An important center of Italian immigrant life has been the family. Family members have tended to live near one another, especially with the big cities’ Little Italies. Italian youths were encouraged to marry not only within the Roman Catholic faith but also within the Italian community. Marrying outside the Italian community was rare among early immigrants, but it became more common after several generations had passed. First-generation immigrant families strongly discouraged marriage with “Americans”—the general designation for anyone not of Italian descent.
The Americanization of an Italian family is a subtheme of Francis Ford Coppola’s Godfather film trilogy. The films trace the evolution of an Italian family from the youthful Vito Corleone’s initiation into the harsh criminal world of New York City’s Little Italy to his son Michael Corleone’s lavish lifestyle in the FarWest, showing how the family’s customs and lifestyle changed. After a poverty-stricken beginning as an immigrant orphan,Vito eventually prospered but hung onto a traditional Italian lifestyle. In contrast, Michael lived like an American millionaire on a large estate with few signs of Italian culture.
Women played a major role in Italian immigrant families and in the workplace. Although men were usually the first to come to the United States, many Italian women also immigrated alone, either as single women seeking better lives or as heads of households. When whole families immigrated together, the women tended to assume matriarchal roles within the families, allowing their husbands to retain their traditional Italian roles as family heads. Some women did part-time piecework at home for wages, while others worked in factories, entered domestic service, or, together with their husbands and other family members, operated small businesses. Some families ran small grocery stores, or similar establishments, attached to their homes.
The Italian immigrant culture encouraged education as a central part of the goal of achieving better lives. Consequently, Italian Americans have had higher-than-average graduation rates from high schools and average to above-average rates of completion of higher degrees. The Italian family culture subscribed to the concept of the “American Dream,” and encouraged their children to pursue education as a way of getting ahead in the new society. Families in the Little Italies tended to be competitive and were proud to boast of their children’s achievements.