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The Great Italian-American Island

As a resident of Long Island, there’s a one-in-four chance you are an Italian-American.

“It is the largest single ethnic group in Nassau and Suffolk,” said Salvatore J. LaGumina. “About 700,000 people.”

LaGumina should know. He has been studying Italian-Americans for most of his 84 years. The Massapequa Park resident not only has a Ph.D. in the subject, is the director of the Center for Italian-American Studies at Nassau County Community College, where he is a professor emeritus, but he also has recently released a book, Long Island Italian Americans: History, Heritage & Tradition.

“I study their struggle to come to this country and break into the culture,” said the Brooklyn-born son of Sicilian immigrants.

The book, published by The History Press in Charleston, S.C., explores how Italian immigrants, mostly from humble backgrounds, came to Long Island, and from the 1880s through the early 20th century handled the lion’s share of the  area’s backbreaking work. Building the Long Island Rail Road. Mining sand in Port Washington. Tending  nurseries Westbury. And providing the labor behind projects ranging from Long Island Motor Parkway to Belmont Race Track. LaGumina also looks at the area’s boarding houses (Glen Cove, Port Washington and Westbury), as well as early mutual-aid societies and Catholic churches.

“It wasn’t until World War II that many of them got U.S. citizenship,” said LaGumina.

 In the early 1900s, many immigrants expected to return to Italy. They had come here only to earn money, and then go home. Typically, that plan didn’t materialize, and their U.S. sojourn became permanent. Yet they never bothered gaining citizenship.

Like later immigrants, they didn’t apply for citizenship because they were so preoccupied with earning a living and many hadn’t mastered the English language.

With the outbreak of WWII, returning to Italy became unlikely, and the unnaturalized Italians were considered “enemy aliens.” Granted, they didn’t face the harsh internment experienced by Japanese-Americans, though these Italians clearly were “the other.”

“You had to register, there were restrictions on where you could work, and enemy aliens couldn’t have a shortwave radio or cameras,” said LaGumina. “That kind of experience was an added incentive for more and more people to become citizens.”

With citizenship came voting and political clout.

“In 1949, there was a breakthrough, when Frank Gulotta was appointed Nassau County District Attorney,” LaGumina said of the father of future County Executive Thomas Gulotta and who was later elected to the office. “He was the first Italian-American in countywide office.”

From there, it didn’t take long for Italian-Americans to become part of Long Island’s political elite.

“Since 1962, except for seven years [under Francis Purcell], Nassau’s top official has been an Italian-American,” said LaGumina. “And it is going to continue, regardless of who wins the Mangano-Suozzi race.”

At the same time, Italian-Americans on Long Island rose to prominence in everything from industry to medicine, construction to education. In fact, each year NCCC hosts an conference celebrating an aspect of Italian-American life. The 28th conference kicks off Oct. 21 with the theme “Italian-Americans in Sports.”

“I think the Italian-Americans have come a long, long way,” said LaGumina in a bit of understatement.

Yet he is quick to point out that there are still issues and prejudices to address.

“It is an ongoing struggle to introduce Italian language into the circulum of many Long Island school systems,” he said. “There also is a subtle discrimination that still exists that Italian-Americans are connected with crime. It’s not as gross and blunt and blatant as it used to be, but there is enough of it to still come up from time to time.”

Of course, overall, it’s been good news. As LaGumina points out in his book, “[I]t was not only the immigrant generation but also their children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren that found the Ameircan dream on this remarkable island.”