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When calcio first came to the North End

calcio-north-endSoccer via the World Cup is making the headlines this past month. Recently, in column for in the Clarion-Ledger, Ann Coulter helped it along when she linked the growing popularity of soccer to “moral decay” in the United States. I thought it was a funny column, a tongue-in-cheek stab at the definite media hype around this increasingly (albeit quadrennially) popular sport.

One point she spoke a definite truth: “If more ‘Americans’ are watching soccer, it is only because of the demographic switch” brought about by the 1965 immigration law. This law did allow a different demographic into the United States, including, among them, soccer loving Italians. I can’t say that Italians are the chief culprits in the growing popularity of soccer in the United States, or the leaders of our moral decline (which, by the way, has long been linked to Italians for some reason or other), but her column and soccer are food for some thought here.

First, a little background:

The 1965 immigrant law, the Hart-Celler Act, was intended to correct the effects of the quota system established by Johnson-Reed Act of 1924, which had limited immigration to the United States from any country at 2 percent of the number of foreign-born from that country who were living in the United States in 1890, according to the census of that year. The law was meant to keep out immigrants from Southern and Eastern Europe, Italians chief among them. It worked: immigration from England fell by about 20 percent, while immigration from Italy by 90 percent.

The Johnson-Reed act was amended in 1953 through the McCarran-Walter Act, which revised the quota by setting it to the 1920 census. Technically, this did allow more Italians to enter, though it also increased the proportion on English and other Northern Europeans who could enter as well. The 1965 Hart-Celler Act completely abolished the quota system and allocated an equal amount of visas (20,000) per country outside the Americas. It also gave preference to relatives of American citizens or residents.

One result of this new law was the increase of Italian immigrants to the United States, as evident in this table where you can see the decrease due to the 1924 law (and WWI) and then the increase due to the McCarran-Walter and then Hart-Celler Acts:

Years # of Italian Immigrants to U.S.
1891-1900: 651,893
1901-1910: 2,045,877
1911-1920: 1,109,524
1921-1930: 455,315
1901-1910: 2,045,877
1911-1920: 1,109,524
1931-1940: 68,028
1941-1950: 57,661
1951-1960: 185,491
1961-1970: 214,111
1971-1980: 129,368

(Numbers taken from Frank Cavaioli, “Patterns of Italian immigration to the United States,” The Catholic Social Science Review 13 (2008): 213-229)

Now, I can’t say with certainty that these Italian immigrants brought soccer to the United States after 1965; a lot of the new immigrants came from countries where soccer had long been popular. I can say, however, with near-certainty — derived from boyhood memory and a little bit of research — that the new Italian immigrants brought soccer to the North End.

As a boy growing up in the North End, we did not play soccer because soccer was a game we associated with “the greasers,” a derogatory word we used to describe all the new Italian immigrants who came to the North End. We picked on the greasers and teased them because of their non-American ways. We made fun of their accents and their cloths, and their hairstyles and their mannerisms; and we made fun of the games they played, like morra and calcio.

That pressure did help to Americanize them, because the younger immigrants took on American (albeit Italian American) habits and mores, among them baseball. But it didn’t stop them, especially if they were over 15 years old, from playing soccer. Soccer flourished in the North End, helped in part by the priests at Sacred Heart, who took the lead in organizing a thriving soccer league – and not a few Italian Americans – along with other Americans – took part in it. Even at St. Anthony’s school, where about 1/3 of my class were new Italian immigrants, the Italian American boys started to play soccer in the playground. I didn’t play a lot, but enough to give me some fundamental skills to the point that the other day, when I was kicking a ball around with some friends and family, my sister was so impressed with my talent that she exclaimed: “Wow, James, you’re a real greaser.”

If Anne coulter is correct that “No American whose great-grandfather was born here is watching soccer,” then it is because very few Italian Americans had great-grandfathers who were born here. She is worried that soccer will inhibit the assimilation of new immigrants, and I share her concern as I think assimilation and integration are important for the future of our country. But I don’t think soccer is to be feared. If Italians are an example, there is nothing to worry about. Soccer never replaced baseball in the North End, nor will it ever. On the contrary, soccer is becoming an American sport. If it is has faults, it is the same faults plaguing all sports that become corrupted by greed, government-corporatism, and the forgetting of the family. These are not the sins of immigrants only, or only of those whose great-grandfathers were born in the United States.

To think of the North End today without thinking of soccer is like thinking of the North End without thinking of Italian food: the two are inseparable. You can read any of Lauren Forcucci’s soccer columns in this magazine to see this. Or you can take a walk down Hanover Street to see it yourself. The cafes — many owned by recent immigrants from Italy — are overflowing with soccer fans, but little anti-Americanism or moral decline that I can see.

I don’t know if those who came before our great-grandfathers, men like Cristoforo Colombo and Amerigo Vespucci, played soccer. They did, however, found and name this country. Those Italians that came after them, my grandfather among them, built America. So on behalf of all Italians in America, who found, named, and built this country, I welcome soccer and soccer loving fans to the United States of Amerigo.

Just give soccer and the new immigrants some time; before long, both will be as American as pizza pie.

About James Pasto

James S. Pasto is a senior lecturer at Boston University, co-founder of the North End Historical Society and editor of the society's journal. To share stories about North End's past, e-mail pasto@bostoniano.info. To find out more about the North End Historical Society, visit alexgoldfeld.com/NEHS.html.

6 comments

  1. Perhaps Ms Coulter has never heard of David Beckham? He aint Italian.

    • Thanks for you comment Guy. I respect Coulter’s comments, and as I said, I think her comments were tongue-in-cheek, though behind it is a strong sense of American identity separate from any old world traits, past and present.

  2. Since when Soccer is an “italian” sport ? Everybody in the world, except USA, play soccer as main national sport and don’t forget immigration waves from Ireland, Germany and East Europe where Soccer is very huge. As for Ann Coulter Column, you know what she was really saying. There is a problem with immigration aliens in the US (as in Europe, especially Italy) so she’s right in a way.

    Greetings from italy,
    Giuseppe

    • Thank you Giuseppe. To clarify, my point was that Italians were among the immigrants who helped make soccer popular in the U.S. today, not that it was an Italian sport. And I disagreed with her claim that soccer is destroying America, though I think she was joking. My own article was meant to match her joking tone. I also agreed with her that immigrants in the U.S. should assimilate, just like Italians in the U.S. did.

      Best wishes,

      Jim

  3. Interesting to hear about post-war immigrants who are usually ignored in Italian American history, as if all immigration stopped in 1924. What’s also interesting is that Boston’s “Little Italy” received so many immigrants, when even Little Italy in Manhattan long ceased to be an immigrant reception area (so the new immigrants settled in the outer boroughs).

    • Hi Matt, I agree. Interest in the post-war immigration is growing. Pirandello in East Boston had a panel on this last year, and IACO at Braintree has one this year, on October 6 – see the calendar on Bostoniano. There is also a scholarly volume on this coming out in 2015 called Real Italians, New Immigrants, edited by Laura Ruberto and Joe Sciora. Thanks for writing. Jim