Is the American dream dead? The birth of the Italian dream

June 11, 2024

For many Italian Americans, their family history begins on a ship sailing on the Atlantic Ocean. Between 1880 and 1920, more than four million Italians emigrated indeed to the United States - the majority of them fleeing rural poverty, hardship, exploitation, and violence of Southern Italy. Driven by dreams of economic prosperity and a better life for themselves and their descendants, they left their country behind and traveled to the shores of a brand new world. And what did they bring along? Their rich cultural heritage, a profound love for their family, their resilience, and their hard work, aspects that have profoundly influenced the following generations leaving an indelible mark on American society itself.

Today, however, this narrative is shifting. As socio-economic challenges mount in the United States, a reversal of this historic migration trend is observed: Italian Americans are increasingly drawn to reconnecting with their ancestral homeland. Among the millions of Americans with Italian roots still residing in the United States, many are seeking a deeper connection with their culture and language. In some cases, they are even reclaiming Italian citizenship and relocating to Italy. This growing trend raises a critical question: Is the American dream, once a beacon of hope and opportunity, now a relic of the past?

The Italian American dream

The Italian American experience embodies the pursuit of the American dream—a journey marked by hope, determination, and resilience in the face of adversity. From the shores of Italy to the bustling streets of America's cities, millions of Italian immigrants sought a better life, driven by visions of economic prosperity and opportunity in a new land. Their migration was not merely a physical journey but a leap of faith into the promise of a brighter future, away from the poverty, hardship, and uncertainty that plagued their homeland.

The Italian journey to a new world

Economic hardship, political instability, social unrest. These are just some of the reasons that drove millions of Italians to flee their towns and villages in Italy and seek opportunity and refuge abroad. Departing from ports such as Naples, Genoa, and Palermo, they bid farewell to their homeland, leaving behind the familiar landscapes and their life in pursuit of the elusive American dream. And the decision was not easy. For many indeed, the journey was  bittersweet, marked both by a sense of hope and a deep nostalgia. Yet, driven by a desire for a better life, they embarked into the unknown, forging ahead with determination and resilience.

The voyage itself was dangerous, marked by weeks of confinement aboard overcrowded steamships. Yet, despite the challenges, Italian immigrants clung to the hope of a better future on the distant shores of America. For many, the journey itself was a test of their resolve, a trial that would shape the course of their lives in profound and unexpected ways.

And so, it did. The sight of Ellis Island, of the Statue of Liberty represented a new beginning for Italian immigrants - the sought-after chance to leave behind the hardships of their past and embrace the possibilities of their future in America. And so, Italians dispersed across the nation. From cities to farmlands, they built their new lives in a foreign land. "Little Italies" sprung up, serving as bastions of culture, community, and tradition for newly arrived immigrants which, despite facing the prejudices of their new neighbors, forged ahead with resilience, determination, and a relentless pursuit of the American dream.

Ellis Island, the first thing Italians in search of the American dreamsaw when coming to the US

The formation of the Italian American culture

As Italian immigrants settled into their new environment, they brought with them a rich variety of traditions, customs, and cultural practices. These are the elements that served as the foundation upon which Italian American culture would flourish and evolve over time.

Despite the pressures to assimilate, Italian immigrants were indeed determined to maintain their cultural identity and heritage even in their new homeland. Festivals celebrating saints' feast days, religious processions, and communal gatherings thus became integral aspects of Italian American life, serving not only as a means of preserving cultural heritage but also as a source of connection and solidarity within the community. 

Food, too, became one of the most enduring legacies of Italian American culture. Italian cuisine became synonymous with comfort, hospitality, and celebration, and Italian American eateries proliferated, introducing Americans to the delights of pizza, pasta, and other Italian specialties. Even today, Italian American cuisine remains a beloved and influential aspect of American culinary culture, reflecting the diverse influences and regional variations of Italy.

Italian Americans made significant contributions to American society also in fields ranging from art and music to literature and cinema. Artists like Amedeo Modigliani and Joseph Stella brought the beauty and vibrancy of Italian art to American audiences, while musicians like Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin popularized Italian American music on the world stage. Italian American writers such as Mario Puzo and Don DeLillo explored themes of identity, family, and the immigrant experience in their novels, while filmmakers like Martin Scorsese and Francis Ford Coppola revolutionized American cinema with their iconic films.

A fading dream: reflections on Italian American culture in modern America

The contributions of Italian Americans to the cultural landscape of the United States are undeniable. However, as we reflect on their legacy, we must also confront the reality of the decline of the American dream. Economic inequality, social unrest, and political turmoil threaten to overshadow the vibrant cultural contributions of Italian Americans and challenge the very ideals upon which the American dream was built.

So, as we celebrate the enduring legacy of Italian American culture, we must also acknowledge the complexities of modern American society and the challenges that threaten to erode the dreams and aspirations of generations past. 

Italian Americans in the US today

Today’s Italian Americans are a dynamic and integral part of American society, having established themselves as a significant and influential demographic within the United States. According to data from the US Census Bureau, there are indeed more than 15.7 million people in the US that identify as Italian Americans—nearly 6% of the population. But who are they? And what does their life look like?

Now, since numbers are important, here is some data depicting the identity and life of average Italian American in modern America:

  • The median age of Italian Americans is 34 years old.
  • The majority are married and have a small family (averaging one child per family).
  • 29% are high school graduates (a bit more than the national average).
  • The median income for Italian American households is $61,300 per year.
  • 66% work in white-collar jobs, while 34% are blue-collars.
  • They tend to live in urban areas, with 88% living in or near large cities.
  • They mainly live in New York, New Jersey, California, Pennsylvania, and Florida.

So, we could say that the average Italian American is a 34 year old white-collar, married, with one child. And he (or she) lives in New York. A bit different than the Mario and Luigi stereotype isn’t it? Except for New York, that is.

If we want to talk more in depth about the modern life of an average Italian American in the United States we must however consider one thing: the landscape has changed. Italian Americans, like many others, face economic hardships, job insecurity, and the relentless pressures of corporate life. All these challenges call into question the attainability of the American dream. Not to consider that, even if Italian Americans have made significant strides since their coming to the United States, they still fight against stereotypes and prejudices that have persisted over the years. And while they may embrace humorous depictions of their heritage, they also confront outdated and hurtful perceptions that undermine their identity and contributions to society. 

Despite over 120 years of presence in the United States, Italian Americans still strive to balance their cultural heritage with the demands of mainstream American life. All of this, while being forced to confront the harsh reality that the American dream may be nothing more than an idealized fantasy. The promise of economic prosperity and social mobility, once believed to be attainable through hard work and determination, now seems indeed increasingly out of reach for those struggling to keep pace in an unforgiving economy.

An Italian mother and her daughter cooking in their house in the US

The return to Italy

Now, here we are: if Italian Americans enjoy a good life in the United States—with strong family ties, better education, and often higher-paying jobs—why would they consider returning to Italy?

Has their Italian American dream faded? Did the better life they sought fail to meet their expectations? Or are they simply tired of American life and yearning to reconnect with their culture and roots?

Embracing a slow life

Since their arrival in the United States, Italian Americans have been swept up in the whirlwind of American life. Despite the allure of strong family bonds, quality education, and promising career prospects, the pursuit of the American dream often feels like an endless race rather than a rewarding journey.

The relentless pressure to succeed can indeed be suffocating, leaving Italian Americans questioning the very essence of the dream they once chased. In a society driven by productivity and achievement, the pursuit of happiness often takes a backseat to the pursuit of success. In stark contrast, the Italian lifestyle offers a refuge from the chaos of modern American life. Characterized by a slower, more deliberate pace, life in Italy revolves around the simple pleasures of everyday existence. From leisurely meals with loved ones to leisurely strolls through historic towns, Italians prioritize living in the moment and savoring the richness of life.

Yet, this embrace of a slower pace is not without its critics. In a culture obsessed with productivity and progress, the notion of trading in the fast life for a more leisurely existence is met with skepticism. Some question the practicality of such a lifestyle shift in today's fast-paced world, fearing that it may lead to complacency or a lack of ambition.

However, for many Italian Americans, the allure of a simpler, more meaningful life in Italy outweighs these concerns. They are drawn to the opportunity to reconnect with their roots and rediscover a sense of purpose and fulfillment that eludes them in the hustle and bustle of American life. In embracing the slower pace of Italian living, they find solace and a renewed appreciation for the beauty of everyday existence.

Desire to know one's history

In the United States, Italian Americans often find themselves straddling two worlds, their identity fragmented by the hyphen that separates their Italian heritage from their American upbringing. This dual identity can lead to a sense of disconnection, a feeling of being neither fully Italian nor fully American. In contrast, Italy offers Italian Americans the opportunity to immerse themselves in the rich culture of their ancestry. Here, they can walk the same streets as their grandparents, explore the places where their ancestors lived, worked, and loved. 

This journey of rediscovery provides them with a deep sense of belonging and continuity, bridging the gap between past and present. Yet, this quest to reconnect with one's roots is not without its challenges. The romanticized image of Italy portrayed in movies and literature may not always align with the realities of contemporary Italian life. Additionally, the process of integration into Italian society can be full of complexities, as Italian Americans navigate the delicate balance between embracing their heritage and assimilating into a culture that may view them as outsiders.

Despite these obstacles, the pull of history and heritage remains strong for many Italian Americans. The desire to fully understand and embrace their roots propels them forward, driving them to overcome any obstacles that stand in their way. In embarking on this journey, they honor the legacy of their ancestors and forge a deeper connection to their own identity.

Discovering their homeland

For Italian Americans, Italy embodies a potent blend of romanticism and cultural pride. Yet, the journey back to the homeland is more than a mere pilgrimage—it's a transformative journey that reshapes their understanding of identity and heritage. Living in Italy, indeed, offers them a firsthand encounter with the country's art, architecture, and cuisine, all experienced within their original context. Immersed in the language, customs, and social norms of their ancestors, they forge a deeper connection to their heritage while finding comfort in the familiarity of a shared lifestyle.

However, this journey is not without its challenges. The romanticized vision of Italy clashes with the harsh realities of economic strife, bureaucratic hurdles, and societal issues. Yet, even amidst these challenges, the desire to confront stereotypes, embrace authenticity, and reclaim their cultural identity remains a potent motivator for Italian Americans.

In confronting both the beauty and the challenges of their homeland, Italian Americans undergo a profound emotional awakening. They emerge with a newfound pride in their heritage, tempered by a deeper understanding of the complexities that shape modern Italy. This journey of rediscovery not only strengthens their bond with Italy but also enriches their sense of self, empowering them to navigate the delicate balance between tradition and modernity with grace and resilience.

Venice as seen by Italian Americans escaping America to look for the Italian dream

Escaping corporate America

In the wake of a fading American dream, Italian Americans find themselves at a crossroads, grappling with the shattered promises of prosperity and opportunity. The relentless demands of corporate America, with its unyielding focus on productivity and profit, clash sharply with the cherished values of family, community, and work-life balance. And amidst these challenges, Italy emerges as a sanctuary—a refuge from modern corporate life. 

Here, Italian Americans discover a work culture that prioritizes quality of life over relentless pursuit of success, offering respite from the suffocating pressures of the American corporate treadmill. But this escape also embodies a quest for a more meaningful existence—a life infused with passion, purpose, and connection. By embracing the Italian way of life, Italian Americans reclaim their own well-being, rejecting the hollow promises of the American dream in favor of a more authentic and fulfilling path.

Though the dream may be dead, its demise is followed by a new dawn—a chance for Italian Americans to redefine success on their own terms, to forge a path that honors their heritage while embracing the pursuit of a life rich in meaning and fulfillment.

The shift from American dream to Italian dream

Once hailed as the beacon of hope and opportunity, the ideals of the American dream now stand tarnished, its promises of prosperity fading. And for Italian Americans, this disillusionment cuts deep. The relentless pursuit of success in a corporate landscape marred by economic uncertainty and job insecurity has left many feeling adrift, their aspirations  shattered against the harsh realities of unattainable expectations.

Yet, as the American dream is fading, a new narrative begins to take shape—a narrative rooted in the resilient spirit of the Italian people and their timeless pursuit of a slow and sweet life. It’s an authentic Italian dream, a refuge from the relentless pursuit of success and a return to the simple pleasures that give meaning to our existence.

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