Room Two: The Big Immigration (1880-1924)

After the relatively small numbers of northern Italian immigrants that came to California from other Italian enclaves and to take advantage of the Gold Rush, large numbers of Italians left their homeland between 1880 and 1915. While the majority of Italians settled in the urban centers of the east, many, especially northern Italians came out west. As late as 1890, there were more Italian immigrants on the Pacific coast than in New England. Their reasons for leaving and for choosing California varied. Overpopulation and the French capture of the wine industry in the 1880s made leaving attractive to Ligurians. The fact that California's small immigrant community was 80% northern made it more attractive to these people. At the same time, the higher taxes, natural disasters, and soil erosion experienced in the south caused many Sicilians to leave as well. The relatively similar climate and good harbors attracted a sizeable, if outnumbered, Sicilian community to California. The Oriental Exclusion Act of 1882 increased the demand for Italian agricultural workers in the absence of Chinese immigrants. Indeed, the peculiar racial dynamic in California, in which racism was directed at Asian, rather than eastern and southern European immigration, made California a rather welcoming new home for those who had just left Italy. Roman Catholicism had a long history in the making of California, and again, the non-Christian religions of the Asian immigrants made the Italian's religious practices more tolerable to the Anglo-Californians. With a small, but established community, a comfortable environment, low levels of ethnic or religious prejudice, and the legal ban of a competitive immigrant group, Italians were attracted to California in greater numbers than ever before or since.


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