The Italian Diaspora
There I was, the first day of my two weeks of study at a language school in Lucca, Italy.
In Italian she asked, “Why do you want to study Italian?”
“Because Italian culture, food and the language are favorites throughout the world,” I said, likely unconsciously speaking Spanish rather than Italian.
I envisioned, but didn’t have the words in any language to explain, throughout the world there were people who had romantic notions of Italy, and I was one of them. How did this happen? How had Italian culture spread so far?
Somewhere in Rome, around the Victor Emanuel Monument, I wandered into a display of photos and films. In Canada, my homeland, the years between the mid-eighteen and mid-nineteen centuries had meant massive immigration But, here in the center of Rome, I had drifted into a display commemorating emigration during the same period.
Italian emigration is known as “The Great Italian Diaspora.” It began in 1871, which was the date when Italy became a country and ended in 1950, which was the start of Italy’s economic boom. During The Diaspora approximately 33% of Italy’s population left for other countries. Poverty, fascism and organized crime were the impetus.
This mass emigration means that today many citizens of other countries can claim Italian heritage. For example: 25 million Brazilians, 20 million Argentinians, 17.8 million Americans, 5 million French, 1.5 million Uruguayans, 1.4 million Canadians.
As Italians found new homelands they brought their culture with them. Today 55 million people living in Italy speak Italian. In contrast, it’s estimated that between 120 and 150 million people around the world speak Italian as another language.
The Great Diaspora ended a long time ago. Italy is now one of the world’s greatest economies, a G8 member and ranked among the top ten countries regarding standard of living for its citizenry. It has the world’s second best health care system and is home to the greatest number of UNESCO world heritage sites. Like most developed nations, Italy’s economic growth depends on immigration. In 2010 4.8 million people living in Italy were foreign born.
Italians are no longer mass emigrants and as a result the enclaves they lived in, the “Little Italys”, are diminishing in size and influence. Still, even today, most major cities have a Little Italy where people of Italian descent maintain businesses. Sidewalk cafes abound. Gelati replaces ice cream. Specialty wine shops mix with grocery stores that sell fresh pasta and parmagiano. Pastry shops sell cannoli. With such a strong taste of Italy permeating many places outside of Italy it’s not surprising that Italy is the fifth most visited country in the world. Not all roads lead to Rome, but many do.