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Italy on the Pacific: San Francisco’s Italian Americans by Sebastian Fichera (auth.)

By Sebastian Fichera (auth.)

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Overhearing them speaking to one another, the natives would typically take them to be Englishmen, for these were the only foreigners ever seen on the island. 26 In fact it was not just in Sicily but in every social class of every region of the country that the local dialect reigned supreme. In Piedmont, it was the tongue used by the sovereign at his official functions; in Venice by the city fathers for their public speeches; in Milan by the aristocrats at the most fashionable salons. Few felt the need for an “Italian” language before the coming of Italy; afterward, learning it proved to be the task of generations.

Nor was this task made any less daunting by the fact that their community-building efforts had apparently run aground. It was after all by means of an immigrant community that the first steps toward mainstream America were bound to take place. In sum, if they stayed in this country, the immigrants had embarked on a long journey—one very likely taking more than a generation—on their way to full assimilation. And the newly formed Kingdom of Italy, of course, was engaged in a similar exercise: how to turn the deeply marginalized populations of Liguria, Tuscany, Calabria, Sicily, and so on into mainstream Italians.

With revolution out of the question, it was a strictly top-down movement— a series of conquests and coup d’états—that cemented the different states together. 28 The underlying fragility of this surface-deep unification became manifest as the new government struggled with mounting financial problems. 30 When the old Neapolitan kingdom broke out in rebellion, stressed finances degenerated into civil war. With the conflict raging out of control and its very survival at stake, the regime resorted to savage reprisals: to gain information, civilian hostages seized from villages were tortured; suspects, tried and convicted by military tribunals, were summarily executed; rural community populations were decimated—their bodies left to rot in public places.

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