This feature-length documentary explores Italian ethnicity in America
from several unique and distinctly personal perspectives. In the
decades preceding WWII, hundreds of thousands of Italians flocked
to these shores in hopes of starting new lives in a land that promised
freedom and opportunity. They immigrated through the Great Hall
of Ellis Island, in the shadow of the Statue of Liberty, and spilled
out into the streets of New York City and beyond in anticipation
of a kind of renaissance.
Some made their way to the west; others remained close to the eastern
seaboard. And many clung to each other in urban havens, favoring
the familiarity of their customs and language. Their stories are
told by historians and through the diaries, letters, poetry, and
powerful memories of first-, second-, and third-generation Italian-Americans.
They share with us that struggle to embrace one's heritage while
laying hold of an entirely new culture.
With the outbreak of a second world conflict in Europe, an already
tenuous landscape changed. And when Italy joined with Hitler as
an Axis power, Italians in America, quite young in their assimilation
process, were faced with yet another dilemma. Lines of loyalty were
now less clearly drawn; their sense of identity, already in flux,
was thrown into turmoil. Paranoia in this country ran the gamut
from street-side prejudice to formal declarations of war upon non-citizen
This sentiment reached a crescendo in December of 1941 when President
Franklin Delano Roosevelt signed Proclamation Number 2527. This
law branded the 600,000 non-naturalized Italians as potential "enemy
aliens," stripping them of their right to privacy and empowering
the Attorney General "to direct the conduct to be observed toward
the aliens who become so liable." Furthermore, the document allowed
discretion in "the manner and degree of the restraint to which they
shall be subject and in what cases, and upon what security their
residence shall be permitted…."
The liberties taken by government agents, under the guise of "security,"
is a largely unknown chapter of our history. Through first hand
accounts, the film will reveal the raids on Italian homes, the internment
of some of the male heads of these households and the psychological
rebound suffered by the victims. Remarkably, many sons of these
"enemy aliens" volunteered for service as American soldiers and
sacrificed themselves on the battlefields of Europe and the South
Pacific. In fact, Italian-Americans suffered the highest U.S. casualties
of any ethnic group.
But our story is not confined to this. It is a little-known fact
that about 50,000 Italian POWs were actually encamped on American
soil during WWII. Unlike those immigrants who chose to leave their
shores and live among Americans, these Italians fought under Mussolini
and his fascist policies. Having been captured in action, they were
shipped to camps in the United States. Here they were exposed to
a very different kind of internment than that of the Allies imprisoned
in Europe. Ultimately, the most cooperative enjoyed vacation-like
benefits. It is interesting to note that while some rejected their
captors and retained their fascist loyalties, many decided, following
the war, to return to this country and become naturalized citizens.
We share some of those stories, several as on-camera interviews
with former POWs.
Finally, there is a thread that is drawn through all three aspects
of Italian ethnicity in America (those who immigrated, became citizens
and sought refuge in tiny "Little Italy" enclaves around the country;
those who, because of their ideology, lack of citizen status, or
ignorance, incurred discrimination - some to the point of internment;
and those Italian soldiers who spent WWII in prisoner of war camps
in this country), which displays a kind of irony. In spite of its
bumps along the way, ours is a country of resilience. Without attempting
to over-simplify or categorize the psychology of our nation, we
do, it seems, have the ability to re-think our prejudices and shift
ourselves into a position of tolerance. The remarkable fact is that
many of those who we have suppressed have returned to us volumes
of fortitude, character and culture, which ultimately enriches us
as a nation.
Thus, the assimilation of Italians into our culture, through the
several avenues defined in this film, has, as so many others have,
enriched our nation. Those Italians who have survived the struggles
associated with assimilation, have now been allowed to maintain
as much or as little of their heritage as they are comfortable with.
We, as a country, are benefactors. Our story, overflowing with interviews,
historical detail, photographs, literature, music, poetry and analysis,
will reveal a chapter in history heretofore unknown to most, and
will do so with integrity and sensitivity, in tribute to those who
have written it.