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DEI Spotlight

Recognizing Italian Heritage Month

National Italian-American Heritage month was first recognized by the United States Congress in October 1989 as a tribute to all Italian-Americans’ contributions to our nation, and to highlight the cultural impact of the Italian-American community. Italian American Heritage Month was first celebrated in 1989 by a special proclamation of both Congress and President George H. W. Bush.

To escape poverty and violence in Southern Italy and the Sicily islands, over four million Italians immigrated to the United States between 1880 and 1924. It is said that during World War I, Italian Americans constituted about 12 percent of the total armed forces of the U.S. During World War II, Italy had joined the Axis powers and declared war on the U.S. The Italian-American community in the U.S., however, showed unswerving loyalty to the U.S.

United States Marine GySgt. John Basilone and 13 other Italian Americans were awarded the Medal of Honor during WWII. Basilone was the only U.S. Marine in WWII to be awarded both the Medal of Honor and the Navy Cross, our nation’s two highest military awards for the Sailors and Marines. His Medal of Honor was for heroism during the Battle of Henderson Field. His Navy Cross was for extraordinary heroism during the Battle of Iwo Jima. Enrico Fermi, a nuclear physicist, contributed to the development of the first atom bomb, including by conducting the first nuclear chain reaction under the stands at the University of Chicago’s Stagg Field. He made important contributions to the development of quantum theory, nuclear and particle physics and to statistical mechanics.

In the 20th century, many Italian Americans became involved in politics, sports and the arts. For example, during the 1930s-1940s, New York’s Fiorello La Guardia served both as a U.S. Congressional Representative and as Mayor of New York. A panel of 69 scholars in 1993 ranked him first among the ten best mayors in American history. Legendary baseball player Joe DiMaggio was a 13 time All Star who set a record many consider to be unbreakable – hitting safely in 56 consecutive games. The U.S. has boasted several well-known Italian American singers like Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, and Madonna. The cartoon “Donald Duck” was made by Al Taliaferro, and “Tom and Jerry” was co-created by Joseph Barbera. Award-winning actors and directors like Frank Capra and Martin Scorsese rose to stardom.

Italian Americans were subjected to widespread discrimination and racial profiling. One of the largest lynchings in U.S. history happened in 1890 when 11 immigrants were killed due to their alleged role in the murder of David Hennessy. The movies and mainstream media portrayed Italian Americans as violent criminals. Movies like “The Godfather” and TV shows such as “The Sopranos” furthered these stereotypes.

To show appreciation towards Italian Americans for their remarkable achievements and contributions in arts, science, and sports, we celebrate Italian-American Heritage and Culture Month.