Garroni on Wirth, 'Memories of Belonging: Descendants of Italian Migrants to the United Sates, 1884-Present'

Christa Wirth
Susanna Garroni

Christa Wirth. Memories of Belonging: Descendants of Italian Migrants to the United Sates, 1884-Present. Studies in Global Social History/Studies in Global Migration Series. Leiden: Brill, 2015. Illustrations. 406 pp. $179.00 (e-book), ISBN 978-90-04-28457-9; $179.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-90-04-28456-2.

Reviewed by Susanna Garroni (University Roma Tre) Published on H-Italy (June, 2021) Commissioned by Matteo Pretelli (University of Naples "L'Orientale")

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Families and Migrations

Do immigrants in the United States ever feel fully American? Or rather, differently said, what identity twists do immigrants encounter when becoming part of an ethnic group in the United States and then eventually feeling American in some ways? How does memory contribute to keeping immigrants’ descendants connected to the old country even after several generations? These are complicated questions that stand at the intersection of various scientific fields, that scholars of immigration have tried to address, and that immigrants themselves have been wondering about and scrutinizing. These are concrete identity questions—at the bottom line the question of who am I and how did I become such a person—the answer to which, if it does not venture into literature and poetry, needs a clearly defined methodology. It also has to plunge into and pick from many fields and requires precise definitions of the heuristic categories and the analytical tools used to approach it.

“Identity,” among other characteristics, is the capability of giving a conscious “meaning” to one’s life. Family memories play a significant role in the identity formation process.[1] Christa Wirth places her book within the relative new field of memory studies, within which Gianfranco Pecchinenda, Maddalena Tirabassi, and Rosemary Serra, among others, have in recent years included also Italian immigration history.[2] As most of these scholars, Wirth too uses oral history as one of her major source materials.[3]

Wirth opens her work with an essential starting point: the homeland. The area of origin and the departure even as far back as a hundred years or more “stays as a base point ... around which familial collective identity is spun” (pp. 7-8). “The migration experience is still a central element of who the descendants ... understand themselves to be. By maintaining a relationship to the country of origin—physically and mnemonically—through several generations, collective memories of belonging were created” (p. 8). It becomes, therefore, central to explore “how the descendants of a migrant couple construct their identities and in what memories their identities are rooted” (p. 12).

Wirth’s research is quite complex. At the start, it looks as if the book is about her own experience as the daughter of a transnational family: she was born to a Swiss father and a fourth-generation Italian American mother. She writes that the book is “about the family’s migration history as well as the family history in the United States—and how it was all remembered.” Yet Wirth also engages in “how family memory and knowledge get passed down, altered, and recreated through generations” (p. 5). This is definitely a more risky, challenging, and ambitious effort than describing the story through generations of an immigrant family. Wirth approaches this task by designing an oral history project built on her own family from her mother’s side as a case study. The reason is that “the family, which is a very influential place of socialization, forms the individual decisively. In this sense, family is the pivotal mnemonic link between the single person and society at large” (p. 16).

Wirth openly acknowledges the subjective responsibilities of the researcher. Resting on the theoretical approaches of a vast array of scholars, she declares the epistemological status of the oral history discipline. It is also apparent to the author, as it is to many oral historians, that the interviewees become interested in the interviewer’s project. This awareness confirms what Micheal Frisch, among other oral historians, has underlined in A Shared Authority: Essays on the Craft and Meaning of Oral and Public History (1990): scholars and designers of oral history projects—and public history projects—have come to acknowledge that participation in such projects enhances the self-esteem, history consciousness, and awareness of personal identity of those involved. Interviewing on the subject of memories about Italy and migration has strengthened or even added to the identity of Wirth’s interviewees.

Interviews with Beatrice La Motta—the author’s grandmother—are the starting point of Wirth’s research project, since Beatrice “represents as no other person, the transition from migrant and ethnic to American” (p. 15). She was born in Italy, but at age two, in 1913, her parents Giovanni and Elvira Soloperto brought her to the United States. Wirth follows the path of immigration memories and forms of integration and/or assimilation from Beatrice’s own recollections of her first-generation immigrant parents’ experience to the experience of the Solopertos’ fifth generation. The research “spans over 100 years and two continents” and is based on thirty-six interviews and forty-one recorded hours (p. 12).

The reader’s curiosity is tickled by Wirth’s interesting and innovative approach to the founders’ family’s development into two groups who differ in social and cultural contexts. One branch stayed in Worcester, the first site of the family’s immigration, while a second branch separated, changing several geographical locations and following the path of social mobility and assimilation. From an all-encompassing point of view the questions are: Is the experience of cultural and memory transmission different between a socially and geographically mobile branch of an Italian American family and the family branch that enjoyed geographical and social working-class stability? Did the immigrant family and their descendants assimilate in American society? How did the experiences of the two branches influence their respective memory and identity formation? Why are most descendants of Italian immigrants still prone to define themselves as Italian Americans? Finally, how “American” do these descendants of immigrants feel? I would also have liked to add another question: what does it mean to be “American” to these five generations of immigrant descendants? But this was not asked.

Some important outcomes of Wirth’s research are already presented in the introduction. Reading the experience of these Italian American generations through the categories of “transnational migration research,” “immigration history,” and “whiteness studies,” the maintenance of dual identity (Italian American) is owed both to the willingness of openly expressing the preservation of some Italian values and/or traditions and to the memory of the discrimination experienced through generations (pp. 36-37). The “immigrant paradigm,” moreover, that depicts the US as the country that allows immigrants to assimilate, rise from their bootstraps, and have access to social mobility opportunities, is not really applicable to Italian immigrants “as a whole” since many did not enter the middle class and many went back to Italy. Thus Wirth’s thesis confirms what has long been debated in immigration history, that “the immigrant paradigm becomes obsolete” (p. 41).

The questions the author asks to members of each branch and analyzes—see appendix—are distributed and juxtaposed along the book’s central six chapters. The description of the interviewees and their family connections, transnational migration networks, reasons for immigrating, and final settling of the founding couple in Worcester are the content of the first part of the book. Memories of everyday lives and of “Italianness,” development of gendered variables and of forms of “symbolic ethnicity,” as tapped and represented by the two branches, and the final conclusions are the subjects of the second part of this study.

At the outset, Wirth pieces together the push and pull factors of emigration from Sava, Italy, across the ocean in search of the socioeconomic and personal circumstances for Giovanni and Elvira’s decision to emigrate. Wirth highlights the methodological point of intertwining personal memories with traditional sources (passenger records, vital records) to create the interpretative grid for the critical approach to the quality and meaning of memory and to infer the steps toward identity formation.

Retracing the emigration network that led Giovanni and his then still small family is relevant to set the stage for understanding the context from which the couple came and the significance of an already established “migration culture,” while the description of Sava’s socioeconomic conditions helps to figure out some of the reasons that may have prodded the couple to leave their hometown. In the process, Wirth has the possibility of testing historiography results of previous research. She agrees with Donna Gabaccia’s claim that migrants to the US may have been both “militants AND migrants,” that they not only were “individually” motivated but also created a “collective action,” thus acquiring a “political collective dimension” (p. 113). The choice of migration, therefore, was not an either/or social question (becoming militants or migrants), as claimed by some other authors. This observation also runs against the conclusions of historians who see immigrants as bound-to-be-Americans even before leaving their native country, as if manifesting in their choice an individualistic and achiever’s approach to their problem solving. But some of the results Wirth draws from her fine research of the Solopertos’ emigration background seem a little too far fetched.

The stronger motivations to emigrate for Giovanni and Elvira were “emotional”—death of loved ones, love disappointments—but the sources are Giovanni’s statements on official documents rather than Sava’s economic asphyxiating, limited opportunities, even for who could be considered a small businessman (p. 103). Giovanni, in fact, was literate, had been in the military, and had become on his return “a small business owner, opening a café in the heart of Sava” (p. 90). Even though his father was a quarryman—an important, traditional, and well-respected craft in Giovanni’s region[4]—he was not part of Sava’s “lower class” and was not less reputable than the Stranieri family, whose patriarch was an established blacksmith (p. 88). The hypothesis that Giovanni was worried about a possible lowering of his social status and was looking for both his own family and his personal socioeconomic improvement, exploiting the knowledge brought by the emigration culture, is not explored by Wirth. Wirth’s descriptions of Sava’s and Puglia’s economic conditions are too general to illuminate the micro-history of a prospective downward social mobility of Sava’s low middle class (small businessmen, artisans). The possibility, instead, acquired “only through oral female tradition,” that maybe Elvira Stranieri had married Giovanni Soloperto and accepted to emigrate because “she had been courted by another man who passed away” is not confirmed (p. 113). In fact, Elvira traveled to America not only with her husband and two children but also with her brother, who was the initiator of the family emigrating project, and three other siblings. Just a little later she was also joined by her parents, who stayed in Worcester until 1924. The Stranieris were a large family group moving together. Furthermore, Elvira’s role in her husband’s store is scantily mentioned. Did she help in the store? Or perhaps she only “unthinkingly took money from the register of the grocery store the family ran” (p. 259). She is made to fit the image of “the passive woman of the shadows,” although she might have given proof of “a form of perseverance,” although at least on one occasion she behaved as “the lion mother protecting her cubs” when confronting doctors and saving her son’s arm from amputation (pp. 265, 261). Information about Elvira’s experience stands out as being quite meager as opposed to information about Maria Grazia, the mother of Elvira’s daughter-in-law Natalie. Interviews with those grandmothers are taken at face value. This is an approach that dismisses much historiography on the relevant, active, yet often unnoticed, contribution of women in emigration projects.[5] Wirth provides a vast and updated bibliography on gender and immigration history but does not use it to question, to prod, the gender narrative.

Other instances are problematic. On page 109, Wirth writes: “It is possible that the migration networks in which the paesani of different occupations traveled together are a reflection of class solidarity among the more-or-less solid unit of small farmers, workers and artisans, who stood vis-à-vis the all-powerful landlord. This result differs from Gabaccia’s research of Sambuca travel networks, which were mainly formed by occupation.” But Gabaccia does a different type of research. Gabaccia’s Sambuchese laborers who go to Louisiana are gathered by the “padrone system” for a specific purpose. Sambuca’s artisans, on the other hand, go in a different direction (New York) because there they came to know by word of mouth and family connections that there was a big enough market for their skills.[6] We would need to dwell more on the history of Sava’s sociopolitical relations before assuming that between artisans and laborers there could be “class solidarity” and not simply social and utilitarian relations, applicable when in need, for example, in order to emigrate in a group as opposed to alone. Wirth embraces a simple two-class understanding of Sava’s society, binding together small farmers, unskilled laborers, and artisans sharing a form of class solidarity “vis-à-vis the all-powerful landlords” (p. 109). But even in preindustrial societies there were differences in status, and the Solopertos, because of their educational and professional skills, certainly were part of Sava’s petty business class. Also the history of Worcester’s “Little Italy” leaves a lot to be imagined. Giovanni came to this city because his relative Vincenzo (Elvira’s brother) had already opened the way since 1906. Vincenzo came to the US with sixteen other “Savanesi,” led by a stonemason, Marcello Franco. Franco brought the group to the “bustling industrial city” of Worcester and hosted at least some of them in what can be understood as a “boarding home” of a cousin of his. Wirth discovered that Franco came again to Worcester with another group of Savanesi in 1909. When the Solopertos arrived, the community was probably ready to sustain an ethnic community “economy” that had not yet fully developed. In the 1920s, the Italian ethnic group still comprised about twelve thousand people (p. 111). They were the largest group of the “new immigrants,” second only to the “old immigrants” of Irish ancestry. In 1875, 80 percent of them were manual laborers “and their share never dropped below 40% in the next 50 years,” but what other jobs they performed and which other Italian regions they came from is not clear (p. 18). The lack of information about Worcester Italian immigrants’ institutions—churches, newspapers, ethnic festivals, and so forth—limits, to some extent, the understanding of how immigrant culture and memory were maintained, transmitted, and transformed. Wirth does not describe or ask questions about the ethnic community economic structure that might have helped Giovanni and Elvira’s choices. Yet this is where Giovanni steps in with a most likely preconceived yet not demonstrated plan (but suggested by his short—two years—permanence in the labor force) to exploit his business skills and create the shop and financial stability that he would have doubtfully developed in Sava. The chapters that follow show that all the Soloperto descendants, albeit with difficulties, discrimination, and disappointments well detected by Wirth, have achieved forms of success or at least self-satisfaction and integration if not assimilation. From the point of view of Giovanni, the Worcester branch, and Sandra (Beatrice’s daughter and the author’s mother), the “immigrant paradigm” worked, even while they struggled through issues of race, class, Anglo-Saxon standards, and the “painful experience of wanting to belong, yet being rejected by the ‘wasp class’” (p. 210). The evidence that the “separated line” third generation had reached an acknowledged middle-class status while the fourth generation has now some anxiety of downgrade mobility and that the Worcester line, instead, is well established, achieving “happiness, close-knit family warmth and respect” in the “form of [the] American dream” in their blue-collar setting, is proof of their integration and partial assimilation in US society, since both branches participate in the country’s socioeconomic ups and downs (pp. 214, 296). On the other hand, as Wirth acknowledges, Gabaccia and other historians have mentioned that the “promised land” has turned into a “bitter land” for many Italians and their second- and third-generation offspring—yet not only for them. In fact, the meaning of the “immigrant paradigm” supported by American “exceptionalism” has been questioned by immigration historiography by and large.[7]

An important result of Wirth’s work is her recognition of the resilient effects of stereotyping on Italian American identity even today. Racism has affected Italians and Italian Americans since the early days of their experience in the United States. Yet notwithstanding the 1960s civil rights movement recovering Italian ethnic pride, racist stereotyping resurfaces in every generation, to the point that even Matt, a fourth generation, has internalized the idea that he is “darker” than the Irish and that, subverting the given narration and expressing eventually even a sort of chauvinism of his own, he claims that someone who is “white” cannot really be Italian. But it is not only a matter of color. Italians did not “act white,” and Sandra and Andrew, who were established in the middle class, felt that Wasps were white because they were “privileged” (p. 231). Sandra and Andrew did not consider themselves wealthy and therefore not even white. Wirth agrees and stresses that racism is a matter of class, but not only. It is so ingrained in the “culture” that it easily becomes a way to subsume other forms of marginalization, of social exclusion.

Wirth, by dissecting her interviews, confirms what both US and Italian historiography on Italian immigration has acknowledged. Memory and feelings of having some Italian background emerge through transmission of food traditions, body gestures, ambiguities about language maintenance, connection, loss, and gendered family roles and space, and transformation of the original Catholic religious beliefs. Furthermore, they developed “symbolic ethnicity” by selectively accepting, refusing, or confronting stereotypes found in movies and publications.

While answers to Wirth’s questions offer interesting food for thought, some aspects are in need of further inquiry: for example, what conflicts, competitions, and expectations in the family and/or in the ethnic community did the interviewees experience? Beatrice’s possibility of receiving an education, leaving her family to live with another girl—a cousin—in another city as early as 1929 was not the standard gender behavior in Italian American families of the time. Wirth is aware that “for women of the second and third generations, gainful employment opportunities at times had to be fought for” vis-à-vis family obstacles (p. 153). How did Beatrice negotiate her choices with her first-generation southern immigrant parents? Why do memories of these “difficulties” not surface in the interviews?

The issue of class, while hinted at here and there, is not really confronted. Class differences between the “separated branch” and the Worcester one are elegantly but only hazily mentioned. It may have been a delicate issue to approach in the interviews. But why not also consider the influence of acquiring more critical knowledge through higher education as an upper-class approach to faith of the “separated line” rather than interpreting its detachment from the Catholic faith only as anxiety for Anglo conformity, as “a step in their assimilation ambition” (p. 187)?

Could not the recollection of Giovanni’s appreciation of Dante by his by now “wasp” granddaughter Sandra of the separated line as much as her desire of traveling back to reconnect with her origins be interpreted as Sandra’s family reclaiming an “upper-class ethnicity” (p. 255)? Class would also have influenced participation in American consumer culture. Wirth does not compare this issue between the two branches, but, according to Simone Cinotto, consumption shaped diasporic identities and forms of diasporic nationalism.[8] The lack of understanding of local politics in Worcester and of the nation-building identity efforts of the Italian government during the fascist period, both having a profound effect on self-esteem, feelings, and memories of belonging among Italian immigrants in the 1920s, 1930s, and early 1940s, leaves a wide and significant area of cultural and identity formation unchecked.[9]

There are no questions about the Americanization process, the policies of which were in full force at the time of the couple’s arrival in 1913. The process of striving to become American is clearer in the La Motta side, while the Worcester branch was practically not investigated on this subject. What do the interviewees feel is now “American” about themselves? What events in their lives went into creating the “American” part of their identity?

Having left out these questions leaves untapped some passages of how memory is passed down, what is instead erased and forgotten and why. There are long paragraphs to justify each step of the research, often repeated at the beginning and at the end of chapters. This is a valuable method and necessary in a PhD dissertation, but in a book it weighs the reading down and makes the understanding of the research results more demanding and confusing. A too detailed organization, albeit useful to implement the research, turns into its opposite. For example, there is no need to explain why it is useful to use official documents and the nature of the chapter in which they are used. But besides these questions, all prodded by this thickly layered and well-crafted research, Wirth’s work should be appreciated from another perspective. It can be considered an applied example of an attempt to draw and explain the outlay of a research project grounded in careful scrutiny of theoretical works and in deep immersion in the methodological tools required by oral history. In the “two-steps analysis” paragraphs where she describes the method segmenting the interviews, detecting “motifs” and discovering “mnemonic types “ and “patterns of memory,” there is a clear intention of legitimizing this oral history work and work on memory as a “quasi-quantitative research,” thus attempting to prove the “scientific” quality of those disciplines (p. 60). The first eighty pages of the introduction and the thirty pages of the appendix, besides the forty-seven of the bibliography—a book on their own—confirm this purpose. From this point of view, it is a nearly irreplaceable book for classes in research methodology, oral history, and immigration history.


[1]. Andrea Smorti, “La Famiglia come sistema di memorie e lo sviluppo del Sé,” Rivista Italiana di Educazione Familiare 1 (2008): 69-77; Fiamma Lussana, “Memoria e memorie nel dibattito storiografico,” in Studi Storici 41 (October-December 2000): 1047-81; and Vittorio Lanutti, Identità sospese tra due culture: Formazione identitaria e dinamiche familiari delle seconde generazioni nelle Marche (Milan: Franco Angeli, 2014).

[2]. Gianfranco Pecchinenda, “La disarticolazione mediale della memoria,” in Appunti di viaggio: L’emigrazione italiana tra attualità e memoria, ed. Ornella De Rosa and Donato Verrastro (Bologna: Il Mulino), 173-94; Maddalena Tirabassi, I motori della memoria: Le Piemontesi in Argentina (Turin: Rosemberg e Sellier, 2010); and Rosemary Serra, “Contemporary Italian American Identities,” in The Routledge History of Italian Americans, ed. William J. Connell and Stanislao Pugliese (New York: Routledge, 2018), 596-615.

[3]. Luisa Del Giudice, ed., Oral History, Oral Culture, and Italian Americans (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2009).

[4]. Giuseppe Pignatelli Spinazzola,“L’attività estrattiva tradizionale in penisola sorrentina: Dai tagliamonte alle cave industriali nel territorio lubrense,” Geografia 29, nos. 3-4 (2006): 31-42.

[5]. Elvira arrived in Worchester with her three sisters and her older brother and his wife. Her parents joined them only a few months later and stayed at least up to 1924. In Italy she helped her husband in the shop. She had two children before emigrating and two others afterward. She might have had various roles across time and changes in her own family. See Micaela di Leonardo, The Varieties of Ethnic Experience: Kinship, Class and Gender among California Italian-Americans (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1984), 65. See also Andreina De Clementi, L'Assalto al cielo: Donne e uomini nell’emigrazione italiana (Rome: Donzelli, 2014), 141-70.

[6]. Donna Gabaccia, Militants and Migrants: Rural Sicilians Become American Workers (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1988), 81-92, 127-29.

[7]. For Gabaccia’s criticism of the “immigrant paradigm,” see “Is Everywhere Nowhere? Nomads, Nations, and the Immigrant Paradigm of United States History,” Journal of American History 86, no. 3 (1999): 1115-34, esp. 1130-34.

[8]. Simone Cinotto, ed., Making Italian America: Consumer Culture and the Production of Ethnic identities (New York: Fordham University Press, 2014).

[9]. Matteo Pretelli, “Fasci italiani e comunità italoamericane: Un rapporto difficile,” Giornale di Storia Contemporanea 4, no. 1 (2001): 112-40; and Matteo Pretelli, “Il Fascismo e gli italoamericani di seconda generazione,” Altreitalie, nos. 36-38 (2008): 301-13.

Citation: Susanna Garroni. Review of Wirth, Christa, Memories of Belonging: Descendants of Italian Migrants to the United Sates, 1884-Present. H-Italy, H-Net Reviews. June, 2021. URL:

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