The immigration and assimilation of Italians to America is a primary topic on the show. The Sopranos depicts how, according to author Jennifer Guglielmo, Italians went from being seen as "hordes of dark, dirty, ignorant, lazy, subversive, superstitious criminals" to the "very image of white ethnic working-class right-wing conservatism." One of the main causes of Italian emigration was the abject poverty of the 19th and early 20th century. Southern Italians bore the brunt of this deprivation, as Meadow Soprano notes to a boyfriend in season five, when she says that her dad's family, and other family, came "from the poverty of the Mezzogiorno, where all higher authority was corrupt." Many southern Italians directed their ire toward the north. Furio Giunta, the ponytailed Mafioso brought over from Napoli in season two, acknowledges this in a episode where he explains to horrified mob co-workers why he doesn't like Christopher Columbus. "In Napoli, a lot of people are not so happy for Columbus because he was from Genoa … The north of Italy always had the money and the power. They punished the south since 100s of years. Even today, they put up their nose at us like we're peasants. *Spits* I hate the North."
This is a pretty accurate depiction of the actual history. As a result, most of the Italians that left the newly created country were from the south, which is reflected within the show.The first major wave of Italian immigration into the US came in the late 19th to early 20th century, which is when the fictional Soprano family made its way over. At customs, Italian immigrants were often forced to Anglicize their names. The show mentions this act of cultural erasure on two occasions: when Carmela meets Columbia University Dean Ross, originally Rossi, and in one of the series' best episode endings, where Phil Leotardo, complaining that his Sicilian grandfather's surname was changed from Leonardo at Ellis Island, says, "My family took shit from the 'Merigans the minute we got off the boat." In the early days, Italian immigrants made ends meet through hard physical labour, and quickly understood that they were in America to do the jobs the WASPs wanted to avoid. This history is noted throughout the series, but most explicitly in a season two scene with Tony Soprano and his therapist, Jennifer Melfi. "When America opened the floodgates, and let all us Italians in, what do you think they were doing it for?" Tony indignantly asks. "Because they were trying to save us from poverty? No, they did it because they needed us. They needed us to build their cities, and dig their subways, and to make them richer." At this point, Italians faced serious discrimination from police, government, and employers. But one of the cornerstones of Italian-American identity, the main piece of the narrative, is that they took the discrimination head on and carved out a piece of America for themselves. This story is passed on from generation to generation, which is captured in The Sopranos. Tony, for example, brings both of his kids, at different times, to a church in Newark, New Jersey. In season four, Tony tells an uninterested Anthony Jr. that his great-grandfather, a stone mason who came to America "with $4 in his pocket," helped build the church. Tony goes on to say, "This neighbourhood used to be beautiful. 100 percent Italian. In the 1920s, most of them right off the boat. Most Italians couldn't even find a church that wanted them. So what did they do? Did they cry? Did they go to the government with their hand out? No. They took care of their own problems. They said, 'You don't want us in your church? Fine. We'll build our own. A better one.'"
One of the cornerstones of Italian-American identity, the main piece of the narrative, is that they took the discrimination head on and carved out a piece of America for themselves.
Harris comes to view the mafia battles as a game of sorts, where he actively cheers on one side. Yet terrorism is treated with dead seriousness, and even the mobsters are genuinely scared. As a result, the Arabs, Pakistanis, and "Middle Easterners" in the show get treated with constant suspicion, matching the Islamophobic environment that has only gotten worse since the series ended 10 years ago. Meanwhile, it's shows like Homeland that are problematic, because the demographics they demonize are still in danger. Italian-Americans are not. That's why it's jarring when Richard La Penna, in the dinner conversation, states, "Italians Against Discrimination did a study, and at its height the mafia in this country had less than 5,000 members. And yet that tiny insignificant fraction can cast such a dark shadow over 20 million hardworking Americans." This is factual, but it seems wildly out of touch today, because most people know it's true, and don't need to be told. Muslims, meanwhile, are still viewed with deep suspicion and face discrimination, so it's unsurprising that "most Muslims aren't ISIS" graphs still need to be spread. The Sopranos also nailed a bunch of small, day-to-day things, which help make it feel more authentic and relatable to your average Italian. The death glare Livia Soprano gives Artie Bucco when he tells her the dish he made is northern. Carmela writing down the amount of money they're giving at a wedding, so they know if they get "stiffed" later on. The almost unanimous horror from characters when they find out Tony is sending his mother to an expensive "retirement community" instead of bringing her into his home. Paulie's rage at what's supposed to be a Starbucks, when he realizes that Italian coffee culture has been appropriated and turned into expensive "grawn-day" drinks. Still, it's not enough to say the show didn't portray Italians in a negative way. Instead, The Sopranos should be praised for the vast insight it offers into Italian-American life. I was 15 when I first watched the show, and it was a revelatory experience. On the surface level I had little in common with the world the series explored. I'm from Canada, not New Jersey. My dad is a plumber, not a mob boss. I've been around Italians on both side of the Atlantic my entire life, and know, at most, a couple potentially "connected" people. Yet in many ways the show reflected my own experience growing up back to me, with expressions, gestures, and customs that I hadn't, and never expected to be, seen on TV before. More importantly, the series helped me piece together my own identity at a time when it was still in flux. All of the anecdotes and remarks I'd heard throughout my life about being Italian were now strung together in a coherent narrative that helped me better understand my world, and be confident in myself. That feeling has only been reinforced over the last decade after watching the series several more times. I reached out to several of the Italian-American groups who protested the show when it first came out, asking if they still feel the same way. None of them replied. Maybe they know they were wrong. They should. It would have been a tragedy if they had it their way, and the show was taken off the air. The Sopranos deserves to be added into serious studies of Italian-American life, or at the very least, serve as an introductory course. Follow Davide on Twitter.
In many ways the show reflected my own experience growing up back to me, with expressions, gestures, and customs that I hadn't, and never expected to be, seen on TV before.