regardless
of their ancestry can suppress these atrocities and events it may suggest that
history can and will repeat itself. We must learn from this time in history and
not suppress as we live in a post 9-11 world and these civil protections will
help other enemy aliens in times of war.