Ethnic Effects: Vulnerability & Discrimination

This is post #3 of 4 in the series, Ethnic Effects.

This summer, Getty Marrow undergraduate interns from JANM, La Plaza de Cultura y Artes, and the Italian American Museum of Los Angeles collaborated to create a collections-based project tasked with answering the question:

How have immigrants and subsequent generations shaped what it means to be American?

The initial goal of the project was to highlight the agency of immigrants in shaping American identity. However, the interns’ submissions suggested that the answer to this specific question would not fully encapsulate the American experience of immigrants and their descendants. As a result, each intern approached this question from a different perspective and highlighted an artifact that touched upon different facets of the American experience and identity. In this post, Mercedes Solaberrieta and Jose Quirarte explore the historic vulnerability of American immigrants to systematic and de facto discrimination in the United States by highlighting the experiences of two immigrants during World War II.


Interns Mercedes Solaberrieta of the Italian American Museum of Los Angeles and Jose Quirarte of JANM selected items that highlight the complexity of the American immigrant experience by demonstrating the vulnerability and discrimination that many immigrants to the United States have faced due to their ethnicity or country of origin. Mercedes selected a 1940s parole document of an Italian immigrant named Filippo Fordellone and Jose highlighted a 1942 diary entry of Gihachi Yamashita, a Japanese immigrant.

Due to America’s involvement in World War II fighting against the Axis Powers, which included Japan and Italy, both of these immigrant men were considered enemy aliens and stripped of their civil liberties because of war hysteria and racial prejudice. Both Yamashita and Fordellone were unjustly arrested by the FBI after the attacks on Pearl Harbor and imprisoned at Fort Missoula, Montana without due process. Additionally, Fordellone and Yamashita were impacted by Executive Order 9066 and the subsequent strict curfews and travel restrictions placed upon individuals of Japanese and Italian descent. Fordellone and Yamashita were both vulnerable as immigrants, recognized as enemy aliens due to their country of origin, unjustly arrested, and imprisoned far from their homes. Although the experiences of Fordellone and Yamashita are unique to context of WWII, their stories still demonstrate the greater historic relationship between vulnerability and discrimination that has largely characterized the American experience for immigrant populations.


Filippo Fordellone’s Parole Document

Contributed by: Mercedes Solaberrieta, Italian American Museum of Los Angeles

Filippo Fordellone’s Parole Document, U.S. Department of Justice, 1943.
From the collection of the Italian American Museum of Los Angeles.

Fordellone was among the Italian Americans interned during World War II. Today the words “Italian” and “Italian American” are often associated with one of the nation’s favorite cuisines, high fashion, and family-centered cultures. This was not always the case. The United States has had a long history of anti-Italianism, including discriminatory laws, and hostility directed at Italian Americans reached another peak during World War II.

Born in Italy in 1890, Filippo Fordellone immigrated to the United States in 1926. He became a prominent radio broadcaster and was well known in the Italian American community. When Italy joined the Axis powers and the United States involvement in World War II became increasingly imminent, the U.S. government began compiling a list of Italians (as well as Germans and Japanese) living in the United States and its territories that it considered threats to American security. Following the nation’s entry into World War II, the U.S. government declared 600,000 Italian residents of the United States who had not yet become American citizens “enemy aliens.” President Roosevelt issued Presidential Proclamations 2525, 2526, and 2527, which authorized the United States to detain potentially dangerous “enemy aliens.” He also signed Executive Order 9066, which authorized the removal of persons from specified areas in the interest of national security.

In the case of the so-called Italian enemy aliens, many had lived in the United States for years and had children and grandchildren serving in the U.S. military. They were elderly and had been unable to pass the citizenship exam because of their limited literacy. Enemy aliens were required to register with the U.S. government and carry identification cards. They were subject to curfews and travel restrictions, and many were forced to evacuate their homes and surrender property. Some Italian “enemy aliens” were arrested and sent to internment camps. In the end, thousands of German nationals would also be interned and over 120,000 Japanese and Japanese Americans, many of whom were U.S. citizens, were forcibly relocated and incarcerated.

Although Fordellone had committed no crime, he was deemed a threat because as a prominent journalist, he was capable of influencing others. This was the case with many of the Italian Americans interned or threatened with internment, including baseball great Joe DiMaggio’s father. The FBI arrested Fordellone shortly after the bombing of Pearl Harbor and transported him to an internment camp in Fort Missoula, Montana, where he remained for 14 months. Most arrestees were never informed of the charges against them or allowed legal counsel. While Fordellone was imprisoned, his wife Alessandra was left alone to care for their three children without any financial support, as the couple’s assets were frozen. For most of her husband’s confinement she had no idea as to where he was being held.

Fordellone’s parole document, which was executed in May of 1943, dictated the terms of his conditional release. Notice that it does not contain any mention of a conviction for any crime. Fordellone’s only crime was being Italian.

Although the civil liberty violations Italian Americans experienced during World War II were not as severe or widespread as the trauma and injustices inflicted on the Japanese and Japanese American community, the experience nonetheless left the Italian American community scarred. Many stopped speaking the Italian language and distanced themselves from their culture and heritage in an effort to appear more “American.”

Fordellone’s experience reflects the process through which Italian Americans gained acceptance in the United States. Italians were often seen as despised immigrants and “others” whose loyalty was subsequently called into question during World War II before eventually achieving acceptance as white ethnics. Today, Italian Americans are mostly considered to be “white,” but the process was not straightforward.

Photograph of Fillipo Fordellone, from the collection of the
Italian American Museum of Los Angeles.

January 22, 1942, Diary Entry Written by Gihachi Yamashita

Contributed by: Jose Quirarte, Japanese American National Museum

Diary of Gihachi Yamashita, Missoula Justice Department Camp, 1942-45.
Gift of the Gihachi and Tsugio Yamashita Family (94.166.1), Japanese American National Museum.

An English translation of the diary was completed by Emily Anderson for JANM’s educational website, “Enemy Mail: An American Story of Wartime Separation.”

Gihachi Yamashita documented his experience the day after the Pearl Harbor attacks in his personal diary, writing: “this is a day I will never be able to forget.” On December 8, 1941, at around 1:30 a.m., Yamashita was “shaken awake” and arrested by FBI agents. Yamashita was one of the many Japanese Americans who was targeted and arrested immediately after the attack on Pearl Harbor due to a faulty presumption that the Japanese living on the West Coast of the U.S. were dangerous. Many of those who were arrested were already being monitored before the war because of the U.S. government’s false belief that they were potentially dangerous due to their connections to Japanese institutions. Most of the Japanese Americans who were unjustly arrested after the Pearl Harbor attacks were well-respected or important contributing members of their communities.

Following his arrest, Yamashita was imprisoned and moved around to a variety of concentration camps operated by the Department of Justice (DOJ). Meanwhile, his wife and two daughters were forced to sell their property and move to the Santa Anita temporary detention center due to Executive Order 9066, which forced the removal of Japanese Americans from the West Coast into concentration camps. Yamashita’s wife and two daughters stayed at Santa Anita until being transferred to the Rohwer concentration camp in Arkansas. Yamashita’s diary entry tells the harrowing story of his arrest and removal to Fort Missoula, a Department of Justice internment camp in Missoula, Montana, but it also revealed how being excluded from the definition of “an American” led to losing his right to due process, and more generally, his “unalienable rights.”

Yamashita wrote about his experience of being arrested and taken in for questioning by the FBI in his personal diary. He noted that while he was imprisoned, his wife and daughter visited him twice and a guard watched over their conversation (which had to be in English). Yamashita detailed the entirety of his forced removal and wrote that on December 8th he was initially detained at Lincoln Heights Jail for four days, from December 12th to the 22nd he was imprisoned at a county jail, and on the afternoon of the 22nd was held at the Tuna Canyon Camp in Los Angeles for two days before he arrived at Fort Missoula on December 28th. Yamashita concluded his entry by writing about the brutal living conditions of the camp, noting that he and the other Japanese prisoners weren’t given an opportunity to prepare for the Montana winter and were forced to endure the freezing temperatures of Missoula without any winter gear.

Yamashita’s diary entry demonstrates how Japanese immigrants during WWII were stripped of their due process rights because of xenophobia and racism. Yamashita’s unjust arrest, removal, and incarceration was partially a product of Japanese immigrants being “otherized” by American anti-Japanese and anti-immigrant sentiment for most of the 20th century. In the early to mid 20th century, Japanese immigrants faced immense anti-Japanese sentiment in California from political labor groups, individuals, and legislation: California’s Alien Land Law of 1913 restricted “aliens” from owning land; the Gentlemen’s Agreement and the 1924 Immigration Act restricted Japanese entry into the United States; and the 1940 Alien Registration Act forced all “aliens” above the age of 14 to register and be fingerprinted. All of these contributed to the “otherization” of Japanese immigrants and their children, and implied a flawed presumption that they could not truly be “real Americans” in the 20th century. The anti-Japanese and anti-immigrant rhetoric came to a peak after the attacks on Pearl Harbor spurred irrational distrust towards Japanese Americans and other immigrant groups in America.

Identification for Gihachi Yamashita for the Department of Justice Camp at Santa Fe, New Mexico, 1944.
Gift of the Gihachi and Tsugio Yamashita Family (94.166.247).

Yamashita, and many other Japanese immigrants who were living in the U.S., had to face the constant barrier of anti-immigrant rhetoric and unjust legislation that deemed them to be “un-American” or unassimilable. Yamashita’s diary entry reveals his experience of being unjustly arrested in his own home, detained without cause, and imprisoned in a concentration camp due to his race. His experience exemplifies the real-life consequences of being excluded from the arbitrary definition of “an American.” Although Yamashita’s experience is unique to the context of WWII, his experience is just one example of that signifies that American immigrants have historically been susceptible to being excluded from the definition of “an American,” and as a result, have seen instances where they have been stripped of their unalienable rights.


Fordellone and Yamashita’s stories reveal common themes of vulnerability, systemic inequality, discrimination, and “otherization” that America’s immigrant populations have been subjected to throughout the country’s history. Although historic instances of “otherization” and discrimination do not solely define the American immigrant experience, it has played a significant factor in the way immigrant populations have been received and treated. The stories of Fordellone and Yamashita tell only a small story in the long history of discrimination that Japanese and Italian immigrants have faced in the United States. WWII was not the catalyst for discrimination, but rather, it acted as an immense amplifier of the discrimination. In the early 20th century, both of Japanese and Italian immigrants were already facing immense racist and xenophobic sentiment and legislation that “otherized” and targeted them. However, during WWII, war hysteria amplified preexisting racist and xenophobic sentiment which resulted in the targeting of Japanese and Italian immigrants, and the loss of their civil liberties. Although the details and extent of their incarceration experiences are different, both Fordellone and Yamashita experienced the trauma and injustices American immigrants have historically faced because of their vulnerability to systematic discrimination and anti-immigrant prejudice in America.

If you would like to learn more about Gihachi Yamashita’s story, check-out JANM’s, “Enemy Mail: An American Story of Wartime Separation,” which is dedicated to telling his and his family’s story of incarceration during WWII through artifacts in JANM’s Yamashita Collection. If you would like to learn more about Filippo Fordellone or see other objects pertaining to Fordellone you may visit the Italian American Museum of Los Angeles’s online collection webpage.

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