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Table of contents
Mothers could no longer supervise their children in the manner they were accustomed to in Sicily. First the children went to school, and from there they were pulled out as soon as possible to go to work. As the children of the immigrants began to absorb American ways, they felt increasingly resentful of the expectations of their parents. The children began to question the old ways, such as automatically turning over their wages to their parents.
The parents in turn felt betrayed by what they felt was the children's lack of respect for the family. The gap between the immigrants and their children continued to widen and foster tensions as the children grew more "Americanized. Nevertheless, la famiglia continues to play an important role in the lives of Sicilian Americans today. Since the first Sicilian immigrants were primarily agricultural workers, a good education was not necessarily among the skills they valued highly.
In Sicily, basic survival was of primary importance, and children were expected to start contributing from an early age. The transfer of a child from the fields to a school threatened the family's survival.
Nor were schools easily accessible to the larger majority of Sicilians; only the wealthy were able to take advantage of the limited opportunities. There was consequently a high illiteracy rate among agricultural workers in Sicily, which remained true as late as the twenty-first century. These early Sicilian immigrants brought with them their indifference toward education. Their skepticism increased along with the wariness they felt towards the American values being taught to their children in the schools.
Sicilian immigrants were often resentful their children attended school at all, and they placed little emphasis on study time. Children frequently had part-time jobs in addition to their schoolwork, which lessened their chances of success in an educational setting. Since they had limited educational opportunities, the children consequently had limited economic opportunities and they were soon caught in a web of poverty.
After World War II, the children and grandchildren of these immigrants were largely cognizant of the need for education. By this time, Sicilians were acclimated to the extent that they no longer felt threatened or intimidated by American schools. They utilized the G. Bill and took advantage of the increased educational opportunities.
Like the majority of America, Sicilian Americans strive to provide their children with a college education. Sicilian immigrants carried with them a fixed set of rules concerning women's roles within the patriarchal household. Fathers perceived a fierce obligation to protect the chastity of their daughters and when the daughters were old enough to marry, they were protected and dominated by their husbands.
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Wives and daughters stayed strictly within the boundaries of running the households and did not work outside of the home. Such a system could not be maintained in the United States. When it was possible, wives continued to work in the house, and their daughters helped them cook, clean, and care for the younger children.
But many women, even unmarried women, were forced from sheer economic necessity to work outside of the home. The women worked in factories, in the garment industry, and in the South they worked in the fields alongside the men. The old patriarchal system clashed with the new expectations and roles for women. Fathers were unable to supervise the activities of their daughters in the manner to which they had been accustomed.
At school, daughters learned "American ways" that were considered unsuitable and compromising to their chastity by Sicilian standards. In increasing numbers the daughters desired additional education beyond the household arts. Sicilian men were not in the habit of considering education—any formal education—important for females and they were reluctant to begin doing so.
War of the Sicilian Vespers
Gradually, the role of the Sicilian American woman has undergone a revision. Like many women in America, Sicilian women now demand educational and career opportunities. In many cases, however, the transition has generated stress and conflict within the families. The importance of weddings, baptisms, and funerals has not diminished among later generations of Sicilian Americans. As an extension of their religious faith, these events are observed in the manner of Roman Catholicism, combined with elements that are more traditional than religious.
They also tend to be lavish and expensive, especially the weddings. The majority of expenses fall on the daughter's family, but in view of the rising costs of weddings, some families are beginning to allocate expenses a little more evenly. However, because of the importance placed on the event, it is not considered inappropriate if a family goes into debt to pay for the wedding. The celebrations begin early; the bride is given several showers before the wedding, where she receives gifts and money.
Male friends and relatives of the groom thrown him stag parties. The weddings are generally all-day celebrations and the ceremony is followed by a large reception. Earlier immigrants continued the tradition of large guest lists, subsequent generations of Sicilian Americans have considerably cut down the number of invited guests. Like weddings, baptisms are very special to Sicilian Americans. The role of godparent is chosen very carefully, for that role represents a substantial investment of time and money to the person chosen.
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The baptism is performed as soon after the birth as possible; traditionally, an unbaptized baby was susceptible to the devil. The godparents furnish the clothing the baby wears during the ceremony. Among the more traditional, a religious medal is sometimes included to ward off the "evil eye. After a death occurs in a Sicilian American family, there is an outpouring of food, flowers, and money from friends and relatives. The grief is shared with the family and everyone, even distant kin, is expected to pay respects. During the wake, which can last up to three or four days, the casket is left open, and the mourners can kneel and say a prayer.
Relatives are arranged in the importance of closeness to the deceased for the funeral and the funeral procession to the cemetery. Sicilian American funerals have given way to some American traditions such as cutting the length of the wake, but in general the funerals tend to be more openly emotional and elaborate than American funerals. Sicilians have a long history of religious activity in the New World. As early as the seventeenth century, Catholic missionaries sailed to the West Coast in an effort to convert Native Americans to Christianity.
Father Piccolo became a part of the exploration journey through Lower California and soon proved an apt mapmaker. He was appointed "visitor of missions" in and spent forty years in California before his death there in Father Saverio Saetta was also instrumental in early missionary efforts. The Jesuit missionaries, however, had little in common with the Sicilian immigrants that arrived en masse between and While the vast majority of Sicilian immigrants were Roman Catholics, many of their religious beliefs were based on a mixture of Catholicism, paganism, and superstition.
Tied to an agricultural world, their semi-religious traditions and customs had been celebrated for centuries, virtually untouched and unchallenged from the unrest provoked in other countries during the Protestant Reformation. Their faith was an important extension of their local identity and the feste honoring the patron saints of their villages were sacred rituals. Helpless and vulnerable against the elements, the superstitions, saints, and magic their folk religion provided them with helped to ease the uncertainties and anxieties of their rural lifestyle. Early Sicilians brought their folk religion with them to the New World.
The sheltered village enclaves allowed the Sicilians to continue practicing their religion as they were accustomed to in Sicily. Each village continued the practice of the feste, and many held fast to their belief in witcheries such as the "evil eye. In their eyes, the Sicilians' festival processions and worship of saints smacked of paganism and idolatry, and to the Protestants it represented the worst of Catholic excess.
In addition, the Sicilians were unaccustomed to regular attendance at church or confessions, and entertained a general distrust for clergy members.
Tensions ran high between Sicilian Catholics and Irish Catholics. The Irish largely controlled the American Catholic churches, and they resented the Sicilians' potential encroachment. Eventually the Sicilians founded their own parishes, where they could practice their faith as they chose. Immigrants from the area of Palermo founded the Chapel of Saint Rosalia, while those from Patti founded Saint Mary of Tyndaris Sicilians from other villages quickly followed suit.
There the Sicilians were free to practice the folk religion of their villages. Second and third generation Sicilians, however, gradually phased out most of the more superstitious and supernatural elements of the Old World and preferred to practice religion in more conventional ways. The younger generation found the folk elements an old-fashioned and embarrasing reminder of their parents' and grandparents' immigrant status. In general, the feste honoring the various patron saints are still celebrated, but they can and should be labeled as cultural rather than religious celebrations.
Because the first Sicilian immigrants generally were unskilled laborers, the jobs they found in America were of the lowest sort. They worked in factories, operated pushcarts, worked on the railroads, dug tunnels, worked at construction sites, worked on the docks, and cleaned streets. The Sicilians in New Orleans worked in the sugarcane fields, while those in San Francisco and Boston gravitated toward the waterfront, where they fished for trade.
Sicilian women worked mainly in the garment trade, in factories, or alongside their husbands in the fields. Only a fortunate few men were artisans in Sicily, and those few fared much better. Skilled laborers were able to find jobs as carpenters, masons, bakers, and plumbers. In many ways early Sicilian immigrants were exploited, sometimes even before they left Sicily.
The Sicilian Cart
A type of labor recruitment system evolved in which a padrone a fellow Sicilian that operated as a middle man between the immigrants and American bosses lured Sicilian men over to America with the promise of paid passage and a guaranteed job. In this way the padrone provided American companies with large numbers of employees for which they were paid handsomely. The Sicilians, however, were charged high interest for the "loan" of their passage money and were treated as slaves by their new employers. The road to financial security was long and difficult. Since the families hovered near the poverty level, their children had to leave school early in order to supplement their parents' income.
As there was no chance of learning a trade, the children, like their parents, were unable to rise above the status of unskilled laborer. All three men amassed millions. But the majority of the Sicilians found it difficult to break out of the cycle, a problem that was exacerbated by the Great Depression.