Italian Americans in California


Italians were some of the first European explorers and settlers of California. Religious duties and the search for new fishing grounds were initial reasons for Italians to explore what later became the thirty-first state, but their reasons for staying expanded after arriving. Though we often associate Italians in California with San Francisco, the initial Italian settlers established themselves in such diverse communities as Monterey, Stockton, and San Diego during the years of Spanish Rule.

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.

Some children of the first wave of immigrants came of age in the 1900s to the 1930s, and these achieved greater success than their parents in law, politics, business, and agriculture, especially wine. Once again, the relative lack or prejudice in California, or rather the vicious prejudice against other groups allowed Italian families to quickly integrate themselves into California's economy and politics.

The interwar years between 1919 and 1941 were not the best for Italian-Americans in general. The Sacco and Vanzetti trials brought unwanted suspicion of anarchism to those of Italian descent, and the notoriety of mobsters such as Al Capone was embellished in the fledgling film industry. Most distressing to Italian immigrants was the internment of non-citizens in the early part of World War II. While not as extreme or as long as the Japanese-American internment, this came as a shock to the Italian-American population of California, which had established itself in the state economically and politically, and had experienced a relatively small amount of prejudice in the past.

After World War II, Italian-Americans began to move out of the Little Italy sections of Fisherman's Wharf, North Beach, and Telegraph Hill. This exodus became even larger after the Korean War. This was mainly due to the growth of suburbanization in the San Francisco Bay area in general, as new families sought independent housing of their own. Today, the areas associated with Little Italy, especially North Beach, retain reminders of its ethnic roots. At the same time, the neighborhoods have become diversified, as the need to maintain an exclusive community dissipated.

This website portrays the place of Italian Americans in the history and culture of California. As you will see, their influence has been significant, sustaining, and beneficial. È la gaia pioggerella a far crescer l'erba bella!

The Bancroft Library appreciates the generous support of NIAF

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