Peering into the silent decade of Italian immigration to Montreal

Fuori Casa exhibition portrays narratives of 1950s Italian life previously untold.

In the 1950s a significant Italian imprint was left on Montreal’s cultural mosaic. Many of the nearly 200,000 immigrants that arrived in Canada from Italy during this decade settled in Montreal, making the city home to Canada’s second largest Italian population (after Toronto). Despite the historical importance of this period in postwar Italy, the 1950s is often overlooked as a ‘silent’ generation in Italian cultural experience.

McGill’s Italian Studies Program in the Department of Languages, Literatures, and Cultures hosted an event series dedicated to this era, The Long 1950s: Popular Culture and the (Un) Making of Italian Identity. McGill Professors Giuliana Minghelli and Eugenio Bolongaro and graduate student Paolo Saporito planned the series.

The Long 1950s presented photography, film, documentary, storytelling, and pedagogy, joining local and international artists, architects, scholars, documentarians, and members of the public to explore this moment and its impact on the lives of Italians both at home and abroad.

If ever you are passing through 688 Sherbrooke (4th floor), you can see the exhibit from one intimate event that showcased photographs gathered from local residents whose families made the crossing to Montreal during this era. Fuori Casa: The 1950s in the Private Snapshots of Italians in Montreal was curated by Italian documentarian Giovanni Princigalli and Professor Minghelli, and was made possible by those willing to share remarkable and sometimes painful stories of their family past.

Portraying this ‘silent’ generation with images and personal testimony was meant to illustrate how Italian immigrants in the 50s came to rebuild their public and social lives, national identities, and culture after leaving a nation that was also rebuilding itself after the horrors of World War II. However, the weave of stories that emerged were complex narratives of loss and transition, challenging much of the conventional representations of immigration.

“The mainstream narratives focus most prominently on the ‘overcoming of odds’ dimension of immigration, but what is obscured in the process is the loss. There is a history of immigration that doesn’t deal with what is not the epic, grandiose story”, says Professor Minghelli.

Not acknowledging how uprooted individuals dealt with these losses leaves a larger cultural void especially where many contributors realized their similar experiences in the new context of Montreal. For many, the transition from a rural, peasant life to an urbanized, ‘modern’ one was perplexing. Although it was enriching and presented new opportunities, the drastic change in lifestyle was also disorienting. One caption of a photo taken in an Italian village during Carnival reads: “A moment of joy in a dour environment.” Another shows a young boy, happily surrounded by friends on a farm, holding an accordion: “On Sundays we enjoyed singing and playing music in the fields. I’m the one with the accordion. In Montreal, I bought one, but mostly as a memento because I don’t play much anymore.”

In rural communities, people often gathered to sing and play music together, which often formed a natural sense of social union and vitality special to their culture. Immigration to a large city forced many immigrants to abandon lifestyles that made up their cultural and personal identities. The consequences, though subtle, had big impacts on their livelihoods.

“We often forget and underplay how immigration involved a very real impoverishment, for both the immigrants’ personal, class culture, and the national culture as well”, Minghelli says. “At home in Italy, these people were [financially] disempowered. They had no jobs, and that’s why they left. Yet, they were culturally empowered. They could make music, they had their own songs, places of union and socialization. Once they came to Montreal, they became modern subjects, could vote, they had a voice. But that came at a price, the loss of their own culture.”

This disempowerment was even greater for women. Several photographs from Italy show women of all ages in classrooms, which Minghelli deems as ‘poster images’ of social progress in postwar Italy. But opportunities for work and public participation for women in Montreal were more bittersweet. Though work gave access to public life and a degree of independence, it was difficult, often exhausting labour in textile and manufacturing factories. Typically, their income supplemented the household, not their independence, and many women were forced to carry traditional roles of homemakers in addition to working outside the home.

Respecting traditional practices while living up to ‘modern’ expectations was often harmful for women in this generation. Because of immigration sponsorship programs, many single young men who came for temporary work chose to stay, asking for a wife in Italy to marry them and build a new life with in Canada. Many women felt pressured to accept overseas offers even if it meant leaving behind their families, not imagining that they would never return home to see their families ever again. If the marriage proved disastrous, women often felt they had to stay for family honour, or social and economic need.

According to Professor. Minghelli, not all was dark. A practicing photographer herself, she stressed how these family snapshots powerfully affirm moments of rejoicing in the new country; women dancing, friends eating ice-cream, posing hopeful and proud in front of the camera whether in Sunday clothes or factory uniform.

Photography possesses a nature that is very democratic, bringing all subjects into focus and endowing their experiences with visibility and importance. Likewise, the event Fuori Casa uncovered “the immigrant’s desire to show their personal stories and practices and how they thought of themselves as agents in their life and history”. Moments were brought to life that shed light on the transmigration of cultural experiences, from a traditional to a modern home.

As mentioned above, the exhibit remains on display at the Department of Languages, Literatures and Cultures, on the fourth floor of Sherbrooke 688.

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