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The National Integration of Italian Return Migration, 1870-1929.

This book examines an important but often ignored component of migration to the United States - the phenomenon of return migration. Return migration reached a peak between 1908-1910 when nearly 823, 000 aliens departed from the U.S. for Europe. Cinel implicitly argues that return migration is significant precisely because it enlarges our understanding of immigration to include its affects on the "homeland," as well as the receiving country. Poised, as some of the best studies in migration history have been in recent years, to pursue a threepronged focus on the process of migration and the history of the two countries affected by this process, the strength of Cinel's book rests with its treatment of the first two areas.

Cinel locates the process of Italian migration and return migration within the political, social and economic problem of national integration and the "southern question" (la questione meridionate) which plagued Italy since its independence in 1870. The "southern question," that is, the political, social, cultural and economic isolation of the southern regions (including Sicily) from the North of Italy, dominated Italian political debate at the end of the nineteenth century. The author traces, mostly through a use of Italian secondary sources, the historic "alienation" of the south in both economic and political terms. The isolation of the region cultivated a "southern ethos" dominated by fear, fatalism, and conservativism. The hallmark of southerners, Cinel concludes, was and still is their "resistance to change" (p. 69).

Return migration, rather than permanent migration, Cinel contends, fit the underlying conservativism of southern Italian peasants. Southerners saw migration as a way to amass needed capital to invest in land or retirement in Italy, not as means of substantively altering their lives. Using both Italian and American immigration statistics, Cinel documents that southerners left Italy for the U.S. in huge numbers at the end of the nineteenth century, and returned in equally large numbers before the outbreak of the Great War, the imposition of immigration restriction laws in the U.S., and the advent of fascism converged to curtail this temporary migratory pattern by the beginning of the 1920's. The original part of Cinel's argument, that the fatalism of southern culture "determined" these characteristics of Italian emigration and return, is less persuasively argued. Moreover, the discussion of how emigrants believed migration would reinforce "traditional life" is oddly devoid of historical actors. In this account, migrants rarely emerge as participants.

On a positive note, Cinel's book nicely suggests the interrelatedness between individual and state interests at the turn of the century. Migration here emerges as a complex process related not only to economic forces, but the interests of new emerging national states in Europe. The Italian government, after some debate to the contrary at the turn of the century, ultimately came to support return migration for its own reasons. Remittances from Italian migration fueled the Italian economy with badly needed capital. Many observers in Rome saw remittances as Italy's "most important national asset" at the turn of the century that could help resolve the economic problems that plagued the south (p. 127). The insistence that migration would solve the "southern question" kept the Italian government from making any profound changes that would integrate the region into the economy and social life of the nation.

Using statistical and other reports from Italian banks and government agencies, Cinel argues that return migration, and the money it generated through remittances and capital investments in Italy, did little to alleviate the economic dependency of the south, and had only a "marginal impact" on southern society (p. 226). Somewhat more sketchily, Cinel posits that many return migrants failed to create a life for themselves, and many were forced to return to the U.S. for work.

The discussion of how return migration affected America promises more than it delivers. Cinel posits that this process sheds significant insight on "the Italian experience in the United States" and the "interaction between Italian-Americans and Americans" (p.5). This conclusion hinges on the author's belief that Italian-Americans currently experience a "sense of alienation" from American society. Cinel locates the source of this "alienation" in the experience of return migration. Those who ultimately settled in the U.S., Cinel claims, did so because they "failed" to use their remittances and savings to create a life in Italy. "That sense of failure," he concludes, was so deep and lasted so long that it affected their American experience." Cinel stretches this far-fetched notion even farther. "Perhaps," he wonders, "the alienation of Italian-Americans from American society is the transference of the deepest ancestral alienation of Italian peasants toward their past, alienation they unsuccessfully tried to overcome through temporary emigration and return migration" (p.7). This is cultural determinism at its worst.

The questions this book raises concerning the relationship of return migration to the history of Italian-American and American ethnicity are more fascinating than the ones it poses and answers. What emerges from Cinel's discussion of Italy in the late nineteenth and twentieth century is a picture of a starkly dislocated and decentralized society. Cinel makes a compelling argument, in fact, that even the notion of "a south" may be too inclusive to actually describe the intra-regional differences that existed and continue to exist within the region. Acknowledging this aspect of Italian history forces one to wonder exactly how a nationally defined Italian-American community with an "Italian" ethnic identity actually emerged in the U.S. Cinel's discussion also highlights the complexity of the process of migration at the turn of the century that has been obscured by the myth of America as the "promised land." Some attention needs to be paid, it seems, to how Italian-Americans and other ethnic groups have collectively forgotten the temporary nature of their initial migration to America. Lastly, the alienation that many members of America's ethnic and racial groups express is more characteristically "American" than Cinel assumes. Its roots may be more profitably sought in American society and its past, rather than in the cultural "ethos" carried over from an ever more distant homeland.
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Author:Goodman, Madeline
Publication:Journal of Social History
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Sep 22, 1993
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