by Diana C. Monteleone
Louisiana's earliest Spanish and French explorers. Neapolitan Enrico de Tonti
was with La Salle in 1682 when the French expedition claimed Louisiana for
King Louis XIV. Undetermined numbers of Italians trickled into colonial Louisiana
throughout the eighteenth century. Many colonial immigrants were from the
northern Italian peninsula. Because they usually traveled individually or
in small groups, these Italian pioneers did not maintain their ethnic identity;
indeed, most of them married into established French and Spanish families.
The Italian influx
into Louisiana continued and expanded in the early nineteenth century, and,
in 1850, the Pelican State boasted the United States' largest Italian-born
population in the United States. The colonial and antebellum Italian immigrants
dispersed throughout the Pelican State, with some pioneers settling as far
north as Natchitoches. These early Italian immigrants held diverse occupations,
including soldier, sailor, farmer, artist, doctor, and pirate. Others established
themselves as Caribbean fruit importers. Some Italians distinguished themselves
in the War of 1812, while others served in the Confederate army during the
Civil War.The pockets of
Italian culture persisting in present-day Louisiana are the legacy of the
individuals who participated in the massive influx of Sicilians during the
late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Most of the Sicilian immigrants
were peasants fleeing the poverty of their homeland. Like the Irish immigrants
of an earlier generation, the Sicilians worked alongside blacks on the Port
of New Orleans docks. They also labored in the south Louisiana sugar fields.
So many Sicilians occupied the then-declining French Quarter section of New
Orleans that the area became known locally as "Little Sicily" and "Little
Palermo." Some Sicilians
eventually managed to open corner grocery stores, meat and fish markets, and
bakeries. Although most of these neighborhood "mom and pop" stores no longer
exist, Italians maintain a high profile in the New Orleans food industry by
operating restaurants and bakeries. Second- and third-generation Sicilian
immigrants served the city as firemen, police officers, and politicians.Italian-Americans
no longer maintain a visible ethnic presence in New Orleans' inner city. Most
have moved to the Crescent City suburbs and to rural parishes throughout Louisiana.
In Morgan City, Alexandria, and Lafayette, Italian-Americans have settled
in numbers sufficiently large enough to form organizations acknowledging familial
and cultural ties to Sicily. The largest concentration of Sicilians outside
metropolitan New Orleans, however, is found in the Florida Parishes. The town
of Independence is particularly proud of its inhabitants' Sicilian heritage.
Many turn-of-the-century immigrants became migrant workers, trekking to Florida
Parish strawberry patches from the Crescent City or river parish sugarcane
fields. Within a short time, these migrant workers acquired sufficient funds
to buy a small farm and start a new life.
A curious distinction
persists within New Orleans' Italian-American community. Among the Crescent
City's Sicilian immigrants of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries
were members of an ethnic group known as the Abreshe. Originally from Albania,
members of this group were given land in Sicily in the fifteenth century.
For nearly five hundred years, these transplanted Albanians segregated themselves
from the native Sicilian population. Although technically Italian immigrants,
the Abreshe refused to identify with other immigrants from their homeland,
and they founded their own benevolent societies in New Orleans.