Emigration: past and present

by Francesca Preziotti (1994) and Elena Tardioli (1994) LSP Assisi Italy

On 29 November 2012 we went with our class to Gualdo Tadino, where the REGIONAL   MUSEUM OF EMIGRATION  contains hundreds of documents, images and testimonies, coming  from all parts of Italy. Thanks to this visit we now understand  not only what  emigration is but also what its consequences are   and  how it influenced the Italian population at the end of the nineteenth century. It is interesting to analyze the figure of the emigrant, his hopes but at the same time his nostalgia for his country and the difficulties integrating  in the host countries .

Emigration began between 1876 and 1914 when many Italians left their country  to find work, in particular in France, Germany, Belgium and Switzerland. Some Italians also emigrated to the United States of America, Argentina and Brazil. In order to leave and not be rejected at the border they needed sanitary certificates and passports, where it was indicated if they could read and write, two essential elements for going to America.


The Italians, especially the younger people, left from three different ports: Ancona, Naples and Genoa, directed particularly toward America. This voyage was very long (30 or 60 days) and the sanitary conditions were bad, in fact they were forced to travel in the 3rd class and because of this many children died.


Once they arrived at their destination the immigrants had to undergo medical examinations and very few of them were admitted and able to work in this new land. Afterwards the ones who succeeded received two kinds of permit: A, which lasted for an undetermined period and was hard to obtain, or B which lasted for a determined period.


“Volevano braccia, sono arrivati uomini” (They wanted arms, men have arrived). This was the expression used in the host countries, which wanted only men to come. Instead entire families, each one with their own culture and traditions, came.

Men were obliged to work in mines and were paid by each barrow they filled. The miners did not only have to fill these barrows, which weighed about 15 quintals, but they also had to work with a pneumatic hammer to break the blocks of minerals or to drill holes in the rocks.

Also the children were exploited in the mines because they had to go through  very small tunnels.  Many lost their life.


Differently from men and children, women worked in the textile industries or as nannies for rich families. This was a well paid job and in this case women enjoyed many privileges because they had to breastfeed and bring  up babies: for this reason they were admitted at the table of their masters. Even though  this was a very good job,  these women had to say goodbye  to staying at  home and raising  their own children.

Many women left but others stayed in Italy where they began doing male jobs and gained a better social role.

We have talked about the immigrants’ jobs, but how were they seen by the inhabitants of the host countries? They were considered dirty and bringers  of crime, in fact they were often associated with  the Mafia. Furthermore they brought their traditions and popular festivals  which were not understood. Although the conditions they lived in were considered miserable by the population, for the Italians they were not,  because they had found a place where they could  start a better life.

Also nowadays a lot of people,  particularly the young ones, decide to go abroad both to improve their knowledge of a foreign language and to attend university. They choose to do so because they have the chance to be independent but especially because after  students finish university they have more job opportunities than in Italy. The ones who decide to leave are often  researchers and scientists, who are directed towards France, England and the United States of America because these countries are more developed and scientifically advanced.

In conclusion, the phenomenon of emigration has always been present in Italy,  because there have always been people dissatisfied with their condition. Therefore they have tried to find a better life in other countries, even if this decision has often meant a separation from their families and friends.

At the same time Italy is also a host country,  in fact between 2002 and 2011 about 3.5 million people from Africa, Asia and East Europe arrived here. Their aims were both to escape from the extreme poverty and injustice of their country and to save their life from wars. So, they went abroad in search of better living and working conditions; but in reality they found humble jobs. Meanwhile they hoped to enjoy the democracy, the justice, the freedom of expression and the social equality in our country where the human rights are respected. Instead, in their states,  they were forced to fight against violence and the exploitation of women and children. Unfortunately  in the host countries the process of integration is quite difficult for the immigrants because  they do not speak the language and have a different life style or tradition.

The visit to the museum made us reflect on the different aspects of emigration as a phenomenon not only of the past but also of the present and surely of the future.

We have understood that the movement and the meeting of peoples is the FUTURE  we want and we are looking forward if respect, equality and social justice are granted. 

Photos taken by Erica Becchetti (1994) at the Regional Museum of Emigration in Gualdo Tadino