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Immigrant Voices

Immigration to the United States, 1840s-1920s


From the 1840s to the 1920s the United States experienced a period of mass European immigration that led Americans further down a path toward racial divide and “witnessed a fracturing of whiteness” based on eugenics and pseudo-scientific theory (Jacobson, p.7).

Early on this took the form of anti-Irish and anti-Catholic sentiments evidenced by the Nativist Riots in Philadelphia in 1844.

By early twentieth century, southern Italian immigrants especially faced “the exclusion of Italian children from certain schools and movie theaters, and their parents from social groups and labor unions; segregated seating in some churches; and the barrage of popular magazines, books, movies, and newspapers that bombarded Americans with images of Italians as racially suspect” (Guglielmo, p. 33).

These conventions were validated and enforced by the federal government in a series of restrictive immigration legislation, and especially the Johnson-Reed Act of 1924, which set quotas and severely limited Italians, Greeks, Eastern European Jews, and Slavs, and completely excluded immigrants from Asia (see also the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882).


Image: C.J. Taylor, "The Mortar of Assimilation - And the One Element that Won't Mix," Puck, June 26 1889, available from Smithsonian Institution, National Museum of American History.

The image caricatures an Irishman with ape-like features carrying a bloody knife and a Clan na Gael flag. He is depicted on the edge of the melting pot of American citizenship, too disruptive to mix in and assimilate. 

Immigrant Voices in Poetry

Amidst this backdrop, T.A. Daly published hundreds of poems and verses in the voices of American immigrants. The dialect style of writing would become his forte. This page includes a few selections. 


Canzoni, 1906

Eef I could talka 'Merican
Like w'at I can Italian,
So stronga langwadge eet would be
You would be scare' for joke weeth me.
Een Italy I am so queeck
For theenk of sassy theengs to speak,
W'en som' wan makin' fun weeth me,
Dat nexta time dey let me be.
Da professori from da school
Som'time was try for mak' me fool;
Ah! wal, they find, you bat my life,
My tongue ees sharpa like da knife.
So, evra wan was 'fraid weeth me
W'en I am home een Napoli.
But een New Yorka Ceety here
Ees deefferant; an' eet ees queer!
Da streeta keed, so tough, so small,
He ees no scare' weeth me at all.
He talk to me so sharp, so queeck
My tongue ees gat too twist' for speak;
He mak' da face an' laugh, an' den
Ees gat me tangla up agen.
W'en he ees two, t'ree blocks away,
I theenk of som'theeng sharp to say
Dat mak' heem stop from be so tough -
Eef I have say eet queek enough.

Wal, mebbe eet ees better so,
Baycause eef soocha keed could know
How sharpa tongue ees een my head
He be so scare' he droppa dead!

Between Two Loves

Canzoni, 1906

I GOTTA lov' for Angela,
I lov' Carlotta, too.
I no can marry both o'dem,
So w'at I gona do?


O! Angela ees pretta girl,
She gotta hair so black, so curl,
An' teeth so white as anytheeng.
An' O! she gotta voice to seeng.
Dat mak' your hearta feel eet must
Jump up an' dance or eet weell bust.

An' alla time she seeng, her eyes
Dey smila like Italia's skies,
An' makin' flirtin' looks at you--
But dat ees all w'at she can do.


Carlotta ees no gotta song,
But she ees twice so big an' strong
As Angela, an' she no look
So beautiful - but she can cook.
You oughta see her carry wood!
I tal you w'at, eet do you good.
When she ees be som'body's wife
She worka hard, you bat my life!

She never gattin' tired, too--
But dat ees all w'at she can do.



O! my! I weesh dat Angela
Was strong for carry wood,
Or else Carlotta gotta song
An' looka pretta good.
I gotta lov' for Angela,
I lov' Carlotta, too.
I no can marry both o' dem,
So w'at I gona do?

Leetla Giorgio Washeenton

Canzoni, 1906

You know w’at for ees school keep out
Dees holiday, my son?
Wal, den, I gona tal you ’bout
Dees Giorgio Washeenton.

Wal, Giorgio was leetla keed
Ees leeve long time ago,
An’ he gon’ school for learn to read
An’ write hees nam’, you know.
He moocha like for gona school
An’ learna hard all day,
Baycause he no gat time for fool
Weeth bada keeds an’ play.
Wal, wan cold day w’en Giorgio
Ees steell so vera small,
He start from home, but he ees no
Show up een school at all!
Oh, my! hees Pop ees gatta mad
An’ so he tal hees wife:
“Som’ leetla boy ees gon’ feel bad
Today, you bat my life!”

An’ den he grab a bigga steeck
An’ gon’ out een da snow
An’ lookin’ all aroun’ for seek
Da leetla Giorgio.
Ha! w’at you theenk? Firs’ theeng he see
Where leetla boy he stan’,
All tangla up een cherry tree,
Weeth hatchet een hees han’.
“Ha! w’at you do?” hees Pop he say,
“W’at for you busta rule
An’ stay away like dees for play
Eenstead for gon’ to school?”
Da boy ees say: “I no can lie,
An’ so I speaka true.
I stay away from school for try
An’ gat som’ wood for you.
I theenka deesa cherry tree
Ees goodda size for chop,
An’ so I cut heem down, you see,
For justa help my Pop.”

Hees Pop he no can gatta mad,
But looka please’ an’ say:
“My leetla boy, I am so glad
You taka holiday.”

Ees good for leetla boy, you see,
For be so bright an’ try
For help hees Pop; so den he be
A granda man bimeby.
So now you gotta holiday
An’ eet ees good, you know,
For you gon’ do da sama way
Like leetla Giorgio.
Don’t play so mooch, but justa stop,
Eef you want be som’ good,
An’ try for help your poor old Pop
By carry home som’ wood;
An’ mebbe so like Giorgio
You grow for be so great
You gona be da Presidant
Of dese Unita State’!


Mulberry Street, New York, N.Y. [c. 1900], Detroit Publishing Company photograph collection (Library of Congress).

This photograph shows a street market in the Italian-American neighborhood in New York City.

Two 'Mericana Men

Carmina, 1909

Beeg Irish cop dat walk hees beat
   By den peanutta stan’,
First two, t’ree week w’en we are meet
   Ees call me "Dagoman."
An’ w’en he see how mad I gat,
   Wheech eesa pleass heem, too,
Wan day he say: "W’at’s matter dat,
   Ain’t ‘Dago’ name for you?
Dat’s ‘Mericana name, you know,
   For man from Eetaly;
Eet ees no harm for call you so,
   Den why be mad weeth me?"
First time he talka deesa way
   I am too mad for speak,
But nexta time I justa say:
   "All righta Meester Meeck!"  

O! my, I nevva hear bayfore
   Sooch langwadge like he say;
An’ he don’t look at me no more
   For mebbe two, t’ree day.
But pretta soon agen I see
   Den beeg poleecaman
Dat com’ an’ growl an’ say to me;
   "Halo, Eyetalian! Now, mebbe so you gon’ deny
Dat dat’sa name for you."
   I smila back an’ mak’ reply:
"No, Irish, dat’sa true."
   "Ha! Joe," be cry, "you theenk dat we
Should call you ‘Merican ?"  
   "Dat’s gooda ‘nough," I say, "for me,
Eef dat’s w’at you are, Dan."  

So now all times we speaka so
   Like gooda ‘Merican:
He say to me, "Good morna, Joe,"
   I say, "Good morn, Dan." 


The Song of the Thrush

Carmina, 1909

Ah! the May was grand this mornin'!
Shure, how could I feel forlorn in
Such a land, when tree and flower tossed
    their kisses to the breeze?
Could an Irish heart be quiet
While the Spring was runnin' riot,
An' the birds of free America
were singin' in the trees?
In the songs that they were singin'
No familiar note was ringin',
But I strove to imitate them
    an' I whistled like a lad.
Oh, my heart was warm to love them
For the very newsness of them--
For the ould songs that they helped me to
    forget-    an' I was glad.

So I mocked the feathered choir
To my hungry heart's desire,
An' I gloried in the comradeship
that made their joy my own.
Till a new note sounded, stillin'
All the rest. A thrush was trillin'!
Ah! the thrush I left behind me
in the fields about Athlone!
Where, upon the whitethorn swayin',
He was minstrel of the Mayin',
In my days of love an' laughter that the
years have laid at rest;
Here again his notes were ringin'!
But I'd lost the heart for singin'--
Ah! the song I could not answer
was the one I knew the best.


- Guglielmo, Jennifer and Salvatore Salerno. Are Italians White? : How Race Is Made in America. Routledge, 2003.

- Jacobson, Matthew Frye. Whiteness of a Different Color: European Immigrants and the Alchemy of Race. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1999.

See also: David R. Roediger, The Wages of Whiteness: Race and the Making of the American Working Class. New York: Verso, 1991; Noel Ignatiev, How the Irish Became White. New York: Routledge, 1995; and Alan M. Kraut, The Huddled Masses: The Immigrant in American Society, 1880-1921. Arlington Heights, Ill.: Harlan Davidson, 1982.