Birds of Passage: The Italian Americans

In the early years of the 20th century, the United States was going through a significant period of expansion. Cities like New York, Boston, San Francisco, Philadelphia needed workers to take hard, and often dangerous, jobs of modern industry. Millions of Italian men were willing to leave home, endure harsh working conditions, and live apart from their families with the hope of earning a decent living before returning home to Italy. Before 1900, the vast majority of Italian immigrants to the U.S. were teenagers and young men; they were often called “Birds of Passage,” because so many of them never intended to stay in the United States. Between 20 and 30 percent of Italian immigrants during this period eventually returned to Italy after living apart from their parents, wives, and sometimes children for years.

Reflection Questions

Engaging the film:

  • As you listen to the stories in this film, how do you explain why so many men left their families behind to work in the United States?
  • As you listened, what words, impacts, details stood out for you? Why did you choose the detail that you did? Ask students what they found Surprising, Interesting, and Troubling in the stories they heard.
  • You might use the “Who Benefits” thinking routine to explore the impact of the decisions people made to leave Italy for work in the United States? Who benefited from these decisions? At what cost?
  • What is the significance of the story of “Birds of Passage”? You might use the three whys thinking routine to reflect on why this story matters.

Making Connections:

  • In what ways were the stories unique to early 20th century America? As you listened, what connections did you make to other experiences of migration? What is similar in the two experiences? What is different? What might we gain for comparing the two stories?