top of page

Sicilians in America


Above:  Italian Immigrants running a community grocery store in New Orleans, Louisiana



Located off the tip of the Italian peninsula, Sicily is the largest island in the Mediterranean Sea and measures 9,920 square miles (25,700 square kilometers). As a result of its close proximity to both Italy (separated by the Strait of Messina by less than two miles) and North Africa (separated by less than 100 miles), Sicily has traditionally been regarded as a bridge between Africa and Europe. Officially considered one of the regions of Italy, Sicily has nevertheless enjoyed regional autonomy with extensive powers of self-government since 1946.

Sicily is comprised of nine provinces: Agrigento, Caltanissetta, Catania, Enna, Messina,

Palermo, Ragusa, Siracusa, and Trapani, as well as numerous adjacent islands including the Egadi Islands, the Aeolian Islands, the Pelagie Islands, and the Ustica Islands. The terrain is largely mountainous with Europe's largest volcano, Mount Etna, representing the highest peak at 3,260 meters. The capital of Sicily is Palermo, which has a population of 500,000 and is the largest city in Sicily.

Sicily's ethnically diverse population of slightly over five million people reflects centuries of foreign rule. The major ethnic groups include native Sicilians, Arabs, Greeks, Spanish, and northern Italians. Although the vast majority of Sicilians are Roman Catholics, there are smaller numbers of Greek Orthodox Christians.



Sicily's strategic location in the Mediterranean has prompted centuries of invasion and occupation by foreign powers and closely parallels the rise and fall of virtually every empire since the eighth century B.C. The name "Sicily" is thought to have originated with the Sikels, one of three peoples who occupied Sicily during the Neolithic Age.

Thereafter, during the seventh and eighth centuries B.C., the Greeks established colonies, including Messina, Syracuse, and Gela, under which Sicily flourished culturally. Although the Carthaginians arrived at roughly the same time as the Greeks, they were confined to the northwest of the island and exerted a lesser influence on the island. However, by the third century B.C. the Greek Empire declined and the Romans established control, which lasted until the fifth century A.D. Sicily was subsequently occupied by the Ostrogoths, the Byzantines, and the Arabs.

Sicily flourished once again under Norman rule, which began around 1000 A.D. Frederick II's reign (1211-1250) produced an outpouring of literary, scientific, and architectural works, representing a cultural peak. After his death, however, Sicily passed into the hands of France, an oppressive occupation that ended with the bloody "Sicilian Vespers" revolt in 1282. Thereafter, for the better part of the next six centuries, the Spanish ruled Sicily, with periodic occupation from other countries. Weary from years of invasion, the Sicilians rallied under Giuseppe Garibaldi, who won control of the island in 1860. The Sicilians enthusiastically supported the unification of Italy, which was completed during the Risorgimento of 1860-1870. The unification with Italy did not, however, prove particularly beneficial to Sicily. Quickly deemed part of "the Southern problem," the Sicilians were forced to endure military conscription and a heavy tax burden. The mafioso (or mafia), an underground element often linked with criminal activity, quickly became a stronghold of power in Sicily. Efforts on the part of the Sicilians to revolt against the new laws were quickly suppressed, often brutally.



Tensions remained between northern and southern Italy into the early part of the twentieth century. In the 1920s Benito Mussolini came into power in Italy and established Fascist control. Mussolini waged unofficial war on the Sicilian mafioso, and official war against the Allies during World War II. Sicily proved crucial to the Allied effort and was successfully conquered in the July-August 1943 campaign. The Allied victory forced Mussolini's fall from power, and following the war a large separatist movement was begun in Sicily, which agitated for its own rule. Although the Sicilians were not able to achieve this goal, they were not wholly unsuccessful.

Sicily remained a region of the newly created Republic of Italy, but it was granted regional autonomy in 1946. However, social, political, and economic problems continued to plague the region. High illiteracy and unemployment rates, coupled with natural disasters, served to reinforce rather than lessen the poverty of the Sicilians. And, freed from the restrictive measures of Mussolini's regime, the mafioso quickly regained a large portion of power in Sicily.

In the last part of the twentieth century, serious efforts were made to lessen the influence and control of the mafia and to rejuvenate the economy.



Sicilians have a recorded presence of over 300 years on American soil. In the late seventeenth century, the brothers Antonio and Tomaso Crisafi sailed to America. By 1696 Antonio Crisafi was in charge of the Onondaga fort, located in what is now New York State. On the West Coast in southern California, an early missionary named Father Saverio Saetta (a Jesuit), was involved in early efforts to convert the Native Americans to Christianity. He perished at the hands of the natives in 1695.

Sicilian immigration remained relatively slow until the latter part of the nineteenth century. However, several Sicilian immigrants distinguished themselves in the decades leading up to that time. During the Civil War, Enrico Fardell was commissioned a colonel in the Union Army and was rapidly promoted to brigadier general for distinguished services. Father Venuta, a former professor from the University of Palermo, built the Church of St. Joseph and several school buildings in New Jersey shortly after the Civil War.



The first significant wave of Sicilian immigrants to the United States began in the late 1880s. Before 1880 less than 1,000 Sicilians immigrated to America per year. But by 1906 over 100,000 Sicilians left for the States in that year alone. Ultimately, out of the 4.5 million Italians that immigrated to the United States between the years 1880 and 1930, one out of every four was a Sicilian. The immigrants represented virtually every area in Sicily. The numbers would have been higher but for the passage of the U.S. Immigration Act of 1924. The Act reduced the number of persons allowed to immigrate to the United States from Italy to 3,845.

The surge of Italian immigrants to the United States happened for several reasons. After the unification of Italy was completed in 1870, Sicilians were confident their lot would improve after centuries of la miseria. However, they were soon disillusioned. Sicily suffered a series of agricultural crises, which precipitated a sharp drop in the grain and citrus markets. The discovery of sulfur in America greatly reduced Sicily's role in foreign market. In addition, there was widespread economic exploitation of the Sicilians, who were heavily taxed under the new government.

Eventually the Sicilians banded together against the intolerable conditions, largely in the form of peasants' and workers' organizations termed mutual aid societies (mutuo soccorso). The mutual aid societies contributed in part to the formation of the Fasci, a Socialist-directed movement. By the 1890s, the Fasci movement was a powerful force, with revolts that were increasingly threatening to those in power. Between the years 1892 and 1894, the Fasci was forcibly suppressed by the government and ordered to disband. Many of the former leaders of the movement fled to the United States, while other immigrants responded to the deteriorating economic conditions, from which they saw no relief.



The main areas of Sicilian settlement in the United States included the major industrial centers of the country including: New York, New Jersey, Massachusetts, California, Illinois, and some parts of the South, including Louisiana and Texas. The heaviest concentrations of Sicilian Americans were in New York, Chicago, Boston, New Orleans, and San Francisco, where jobs for unskilled workers were readily available. Sicilians also migrated to rural areas such as Bryan, Texas, where over 3,000 Sicilians had settled by the 1890s.

This generation of Sicilian immigrants tended to cluster together in groups according to the regions from which they had emigrated. In New York City those emigrating from the village of Cinisi huddled together on East 69th Street, while larger sections like Elizabeth Street contained emigrants from several different areas including Sciacca and Palermo.

Sicilians from fishing villages settled in Boston on the North Street, while others settled in San Francisco's North Beach. Many of the districts were soon regarded as "Little Italys." Sicilians in Chicago congregated in an area known as "Little Sicily," and those in New Orleans lived in a district dubbed "Little Palermo."

While large proportions of Sicilian Americans continue to live in urban areas, subsequent generations of Sicilian Americans gradually moved away from the old neighborhoods. Economic prosperity has enabled many to own their own houses in the suburbs, a fulfillment of the dreams of their immigrant grandparents.



Many of the earliest immigrants from Sicily were young males or heads of households who intended to work for a short time in the United States before returning to Italy. After several years of working, over half would eventually send for their families and permanently establish themselves in various cities across the country. In a "chain migration" other families from the village would then immigrate to the same area. There was subsequently little assimilation at first, even among Sicilians who had emigrated from different regions.

The early Sicilian immigrants held fast to the various dialects and celebrations of their native villages. Many never learned to speak English at all, and there was little intermarriage with other immigrant groups. Sheltered from the larger culture, the "Little Sicilies" that the immigrants created mimicked the world they had left behind. Mutual aid societies like the Caltanisetta (Sicily) Society in Baltimore and the Trinacria Fratellanza Siciliana in Chicago aided the immigrants with housing, employment, and general acclimation. Sicilian cuisine and entertainment could be found in virtually every Sicilian settlement area. Sicilian dances and songs were performed at the local music halls, in addition to a number of puppet shows, a traditional Sicilian entertainment. Agrippino Manteo's widely popular "Papa Manteo's Life-Size Marionettes," attracted large Sicilian audiences throughout the early part of the twentieth century. Weekly newspapers like the Corriere Siciliano (The Sicilian Courier) brought the Sicilian immigrants news from Sicily.

The Sicilians' seemingly stubborn resistance to assimilation was fueled in part by the hatred they aroused in their new country. Many Americans believed Sicilians were an "inferior race" destined to remain in ignorance and poverty. The prejudice that this belief encouraged generated a vicious cycle of limited economic and educational opportunities. Foremost among those who spurned the Sicilians were the earlier arrivals from northern Italy. The traditional animosity between the northern and southern Italians spilled over into the new land. Northern Italians, who had a greater number of skilled laborers among them, were therefore more likely to land higher-paying jobs than Sicilians, the majority of whom were peasants.

Furthermore, northern Italian immigrants were more established in the New World and had begun to achieve a relative degree of prosperity. They were reluctant to be lumped with the newly arrived Sicilians, who they had long considered inferior to them. Consequently, they struggled to disassociate themselves from the Sicilian immigrants. In many instances the northern Italians would move out of neighborhoods when the Sicilians began to populate them. A 1975 article by F. Ianni and E. Reuss in Psychology Today quotes a northern Italian immigrant: "Trust family first, relatives second, Sicilians third, and after that, forget it."

"To this day, some Sicilians who also believe in the Evil Eye try not to forget to put their first stocking on the left leg, in order to ensure a day of good luck. And if, while praying at midnight, they should hear the baying of a dog, they will expect male notizia (bad news)."

"Southern Italian Folklore in New York city" (New York folklore Quarterly, v. XXI, 1965).

But if the northern Italians were suspicious and dismissive of the Sicilians, then the rest of America was openly hostile. Sicilians were labeled "dirty," "diseased," and "political anarchists," and were accused of introducing a criminal element into the United States, namely the Mafia. The notorious underworld activities of Sicilian Americans such as Charles "Lucky" Luciano were duly reported in newspapers across the United States. The image of the Sicilian "mobster" had devastating consequences for all Sicilians.

Numerous innocent Sicilians were charged and convicted of heinous crimes, usually with flimsy circumstantial evidence to support their cases. When the jury system failed to convict, citizens took matters into their own hands. A case in point occurred in 1891 in New Orleans, Louisiana, where 11 Sicilians were lynched by a mob of "good citizens," outraged at the not-guilty verdict returned in a trial. Similar incidents on a smaller scale occurred in other towns throughout Louisiana well into the next century.

Given the amount of hatred these first Sicilian immigrants encountered in the New World, it is not surprising that they preferred to remain in sheltered enclaves surrounded with familiar village dialects and customs. Even as other immigrants began to consider themselves "Americans," Sicilians continued to identify themselves by their particular villages. Neither were they entirely sure of their place in the emerging Italian American culture. Although the United States grouped Sicilians under the category of "Italians," Sicilians were reluctant to do so. The unification with Italy and Sicily was less than 100 years old, and the bitterness it had wrought ran deep among Sicilians. However, second and third-generation Sicilian Americans were less concerned with such distinctions and were more apt to label themselves "Italian Americans."

Ultimately, Sicilian immigrants followed an assimilation pattern similar to northern Italians, albeit at a noticeably slower rate. As educational opportunities increased, so too did economic opportunities. As with Italian Americans overall, Sicilians proved they were "American" in the fullest sense of the word during World War II. Sicilian Americans were able to provide crucial military aid, particularly during the Sicilian campaign of 1943. World War II marked something of a turning point as second-and third generation Sicilians achieved financial security and social acceptance. Although images of mafia lords continue to dog the Sicilians, they are far from being the victims of hatred and discrimination they once were.



Sicilians have a variety of traditions, many of which are derived from quasi-religious beliefs. For example, according to an old folk belief, bread made during the first three days of May will result in mold and roaches throughout the house. The origins of this tradition can be traced to a legend about a woman making bread who denied a crumb to a beggar and was generous to devils masquerading as knights. This mistake resulted in the dangers inherent in making bread during the first three days of May.

Other traditions and customs are traced back to an agricultural lifestyle. Sicilians would ritually taste every new product that came from the earth while reciting the words, "Whatever I eat today, may I eat it next year." Dried figs were left in a basket and were not touched until the feast day of St. Francis of Assisi, in the belief that moths would ruin them unless they were protected by the saint. There was also a lingering belief in forms of witchcraft: a belief in the "evil eye" and the need for an exorcist for a person whose soul has been overtaken by devils. Many of the agricultural traditions and customs were difficult to transfer to the industrial New World and disappeared with immigration.



Many proverbs from Sicilian culture have survived through the generations: With a rooster or without a rooster, God will still make the dawn; Nothing scratches my hand like my own nails; The war is lost for too much advice; The words of your enemies can make you laugh, but those of a friend can make you cry; Crooked wood is straightened with fire; You can't have meat without the bone; Do not be too sweet lest you be eaten, do not be too sour lest you be shunned; He who digs a grave for his brother falls in it himself; If it doesn't stain, it soils; A person eating must make crumbs; A rock offered by a friend is like an apple; A fish starts smelling bad from the head.


Sicilian cuisine is savory and flavorful, and reflects the influence of a diverse cultural inheritance. An Arab influence is particularly noticeable. The food is hot and spicy, and eggplants, olives, pine nuts, and capers are plentiful, along with the ubiquitous pasta and tomatoes.

Some of the main dishes include: pasta con le sarde (sardines, raisins, pine nuts, and capers); frittedda (peas, fava beans, and artichokes); pasta con pescespada (pasta with swordfish); pasta con le melanzane (pasta and eggplant); and cuscus (Sicilian couscous). Special dishes include the ragu Siciliano delle feste (Sicilian feast day ragout). The Sicilians are also known for their desserts, including their gelato Siciliano (Sicilian ice cream) and cannoli, a fried pastry stuffed with ricotta cheese and candied fruit. Cassata is also made with ricotta and candied fruit, in addition to almond paste and sponge cake, and martorana is a form of marzipan for which Sicilians are well known.

The grinding poverty that characterized Sicily in the early decades of the twentieth century forced Sicilians to exist at a mere sustenance level. It is ironic that many of the Sicilian peasants were unable to enjoy many of the foods unique to their region until they emigrated to the United States and could afford to do so. Food became a central part of the immigrants' lives and found a prominent place in many of the religious and cultural celebrations. Toward the end of the twentieth century there was a renewed interest in Sicilian cooking, and recipe books became easily accessible.


Along with traditional Catholic and American holidays like Christmas Day, New Year's Day, and Easter Day, Sicilians also celebrate several feast days. Sicilian immigrants brought with them their feste, which honor the patron saints of the various villages from which they had arrived. The feste marked not only a day of celebration, but reinforced the ties the immigrants still had to their native villages. Immigrants from Palermo honored Saint Rosalia, immigrants from Catania honored Saint Agatha, and still others honored Saint Gandolfo, Saint Joseph, and Saint Anthony. Lavish processions complete with parades, fireworks, and traditional Sicilian songs and dances characterized the feste. Nor were the festivals limited to the honoring of the patron saints of the villages. Immigrants from Palermo continued the practice of honoring Madonna del Lume (Holy Mother of Light) in San Francisco. A procession would lead down to the Fisherman's Wharf for the ancient Blessing of the Fishing Fleet, after which celebrations with music and dancing would take place. The feste celebrations of the Sicilian immigrants continue to be held today, and are equally lavish, if not more so. Many celebrations, like the annual feste honoring St. Joseph in New Orleans, are eagerly anticipated and attended by all groups and not just those of Sicilian ancestry.


Common Sicilian greetings and other expressions include the following: milli grazii - many thanks; cuntenti di canuscirivi -glad to meet you; addiu-goodbye; una bona idea -a good idea; sì, daveru -yes, indeed; scusatimi -excuse me; pir favuri - please; mi chiamu -my name is; saluti -health; santa -saint; cu piaciri -with pleasure; benissimu -fine; bon -good; cuntenti -content; oggi -today; dumani - tomorrow; amicu -friend; and gentillissimu -very kind.



In Sicily, the family was a strong defense against the desperate and unrelieved poverty that characterized life. Each family member contributed to the all-encompassing and often heartbreaking effort to survive. First loyalties were reserved for the closest kin (casa). This was an economic necessity as each family competed with other families for survival. Resolutely patriarchal, the family deferred to the father on every decision. But the mother's role in the family was also important; while she did not possess an equal share of the authority, she nevertheless had the important task of running the household. Children were expected to share in the responsibilities of maintaining the household from an early age.

A new emphasis was placed on extended relatives during the immigration process. Although the economic competition in Sicily fostered less of a sense of cooperation beyond the casa, a distinction was generally made for a second tier of kin (parenti). While the parenti played a peripheral role in Sicily, they became an important factor in immigrants' lives, in many cases becoming the first link in a migration chain. The parenti provided much needed emotional and financial support, eventually commanding almost as much loyalty as the casa.

Many Sicilians, however, felt that family loyalty as a whole suffered as a consequence of migration to the United States. The early Sicilian immigrants attempted to duplicate traditional Sicilian family patterns in the New World. Men continued to exert the greater share of authority, at least on the surface, while the women ran the households. Children continued to contribute to the economic support of the family from an early age. However, there were important changes that occurred with migration. Frequently the women, both wives and daughters, worked outside of the home. Mothers could no longer supervise their children in the manner they were accustomed to in Sicily. First the children went to school, and from there they were pulled out as soon as possible to go to work. As the children of the immigrants began to absorb American ways, they felt increasingly resentful of the expectations of their parents. The children began to question the old ways, such as automatically turning over their wages to their parents. The parents in turn felt betrayed by what they felt was the children's lack of respect for the family. The gap between the immigrants and their children continued to widen and foster tensions as the children grew more "Americanized." As these first immigrants passed on, however, traditional Sicilian family values gradually waned and the distinctions that marked a Sicilian family became less apparent. Nevertheless, la famiglia continues to play an important role in the lives of Sicilian Americans today.


Sicilian immigrants carried with them a fixed set of rules concerning women's roles within the patriarchal household. Fathers perceived a fierce obligation to protect the chastity of their daughters and when the daughters were old enough to marry, they were protected and dominated by their husbands. Wives and daughters stayed strictly within the boundaries of running the households and did not work outside of the home. Such a system could not be maintained in the United States. When it was possible, wives continued to work in the house, and their daughters helped them cook, clean, and care for the younger children. But many women, even unmarried women, were forced from sheer economic necessity to work outside of the home. The women worked in factories, in the garment industry, and in the South, they worked in the fields alongside the men.

The old patriarchal system clashed with the new expectations and roles for women. Fathers were unable to supervise the activities of their daughters in the manner to which they had been accustomed. At school, daughters learned "American ways" that were considered unsuitable and compromising to their chastity by Sicilian standards. In increasing numbers, the daughters desired additional education beyond the household arts. Sicilian men were not in the habit of considering education-any trade, in factories, or alongside their husbands in the fields. Only a fortunate few men were artisans in Sicily, and those few fared much better. Skilled laborers were able to find jobs as carpenters, masons, bakers, and plumbers.

In many ways early Sicilian immigrants were exploited, sometimes even before they left Sicily. A type of labor recruitment system evolved in which a padrone (a fellow Sicilian that operated as a middle man between the immigrants and American bosses) lured Sicilian men over to America with the promise of paid passage and a guaranteed job. In this way the padrone provided American companies with large numbers of employees for which they were paid handsomely. The Sicilians, however, were charged high interest for the "loan" of their passage money and were treated as slaves by their new employers.

The road to financial security was long and difficult. Since the families hovered near the poverty level, their children had to leave school early in order to supplement their parents' income. As there was no chance of learning a trade, the children, like their parents, were unable to rise above the status of unskilled laborer. There were exceptions, however, like Vincenzo La Rosa, who founded the La Rosa Macaroni Company in 1914. Likewise, Salvador Oteri built a successful wholesale fruit business, and Giuseppe Caccioppo founded the Grandview Dairy, Inc. in 1901. All three men amassed millions. But the majority of the Sicilians found it difficult to break out of the cycle, a problem that was exacerbated by the Great Depression. However, Sicilians benefited from the economic prosperity following World War II. Third and fourth generation Sicilians of these first immigrants are represented in virtually every professional field, including medicine, law, higher education, and business.



Many of the first Sicilian immigrants expected to return to Sicily after they had earned an appropriate amount of money. While the naturalization rate was low for Italians in general, it was even lower for those from Sicily. These Sicilian immigrants cared little about American politics or governmental policies; they were more inclined to stay abreast of the political situation in Sicily. Sicilian immigrants were not apathetic toward politics, however. Many of them had been active members of the Fasci movement and were well acquainted with political activity.

Ultimately, it was the type of work the immigrants found in America that brought them to the political forefront with their push toward organized labor. The Sicilians became heavily involved in the struggle for labor unions, a role that earned them the label of "anarchists." However, unsafe working conditions, low pay, and long hours had begun to take their toll on American workers long before the Sicilian mass immigration began. The rapidly expanding capitalist economy in the early twentieth century further widened the gap between American "bosses" and workers. America was ripe for union activity, but the efforts thus far had proved ineffectual. As the initial success of the Fasci Siciliano had proved, the Sicilians were well-versed in organizing workers. The immigrants brought this knowledge with them to Amerca at precisely the time when organized labor was ready for their experience.

The Lexington Avenue strike that took place during the first decade of the twentieth century was an early example of the Sicilians' ability to organize workers. Salvatore Ninfo and other Sicilians successfully agitated for safer working conditions and shorter hours for their work digging subway tunnels. Giovanni Vaccaro led a series of successful cigar strikes in Tampa, Florida, between 1910 and 1920. The Clothing Workers of America Union organized similar strikes, including the big strike of 1919, which was led in great part by "Nino" Capraro. Nor was the push for organized labor restricted to Sicilian American men. Capraro's wife, Maria Bambache Capraro, played a vital role in the needle-workers' strike in 1919.

As naturalization rates increased, Sicilian Americans began to switch from radical union activity to formal politics. During the 1920s and 1930s Sicilians voted primarily Democratic. In addition, they began to send Sicilian Americans into office including the first Italian representative to Congress, Vincent Palmisano (1882-1953), a Democrat from Maryland. Sicilians have since then been elected to most offices on the local, state, and national levels. In 1986 President Ronald Reagan appointed Antonin Scalia to the Supreme Court, a powerful symbol of the acceptance of Sicilian Americans into the political mainstream. While there has been a general shift in political alliance from Democratic to Republican, Sicilian Americans do not favor one party over the other to any great extent.



Sicilian Americans have been represented in the American military in every war from the Civil War to the Persian Gulf. During World War I, many Sicilians had only recently immigrated and there was not a widespread enlistment. Sicilians proved their military worth, however, during World War II, when the island of Sicily played a vital role in the Allied victory. Prior to the Sicilian campaign of 1943, enlisted Sicilian Americans like Max Corvo were able to provide valuable linguistic and technical information that proved beneficial to the campaign.


A large number of Sicilians immigrated to the United States in order to escape the terrible economic and political conditions in Sicily. Many Sicilians believed they would eventually return to Sicily. The earlier "return immigrants" cared little about American culture and maintained strong ties with Sicily. But by the time the immigrants had established a firm presence in America, they found themselves alienated from their Sicilian relatives, who called them Americani. While the first Sicilian Americans continued to visit their relatives in Sicily, they were increasingly estranged from the Old-World Sicilians. Subsequent generations of the first Sicilian-Americans were more committed to American culture and found little in common with their relatives in Sicily. However, some descendants of early Sicilian-Americans were interested in exploring their Sicilian roots in an effort to learn more about the culture their immigrant forebears had left behind. Toward the end of the twentieth century, a renewed interest in Sicilian customs and traditions helped fuel a celebration of the distinctiveness of the Sicilian heritage.

[Note: Excerpts of this page are from the article titled, “Sicilian Americans,” by Laura C. Rudolph, and the book, “My Big Sicilian Family,” by Jeremiah Spence.]

bottom of page