Given the vast distances which separate the Italians of Los Angeles, their recent reluctance to cluster (there are no "Little Italies" here), and the relative lack of 'symbolic' spaces, Italian American associations have provided a crucial vehicle for the expression of Italian ethnicity in Los Angeles. It is informally estimated that only 10% of Italian Americans are active in such associations and that within associations, such as Sons of Italy and Unico National, approximately 85% - 90% of the membership are American-born Italian. While the large pan-Italian American associations claim the largest number of 2nd-, 3rd- and 4th-generation Italian Americans, the smaller regional and town clubs (often bearing a saint's name) have a higher percentage of Italian-born Italian Americans who provide some cultural continuity and renewal. This may suggest that two historical phases are simultaneously present: the narrowly regional affiliations of those recently-arrived as versus the pan-national perspective of those with remoter ties to Italy. Italian-born immigrants, perhaps more secure in their cultural identity, seem less inclined to join associations than American-born Italians, although the strong and continuous presence of Pugliese at Casa Italiana contradict this generalization. There are nonetheless many and fluctuating Italian associations in Los Angeles, ranging from religious societies to civic, cultural, and philanthropic organizations, to professional associations and. Together, these clubs and associations generate almost all Italian "grassroots" events in Los Angeles.
Many Italians belong to not one but several associations at the same time, often including pan-Italian religious organizations (such as the widely-popular Italian Catholic Federation) or civic organizations (such as the Sons of Italy), along with membership in one of the more intimate regional or town clubs (recently returned to vogue). In fact, the current founding or resurrection of regional clubs e.g., for Piedmontesi, for Veneti, for Sicilians, suggests there is a return to cultural specificity. There is no need to belabor here the depth and richness of regional diversity within Italy. This necessarily resonates within the range of associations in Los Angeles. On the other hand, a non-sectarian social club such as the Garibaldina (heavily Piedmontese in origin, but now embracing all Italians) remains very popular (900 members strong, with a 300-person waiting list in the late 1980s). Regional clubs (e.g., Arba Sicula, Fameja Veneta, Piemontesi nel Mondo) are social yet at the same time have a strong interest in their traditional cultures. Arba Sicula (='Sicilian Dawn'), the national Sicilian organization, has locally spun off at least one group which is also dedicated to Sicilian culture (Sicilia Culturale). The smaller, locally focussed organizations carry as their rallying points town names (Canneto Colony of Saints, Bosconero Society), saints' names concealing local origins (Madonna di Costantinopoli and the San Trifone Society both formed by Bari-area Italians from Puglia), and overt regional names (Fameja Veneta, Arba Sicula, Piemontesi nel Mondo).
However they may address their benefactions, the majority of the clubs are social and tend to revolve around the Dinner Dance which forms the primary mode of Italian American socialization. The 'heritage' portion of their activities is minor by comparison. For instance, the Garibaldina holds an annual Italian Night and a Heritage Day as well, with staged folkdance and music. As part of their monthly dinner dances they also have a 'heritage' program (e.g., a member's slide show on a recent "roots" trip to Italy).
Socially aspiring Italian Americans appear to favor more overtly Cultural (with a capital C) associations (e.g., Patrons of Italian Culture, the Italian Heritage Culture Foundation) for whom Italy is generally equated with high culture and not traditional folkways (although the Italian Heritage Culture Foundation and the Istituto Italiano di Cultura did sponsor the publication of the anthology Italian Traditional Song in 1989, edited by Luisa Del Giudice), and the Patrons have put on St. Josephís Tables. These associations attract non-Italian members as well.
There are national Italian organizations (Sons of Italy, Unico National, Italian Catholic Federation), and professional associations (e.g., American Educators of Italian Origin United, American Italian Dental Association). The focus of Italian American associations has evolved over the century of Italians' presence in Los Angeles. Several of the largest, such as Sons of Italy and Unico National, Italian Catholic Federation, go back to the 1920's. The majority of the organizations were formed in the 30's and 40's and many of these were primarily mutual aid and benevolent societies created for aiding newly-arrived immigrants, arranging relief for victims of the Depression, earthquakes, wars and so forth. Many of these societies formed around a hometown's patron saint's name, making the celebration of that saint a focus of their activities, along with the express purpose of raising funds for charities at home in Italy (e.g., an orphanage or hospital). In those nationalistic and overtly xenophobic years the clubs also served the purpose of tangibly displaying the Italian community's contributions to American society. Once Italians entered the mainstream, professional associations for doctors, dentists, lawyers, educators were formed in tandem (even Italian priests have their association called Fraternitas). Only confidence and security in one's own cultural identity furthermore could have spawned a club by the name of the DB Club (=Dago Bastards Club, if not a spoof!), mainly a social and charitable organization that sponsors golf and bocce tournaments. The associations of the 70's and 80's instead are regional clubs and cultural associations. Philanthropic concerns are part of almost all Italian groups from the professional to the social clubs, as funds raised go to various charities.
While those living through WWII in America wanted to mainstream quickly (recall that the Fascist sympathies of some organizations and even Italian newspapers led to their official suppression, as "co-belligerance" became a serious issue), now there is a reevaluation of what was lost and an attempt to recover some of it. Recently formed regional clubs have actively sought to revive and recreate more authentic home traditions: Arba Sicula had its first St. Joseph's Table in 1989; the Piemontesi nel Mondo revived the post-Easter picnic outing (actually observed all through Italy), called Pasquetta (=`Little Easter'). Second and third generation Italians are seeking Italian lessons in greater numbers and making trips to Italy, and young Italian clubs do form. Renewed interest in Italian traditions of the latter generations, but also among the more recently arrived, has occasioned new or renewed clubs (the Italian American Club of San Pedro for instance). Many of these clubs have wider California networks, linking San Diego and Santa Barbara Italian communities to Los Angeles.
Of the various strata of Italians mentioned above, the earliest group of Italians is best represented in the Garibaldina, while the 2nd group, directly from Italy, center around their town and regional clubs. The 3rd group (also often immigrating from Italy but more often from the eastern American states) has frequently infused new life into many of the organizations. Having carried with them from the Little Italies of the East Coast memories of festivities and Italian cohesiveness, (together with more marked and painful memories of historic discrimination), they have often sought to recreate forms of traditional life in Los Angeles (See: FOLK FESTIVAL, San Gennaro). Many associations provide a blend of Italians however and a sense of continuity frequently exists between the older, more Americanized, non-Italian speakers, to the more traditional and Italian-speaking immigrants from North (and South) America, as well as directly from Italy. The "Federated": Founded in 1947, the Federated Italo-Americans of Southern California is an umbrella organization which unites the many clubs and societies associated with Italian heritage in Southern California. As stated in its by-laws, the Federated was organized "to gather the strength of all Italo-American organizations and unify their efforts." It brings together community leaders to plan celebrations of major events (e.g. Italy's Republic Day, Columbus Day, See: CELEBRATIONS) to exchange and share ideas, to honor outstanding individuals and organizations, and to preserve Italian heritage.