The Italian Americans

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The following is an excerpt from The Italian Americans by Maria Laurino.

The Roseto Effect

The Italian Americans book

To better understand the ethos of Italian-American culture—its stubborn insistence on the primacy of family and bafflement of America’s ready embrace of individualism—is to trace the steps of a group of southern Italian men from Roseto Valfortore to the United States, who settled in Pennsylvania and built a community in the foothills of the Poconos that would replicate the one they had left behind. Leaving Italy in 1882, the men came to America desperate to escape the poverty of their mountain village in the region of Apulia, near the Adriatic coast.

There they labored as peasant farmers, traveling by foot for up to ten miles each day to reach land owned by the gentry. Some quarried marble from a neighboring town, and those lucky enough to have inherited a craft became stone carvers. The Rosetans lived in cramped two-story homes, the kitchen and stable on the first floor and bedroom above. Like their fellow countrymen throughout southern Italy, they heard about the promise of America.

The initial group of eleven men decided to make the journey after receiving encouraging letters from a Jesuit priest named Luigi Sabetti, who had grown up in Roseto Valfortore and emigrated to Baltimore. Eventually, eight of them, after a brief stay on Mulberry Street, found work in central Pennsylvania from a New York City employment agency. They summoned more people to join them, and each year their numbers multiplied. On a hillside they found a cheap and open tract of land empty of trees, which had been stripped for lumber. In 1887 these early residents named the town New Italy, eventually changing it to Roseto in memory of their village in the foothills of the Apennines. The ethnic enclave stayed true to its roots, speaking a regional Italian dialect and re-creating life from the Old Country.

The Rosetans had reasons to stick to their own: the Welsh, English, and Germans from the neighboring towns shunned the Italians. Slate quarries were the principal local industry, and the Anglo-Saxons, many of whom had learned this trade in the British Isles, owned the quarries and kept the best jobs for themselves. They gave the worst ones to the Italians—digging holes or throwing out rubbish—and paid them the pittance of eight cents an hour for a ten-hour workday, doled out only every three months.

So, for the ensuing decades, Roseto remained only for Rosetans, creating a safe harbor from what they perceived to be hostile outside forces. They built their own small church and eventually their own school. They built blouse mills in town where the women went to work. Two cousins ran bakeries from their home basements, producing bread loaves, pizza, and pasta for the entire town. (One of the bakeries—Le Donne’s—still exists today and uses the same bread oven from the 1930s.) Nearly everyone made their own wine and grew all of their own vegetables.

By the 1960s, more than seventy-five years after the arrival of its first immigrants, 95 percent of Roseto’s two thousand inhabitants were descendants of Roseto Valfortore, making it one of the most homogeneous ethnic enclaves in the nation. And at the time, Roseto received international attention as the home to a medical mystery—or perhaps medical miracle—one that would illustrate the protective effects of an emotionally supportive community in preventing heart disease.

The town had caught the attention of two doctors, Stewart Wolf and John Bruhn, after a resident cardiologist mentioned to Wolf, who owned a vacation home in the Poconos, that hardly anyone under fifty-five in Roseto had died of a heart attack or had signs of heart disease. For those over sixty-five, the rate of heart disease was about half that of the neighboring English, Welsh, and German towns and half the national average.

At the time, heart disease was the number one killer of Americans, and doctors were concerned that it was affecting men at increasingly younger ages. Wolf and Bruhn decided to study the health records of Rosetans, launching a multiyear effort that began in 1961. They discovered that although the residents indulged in salamis, cheeses, sausages, and cigarettes; although they abandoned their healthy native extra-virgin olive oil for artery-clogging lard; although they transformed traditional flatbread pizza with olive oil and salt into New World versions with sausage, pepperoni, salami, ham, and egg, the Rosetans weren’t dying of heart disease.

The curious doctors ruled out other possibilities. They didn’t believe that the reason for this phenomenon was genetic; the doctors studied relatives of the Rosetans in other parts of the country and found they weren’t as healthy. And it wasn’t environmental; the same water supply, doctors, and hospitals served Roseto and the neighboring towns. After years of study, Wolf and Bruhn concluded that the town’s communally supportive behavior—later dubbed the “Roseto Effect”—made all the difference.

Rosetans chose to live a family- and community-centered egalitarian life. Those who had prospered didn’t flaunt their wealth and lent support to the less fortunate, residents almost exclusively patronized local businesses, and they predominantly intermarried. Doctors couldn’t tell wealthy from poor Rosetans because everyone dressed alike and lived in modest homes.

Southern Italian culture and peasant mysticism reinforced the Rosetans’ actions and template for living. Southern Italians—from illiterate peasants to cultured Neapolitans—believed deeply that other people, especially through the power of their stare, had the ability to bring grave harm to them and their families through what they called malocchio, the “evil eye.” The homogeneity and isolation of the community kept practices like warding off the evil eye common ones, passed through the generations. Rosetans conjured up potions with water, olive oil, and iron tools or wore amulets (a horn around one’s neck was typically considered the best protection), and they would never flaunt wealth—God forbid!—lest pride invite malocchio upon them. As one Rosetan told Carla Bianco, an Italian anthropologist studying the town during the same period as the two doctors, “The people think you’re rich and they envy you. So you catch the evil eye. Envy is powerful. We say, ‘If envy were fever, the whole world would be in bed.’”

In 1963, two years after the initial study, Wolf and Bruhn predicted that if this Old World culture began to crumble—as the times and the steady infiltration of American values suggested it would—so, too, would the protective benefits against heart disease. Their hunch was correct: younger Rosetans of that era, the first generation to become college educated, believed the town lacked opportunity, and many didn’t return after graduation. Gradually, malocchio began to lose its powerful grip on the psyche, and with this demise, in crept envy: people wanted bigger homes and fancy Cadillacs. Twenty years later, when the same doctors conducted a follow-up study in 1985, they noted that competition outpaced cooperation, and the mortality of the Rosetans was the same as that of everyone else.

The story of Roseto challenges some ingrained notions about the primacy of individualism and offers a cautionary tale about the stress-related perils of materialism. The doctors were ahead of their time observing in the 1960s that communities matter—that socially supportive environments can protect against heart disease, while isolation and loneliness are risk factors for it. The idea of a mind-body connection in understanding and treating illness wouldn’t gain traction for another few decades. Today, health researchers have returned to Roseto to analyze the merits of investigating disease by observing community behavior.

Similarly, more and more contemporary Americans, feeling alienated from a sterile, fast-paced, and flavorless twenty-first-century life, are also practicing some aspects of Old World ways: cultivating gardens, buying local, and even making their own wine. The Rosetans, the doctors reported, grew their own lettuce, green peppers, onions, peas, beans, endive, eggplant, tomatoes, corn, beets, cucumbers, figs, peaches, peas, apples, pumpkins, cherries, plums, parsley, oregano, basil, mallow, and other herbs—a cornucopia mirrored today at the varied stalls of local farmers markets.

Italians toast one another with the words Cent’ anni!—“May you live one hundred years!” Life in Roseto once seemed to offer the potential for that promise. A one-hundred-year look at Roseto, Pennsylvania—from the time the immigrants first arrived in 1882 until the 1985 follow-up study by Wolf and Bruhn—poses some important questions about the way we live today.

Could Old World communities like Roseto offer a countercheck to an increasingly alienated society? What’s lost and what’s gained, who benefits and who is harmed, by leaving the Old World clan for New World independence? If the ideology of contemporary American life is one of individualism, competitiveness, and materialism—and we know that these traits invite bad health and unhappiness—can we find the means within ourselves to change course, to choose a path of cooperation and egalitarianism over competition and inequality?

Well into the new millennium, Americans have an uneasy sense that not all of modernity is healthy or pleasing to the senses, while also knowing they would not replicate a life forged in part by Old World superstitions or one that shuns geographic mobility. One inclination would be to meld elements of the Old World with the New, but to accomplish this delicate feat without being trapped by the distorting effects of nostalgia, Italian Americans—and all other Americans—might want to explore this rich and varied past.

Un’ altra cent’ anni! To another one hundred years!

Excerpted from The Italian Americans: A History by Maria Laurino. Copyright © 2014 by Maria Laurino. First American Edition 2014. With permission of the publisher, W. W. Norton & Company. All rights reserved.

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Maria Laurino is the author of Were You Always an Italian?, a national bestseller, and Old World Daughter, New World Mother. An essayist, journalist, and speechwriter, Laurino also teaches creative nonfiction at New York University. She lives in New York City with her husband and son. Photo credit: Deborah Lope