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The Godfather | Context

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Italian Immigration to America

Italian immigration to the United States began to increase significantly after the economic depression of the 1890s. At this time, the lure of industrial jobs and wages also increased the immigration of Slavs and Jews. Along with the Italians, this wave of newcomers to America formed what has come to be called the New Immigration, a period that saw the numbers of immigrants equal that of the previous 40 years or so. Before the New Immigration, which lasted until around 1930, most of the immigrants to America came from Germany, Ireland, England, and the Scandinavian countries. Italians made up the largest percentage of the new immigrants. In fact, from 1900 to 1915, about 3 million Italians journeyed to the United States. Between 1876 and 1930, many of these immigrants came from southern Italy, including Sicily. Most of these immigrants were illiterate peasants. Because of their lack of education and skills, they took jobs as laborers, mostly in factories and mines. For example, Puzo's father worked as a laborer for the New York Central Railroad.

Italians came to the United States either to establish a better way of life for themselves and their families in the new country or to earn a significant amount of money and then return to Italy. Most came to the United States because of the harsh living and working conditions in Italy and the lure of higher wages in America. Some Italian immigrants eventually went back to Italy. However, other Italian immigrants, including Puzo's parents, established roots in America. Many immigrants relied on a middleman or padrone from Italy who spoke English to set up jobs with English-speaking employers.

Despite the higher wages, life in the United States was tough for Italian immigrants. Most of them faced severe prejudice. In The Godfather, Puzo often has non-Italian characters use the racial slur guinea to insult Italian Americans. The term refers to the Guinea coast of Africa and suggests that Italians are dark-skinned or not white. For example, Johnny Fontaine says his wife makes fun of him by calling him "an old-fashioned guinea." Also, many Italian immigrants did not earn enough money to pay for decent lodgings. As a result, they ended up living in crowded tenements in poverty-stricken slums, such as Hell's Kitchen in New York City.

Hell's Kitchen

Hell's Kitchen is a term used for the area of Manhattan west of 8th Avenue and between 34th and 59th Streets. Around 1851 a railroad was built in this area that was followed in a few years by factories, slaughterhouses, and lumberyards. Immigrants worked in these facilities but often did not earn enough to maintain decent standards of living. Because of this situation, many of them lived in nearby crowded tenements where the poor conditions led to an increase in crime. Before long, the area became known for cooking up brutal fights, riots, and gang warfare, earning the name of Hell's Kitchen. In The Godfather, Vito Corleone works in a grocery store in Hell's Kitchen, where he lives in a tenement with his wife and child. As Puzo shows in the novel, the criminal element infiltrates the everyday life of immigrants in Hell's Kitchen. In an effort to provide for his family, Vito Corleone decides to become part of this criminal world. Indeed, the Mafia, an organized crime organization consisting mostly of Italians, established a foothold in Hell's Kitchen.

Although Puzo had no direct contact with gangsters, his life in Hell's Kitchen was strongly influenced by the constant fear of criminals. Puzo often heard family stories about these criminals, which influenced his writing. In reality, only a small percentage of Italian immigrants actually entered the criminal underworld. Even so, films and television programs often convey an image of Italian-American life in the United States as being dominated by organized crime, thereby creating a damaging stereotype. The Godfather novel and films have been instrumental in alleviating this stereotype by showing that the majority of Italian immigrants were part of the working class but adding to the stereotype with mafia violence.

The Godfather Legacy

The effect of The Godfather novel and films on Italian-American stereotypes has been a mixed bag. On the one hand, the novel and films have been lauded for providing a sympathetic look at Italian Americans and showing how injustice, prejudice, and poverty led some of them into lives of crime. By looking at the Mafia from the inside out, the novel and films expose the dynamics involved as a person joins organized crime and tries to survive in this world. Also, these works led to numerous other films such as Goodfellas (1990) and television shows like The Sopranos (1999–2004) that took similar approaches to the topic.

However, many Italian Americans claim that The Godfather novel and films add to the stereotype of most Italian Americans being either involved with organized crime or being directly influenced by it. In fact, while The Godfather was being filmed, the Italian American Civil Rights League staged a rally to stop the production. Many Italian Americans also assert that The Godfather novel and films strengthen the stereotype of all Italian Americans constantly eating pasta, having large, close-knit families, and committing acts of violence. Also, the novel and films portray Italian-American men as running businesses and Italian-American women as only involved in domestic chores.

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