Ethnic Identity and Ethnic Community

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The contemporary world is affected by the tendencies that have led to the global migration of various communities. Therefore, these tendencies and subsequent globalization have a substantial influence on the ethnic identities and communities of migrants. As a result, similar national identities and communities of co-ethnic migrant individuals might differ from those in their home countries. Apparently, the creation of ethnic identity depends on such diverse factors as the availability of cultural connection with the home country and its quality, the initiatives in the preservation of national identity, and others. At the same time, the external factors, such as the influence of a new culture through media and communication spheres, may change the aspects of ethnic identity’s creation, thus gradually leading it toward assimilation. However, although the major part of these communities and individuals gradually assimilate with the multinational American community, they face diverse barriers that restrain the speed of ethnic assimilation.

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The analysis of the surveys of the representatives of Italian ethnicity in the USA confirms this point of view as they report the presence of specific issues, differentiating them from other American ethnic groups. The aim of the surveys was to obtain the evidence that would allow answering the research question “What factors increase ethnic boundary salience for ethnic group of Italian ethnic groups in the USA?” Among the factors that increase ethnic boundary salience of ethnic Italians in the USA one should mention language, the contrast of cultural contexts, the media space, social cliche, and the preservation of the home country’s traditions. Although these factors do not allow ethnic Italians to merge with the American culture completely, they impact the formation of a double identity that gradually vanishes in the later generations of Italian immigrants.

The Theory

The analysis of literature, dedicated to the problems of ethnic assimilation, confirms that such a barrier as language is relevant both for Italian immigrants and their ethnic community. For some ethnic groups, language issues remain relevant regardless of the term of their residence in a new country after their immigration. The reasons for this are diverse, starting from phonetics and grammar to phraseology and the relevance of use of language forms in different contexts. Thus, the difference of phonetic characteristics of the Italian language lies in the fact that all Romance languages are voice languages, which means that they “exhibit a two-way voicing contrast and they have regressive voice assimilation… [and] opposition” (Huszthy 430). In contrast, Germanic languages, and English in particular, are aspirational ones, similar to other Celtic-originated languages such as Turkish, Chinese, Somali, and others (Huszthy 430). Therefore, this key phonetic difference is a serious obstacle for all Italian immigrants because it is hard for them to master the new ways of pronunciation. An observational analysis of Italians speaking English confirms this statement as a similar phonological accent is present in all Italians although they speak different Italian dialects (Huszthy 429). Consequently, it is possible for the representatives of Italian ethnicity to close the pronunciation gap only in the case they represent the next generations of immigrants.

The difference of cultural contexts leads to the fact that the speed of assimilation of a representative of the Italian community reduces in the case they have a constant connection with the corresponding community in their home country. This issue is especially relevant for first-generation immigrants as they demonstrate behavior that derives from their cultural background (Scoppa and Stranges 3). Such behavior can be supported by their religious beliefs, traditions, and connection to their friends and relatives in their typical Italian neighborhoods (Scoppa and Stranges 8). Therefore, although these individuals assimilate with the new culture over time, they demonstrate resistance to specific cultural phenomena and realities of their new country of residence. Such resistance can be observed through the will to attend Catholic churches of Italian communities, prefer Italian satellite television channels, and so on. In contrast, second-generation Italian immigrants typically have a cultural shock and face other difficulties such as a problem to find a job (Scoppa and Stranges 7). However, due to the fact that they are younger than their first-generation counterparts and they are directly exposed to a non-similar culture, their cultural assimilation is stronger (Scoppa and Stranges 7). Therefore, it is expected that eventually, younger representatives of the Italian community become more adapted to the cultural life in the USA as opposed to their older counterparts.

Furthermore, in the USA, Italian identity is influenced by the exposure of the representatives of this ethnic group to an unfamiliar media space and the social cliche of Americans regarding Italians. On the one hand, the attitude of the media towards immigration and ethnic assimilation is positive as it promotes diverse initiatives that foster community integration processes (Triandafyllidou 240). On the other hand, the quality and the effect of these initiatives depend on the reputation of a media source and its broadcasting or distribution aspects. For instance, scholars blame tabloids and other non-reputable sources for the highlighting of controversial and negative aspects of migration that could harm the process of ethnic assimilation (Triandafyllidou, p. 240). The major reasons for such an effect include a lack of specialized knowledge, a limited time of journalists’ analysis of reported issues, and the practice of changing facts for the value generation of news (Triandafyllidou 240). As a result, the consumers of such information might resist assimilation on the basis of common misconceptions intensified by journalists. In other cases, the representatives of the receiving culture occasionally or deliberately highlight the identity of their Italian counterparts, which might also restrain the process of cultural adaptation. Typically, such stress on ethnic identity is based on the stereotypes, associated with Italians. For example, Americans may refer to such issues as Italians’ hot temper (Caronia and Giunta 237), mentioning it in different conversations or expressing concerns about it. Among such references, the most offensive cliche is depicting an Italian as a knife-wielding crazy person (Caronia and Giunta 237). This problem tends to disrupt the process of acculturation as it eliminates immigrants’ attempts of merging with the domestic American community. More than that, some part of these stereotypes is popularized in the media, which is the case with the mafia. Other common stereotyped images of Italians in the USA include bad driving, excessive spaghetti consumption, coffee, tan, singing, and other stereotypes (Limbrici). Similarly, many Americans share a common misconception that all Italians have a good taste in fashion and always have a fashionable look (Limbrici). Therefore, it is difficult for the representatives of the Italian ethnicity to assimilate with the American community completely because of the resistance, caused by the external factor – prejudice.

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Data and Methods

The research data were obtained during the interviews of two individuals of Italian ethnicity. The approximate length of an interview was 30 minutes. The questions addressed to the participants were divided into two sections. The first section was directed toward obtaining information about the individual level of understanding and self-perception of identity by addressees. The second section investigated this aspect on a broader scale, addressing similar issues at the community level. The first interview was conducted at the local shopping mall, whereas the second one was held via Skype as its participant lived in New York. The selected individuals had different ages and gender, which helped add the diversity factor to the collected data. Thus, the first individual was, Luigi (the name is substituted for maintaining confidentiality), a 67-year-old male, a typical customer at local supermarkets. He was chosen with the aim of finding the support for the theoretical claims that senior Italian individuals have more difficulties than their young counterparts. In contrast, the second interviewee, Gabriela (the name is substituted for maintaining confidentiality), was an Italian woman aged 22, a worker of Little Italy restaurant in New York. Luigi can be described as an individual, who represents the first generation of Italian immigrants because he has been in the US for almost 37 years. In contrast, Gabriela has been in the USA for 7 years, which is why she represents second-generation immigrants. Although the sample consisting of the two individuals cannot be described as convincing, the theory of the principle of their selection allowed testing theories, related to both immigrant generation groups.

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Findings and Data Analysis


The answers, given by Luigi, have confirmed the basic theoretical statements that first-generation Italian immigrants maintain a closer connection to their native culture, which disrupts their complete assimilation into the American community. Thus, the interviewee acknowledges that he has an Italian identity and he reports feeling proud if disregarding the fact of leaving Italy. Among the typical daily activities that Luigi connects with his identity is the principle of selection of products as he used to pick only organic fruit and vegetables. At the same time, he listens to Italian music, occasionally watches Italian satellite television channels, and communicates with his Italian-born friends and neighbors on a daily basis. He is strongly convinced that he is an Italian because he reports having an inner intuitive feeling that people of other ethnicities are somewhat different. In particular, he characterizes himself as an emotional individual who likes comedies, fun, and jokes in big companies, consisting of several families. In contrast, he characterizes the representatives of other ethnicities as less connected to their families and less warm-hearted.

Luigi reports that almost every aspect of his life reveals his ethnic identity, and he gives such examples as conversations with other Italian counterparts and media consumption. He mentions that with time, he almost has gotten used to living in the USA, but he has expressed fear of losing the connection with his Italian community. Some of Luigi’s friends belong to his ethnic group, although he admits that his best friend is a Latino-American man of his age. Luigi is proud to be a first-generation immigrant because he reports feeling special and observing the USA differently several decades ago. The interviewee defines his identity similar to that of his parents, although they live in Italy. He says that he has considered the fact that his ethnic ancestry would be ‘mixed’ after the birth of his daughter. The reason for this was that he did not want her to live in Italy; thus, he accepted that her spouse could be a representative of another ethnicity. Luigi expressed a wish to pass his cultural ancestry to his children and grandchildren, with having a particular interest in cooking Italian dishes, listening to Italian music, and learning the Italian language.

At the community level, Luigi accepts that he belongs to the Italian community, which is confirmed by his daily experience and thinking. The interviewee was a member of an organization that supported local Italian culture and took part in diverse activities such as organizing holidays and concerts. However, because of his age and health condition, he no longer was an active participant of these activities. He occasionally visits the organization, helping new activists and communicating with peers. Luigi reports that, unfortunately, his ethnic group has brought some negative experiences to American history such as mafia and fascism. He wants American schoolchildren to be taught that people should never resort to such malpractices again. At the same time, he mentions that Italians have had a serious contribution to the sphere of music and arts, which is why students should be taught about Italian artists and musicians at schools and universities. Among the traditions that Luigi characterizes as important ones for his community are Roman Catholicism, the corresponding religious celebrations and patron saints as well as the strength of family and community connections.

Characterizing his community as one of the strongest in the USA, he claims that such strength is based on the belief that the Italian community is a big family. It obtains new members from time to time but the incidence of such events is rare. Typically, the representatives of the community are not discouraged from becoming its members because of the maintenance of positive reputation and a warm welcome, given to everyone. According to Luigi’s beliefs, the members of his community are more emotional and they have closer personal connections with one another, which is why theirs is different from other ethnic communities. Luigi’s community has no inequalities and disagreements; thus, men value and respect women, whereas women do not argue with men and support their family at the domestic level. In general, the group does not suffer from discrimination. However, in his lifetime experience, Luigi remembers sometimes being called Mafioso in the community of non-Italian Americans at some of the jobs he has had. In all of these cases, he was not discriminated and the colleagues used this nickname without the aim of offending him. Consequently, Luigi’s responses confirm that as a representative of the first generation of Italian immigrants he resists adaptation with the surrounding American community. Instead, he values the connection with his native culture and attempts to support it for as long as possible.


The responses of another interviewee, Gabriela, demonstrate that her ethnic identity merges with the American one faster than of Luigi’s because she does not face similar barriers to acculturation. After spending seven years in the USA, Gabriela still views herself as an individual with an Italian identity, although she reports noticing that her self-characteristic becomes more cosmopolitan. As a result, she cannot describe herself as ‘really’ Italian because she lives in a multicultural community that has a powerful effect of change. At the same time, she feels most Italian in her workplace because she works in an Italian restaurant. The process of communication with clients and the Italian personnel is natural to her and intensified by the interior that has references to Italy.

The ethnic identity in Gabriela’s family is Italian, and it is strong, but she does not feel its impact since her parents live in Italy. More than that, the major part of her friends represents other ethnic communities, which is why she gradually develops cosmopolitan views, becoming interested in learning about other cultures. Gabriela is a second-generation Italian and her ancestors have never lived in the USA, which is why she has a fresh experience. The interviewee has confirmed that she had a cultural shock during her first visit in the USA. Additionally, she admits that although her identity is Italian, she is a different Italian than her parents and grandparents are. Explaining this, Gabriela presumes that her parents are more conservative and bound to the community, whereas she is open-minded and ready for multicultural contacts. The respondent presumes that her identity can be ‘mixed’ because of the strong influences of New York’s intercultural setting. At the same time, she does not consume any Italian media content. Lastly, Gabriela struggles finding the aspects of Italian identity that she would possibly want to pass to her children. She is sure that she has already lost the core of her Italian identity, which is why she has almost nothing to pass to her children in this sense that is more serious than cooking or music. Instead, Gabriela is convinced that her future children would benefit from living in a single united intercultural community.

At the community level, Gabriela admits that she still belongs to the Italian community, which is her workplace. She contributes to this community by doing her duties and supporting connection with colleagues. She does not belong to any Italian organization in the USA and does not attend Italian-related activities in the city apart from the ones, organized by her restaurant. The interviewee cannot find any strong example referring to the history of her ethnic group. She mentions fascism and Italian opera singers as the only aspects that deserve the attention of American schoolchildren. Furthermore, she believes that Italians are the best cooks in the world so they should teach Americans how to cook. In contrast to Luigi, Gabriela’s community does not have specific references to Roman Catholic traditions. Instead, her community is concentrated more on celebrating Italian holidays such as Liberation Day, the victories of Italian soccer teams, and so on.

Gabriela’s community is strong but the reason for its strength is communication, friendship, and wise management but not cultural and ethnic ties. Workplace events are most likely to bring Gabriela’s community together. The incidence of obtaining new members of the community is rare because the management prefers motivating the existing staff and maintaining long-term collaboration with them. The major part of new staff members is Italians as the restaurant has a focus on Italian culture and setting. Although the restaurant can fire employees, Gabriela does not remember such cases, which is why the community is stable. In the workplace, the members of her community are different because they wear a uniform, but it is hard to differentiate them from others in a non-workplace setting. The one possible reason for detecting the identity of the members of Gabriela’s community is their Italian accent which is the strongest in members that live in the USA for one or two years. The community of the interviewee has no inequalities, and possible disagreements relate only to the workplace context. The malpractice at work is financially punished with the aim of maintaining order and reputation, which is why such incidents are extremely rare. Finally, Gabriela’s ethnic group does not suffer from any discrimination and stereotyping. She admits that people do not discriminate her even when they hear her Italian accent. Consequently, as a representative of the second generation of Italian immigrants, Gabriela vividly demonstrates the lack of barriers to ethnic assimilation and acculturation in the USA.


The interviews of the two representatives of Italian culture confirm the theoretical evidence that such issues as language, cultural context, media consumption, and social prejudices correlate with the speed of immigrants’ acculturation. Although Luigi has spent several decades in the USA, his constant interaction with the native Italian community and occasional consumption of Italian media serve as barriers to full ethnic assimilation. In contrast, Gabriela is not assimilation and acculturation resistant because she does not consume the Italian media, she interacts with her Italian peers only in their workplace and mostly communicates with the representatives of the intercultural community. The information, given by the interviewees, allows stating that the rate and the sustainability of their interaction with the artifacts of their home culture impact the speed of their cultural and ethnic assimilation in the USA. Due to the fact that Gabriela has had less frequent and stable connections with the Italian community over seven years of living in the USA, the process of her acculturation undergoes rather quickly. In contrast, Luigi is concerned about the need for constant cultural support of his native community, which is why he demonstrates the worst acculturation speed, although he has lived in the country for more than 30 years.


The performed analysis of the interview data leads the research to a conclusion that language, cultural context contrast, the differences in media consumption, and exposal to ethnic prejudices mediate immigrants’ ability for acculturation. The evidence, presented by an older Italian interviewee, demonstrates that he maintains a stronger connection with his ethnic groups abroad and in the USA. As a result, the constant interaction with the domestic culture restrains the speed of cultural involvement and ethnic assimilation in the USA. On the contrary, a younger Italian respondent confirms the theoretical presumptions that the decrease of the rate of interaction with Italian peers fosters cultural adaptation and the shift of ethnic identity. Therefore, in the case an immigrant wishes to integrate with the American intercultural community faster, they should reduce the number of cultural ties with their home country.

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