Friday, November 13, 2009

Why Leave Italy?

Recently I’ve become interested in learning more about Italian immigration. I keep reading information on wineries, and the history is so often about an Italian immigrant coming over, getting a small plot of land, and years later turning it into a respected staple of Argentinian wine. In Argentina, you can’t turn 10 feet without seeing some signs of Italian influence. Maybe it’s the ubiquitous pizza shop, the hand gestures, or the names like “Federico” or “Di Napoli.” It’s pretty obvious that Italian immigration to countries like Argentina and the United States played a part in shaping these cultures, and there are just as many examples like this in the U.S.

Yet this all go me wondering why so many Italians chose to immigrate. I’ve been to Italy a few times, and I love it there. The small town built into hills that shine golden at sunset, the animated characters who make you laugh even as you don’t fully understand what they’re saying, and the discovery of some other ancient artifact around every corner. And hey, let’s not forget the food, wine, and women. It’s a historian/oenophile/culinary/dude’s heaven. Who would ever want to leave such a place?

So I started doing some research, just to get an idea of what caused so many millions of Italians to leave their homes for the great unknown, in search of a “better life.” I found a comprehensive university paper written by Alessandra Venturini for the Department of Economics at the University of Turin. This paper titled, Italian Migration, was written in November, 2003, but the facts haven’t changed. Here’s what the author had to say in this 49 page dossier.

During the period of 1861-1976, over 26 million people emigrated from Italy, with half of them going to other European countries and the rest going to countries in North and South America. Two-fifths of all emigrations were from regions in southern Italy. Based off of multiple sources, Venturini asserts that the main cause for mass emigration was due to the slow and difficult economic development in Italy following unification, as well as the economic expansion in other countries occurring at the same time.

So basically, as one might imagine, poorer people left their homes in search of more opportunity. What American doesn’t know that? The obvious might have been stated, but I still find it interesting from time to time, thinking of a situation being so rotten that you would leave a country like Italy for the rest of your life. To leave behind all of your friends and family, everything familiar, and just start over. Maybe it’s more relevant to me because immigration has been a big part of my life, and though I have been living abroad for over a year, I’m not an immigrant, and I plan to go home at some point.

The document had some other interesting information as well. Between 1875-1928 emigration from Italy reached its peak, with about 17 million emigrants abroad. Eventually, the government started to get worried about losing so many citizens and had to put into effect restrictions on leaving the country. After World War II, emigration was mostly to Europe, and especially to Germany. In the 1970’s there was a switch, however, as the economic situation improved, and the country became a place of immigration, rather than emigration. Today, Italy sees immigrants arriving for work opportunities from other European nations, Africa, and Asia. The majority of those who leave Italy now are specialized and skilled in a field, or go for a short period of time and return.

An equation was even created to describe what would cause someone to emigrate.

M(iod) = f (W d– Wo - C) f>0

The individual decision to emigrate (Mi) from the area of origin (o) to the area of
destination (d) is a positive function of the expected income differential in countries of
destination (Wd) and origin (Wo), net of migration costs (C). Thus, the larger the income
expected benefit from migration, the more likely the move.

If you ask me, that seems a bit over the top. I don’t think immigrants are sitting around scratching their heads and doing the math.

I hope that this information doesn’t seem too confusing or use too much jargon. The point that I’m trying to make is simply that even if you live in a beautiful country, economic situations can cause you to take a leap of faith and try for something better. Many Argentinians, as well as Americans, trace their roots to Italy. The mass migrations have stopped coming out of Italy for now, but who knows where the next wave will be from, and for how long that will last.


waitinginthedark said...

Interesting post...
I'm Italian, and I fully recognize the beauties of my country: history, art, landscapes, nature. However, the idea visitors get of Italy is sometimes (or often?) misleading and leads to your question: why should someone decide to emigrate in another country?
The answer is both simple and complicated. Italy is a land of contradictions. It used to be very poor in the past, especially in the past, and still is to a certain extent. We can admire every day incredible testimonies of the past, but we are mostly unable to look at the future. Although economic conditions have strongly improved since WWII, everything is complicated in Italy. Houses are unaffordable, getting a fixed job with a normal salary is often a dream for young people, funds for research and innovation are systematically cut down. And what is worst is what I call the current "war among poor people". Italians, who used to be immigrants in the past, are now fighting against foreigners trying to integrate themselves. They arw simply doing to immagrants what they suffered in the past abroad.
What makes me (and hopefully other people) very sad, is that Italy is a beautiful country that has an incredible unexploited potential. But as long as we will look at the past we will become and older and older culture. No wonder then that the few (cause none is having children anymore) young people are dreaming of a life full of possibilities abroad.

Jon said...

Thanks for commenting. I definitely agree that there's always a difference in traveling somewhere and living there. I see that on a daily basis in the differences between the people who travel to Argentina and those who live here. Even people who live or study here for a short time have different lives than those who work full time, like myself.

As much as I love Italy, I'm sure that you're right about problems like that existing, and only showing up below the surface once you have lived there.