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Dr. Juliani Discusses “The Search for a Meaningful Past: Italian Immigration to America”

By Margaux Kay LaPointe , '11

Inspired by his own Italian-American heritage, Richard Juliani, Ph.D., began to study Philadelphia’s own Little Italy, and on Wednesday, March 26, he gave a lecture entitled, “The Search for a Meaningful Past: Italian Immigration to America,” sponsored by the Department of Modern Languages and Literature.

Juliani is a sociology professor at Villanova who teaches sociological theory and ethnic studies. He has published two books, Priest, Parish, and People: Saving the Faith in Philadelphia’s Little Italy and Building Little Italy: Philadelphia’s Italians Before Mass Migration, which include many of the topics he discussed in the lecture. His third book is in progress.

Members of Juliani’s family, including his parents, were born in Italy, and he was raised outside of Philadelphia in New Jersey. He was inspired by the civil rights movement to begin studying his own history, he said. He chose Philadelphia’s Little Italy for three reasons: (1) “as a sociologist, I see this as a very special case study;” (2) “there’s a story here that has to be told”; and (3) “this tale has to be preserved and given to students.”

Juliani became a “new historian” who looked at history “from the bottom up, looking at families,” he said. “These to me were the real heroes of immigrant life.” Studying individual families, “I began to add how they became a community and transformed from Italian immigrant to American.”

Italians immigrated to America in three stages. First came what Juliani described as “isolated adventurers” who did not group together. These immigrants introduced their culture, including Baroque music, ice cream, and exotic animals, to Philadelphia. Next, a “cluster and the early stage of an enclave” began to form on South Street, which was the southern border of the original city. These formed when new immigrants came to this country as indentured servants. Finally, there came a “stream of migration,” said Juliani, because “it was a good life here.” Immigrants established in the city provided housing and work for family and friends.

For his books, Juliani interviewed individuals and searched through old city records for information ranging from church membership to items passed down in wills. In his interviews, Juliani found that the Italian immigrant population was “not really made up of people seeking the American dream or a new life,” he said. He explained that these immigrants wanted to look around, but ultimately wanted to return to their families. Coming to America was a way to “live decently and comfortably,” he described, so men became seasonal migratory workers.

Emphasizing the importance of history, he reminded the audience that history is what forms identity. Juliani is concerned with “what they’ve [Italian immigrants] gained as well as what they lost.” As part of the first generation of his family born in America, “I’ve lost much of that,” he said about having a second nation, culture, and language.

Margaux Kay LaPointe, ’11, is a first-year student from Lebanon, Pa. She is an intern in the Office of Communications in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences at Villanova University. Margaux plans on majoring in communication with a specialization in public relations.

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Director of Communications, College of Liberal Arts and Sciences

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