It’s that time of year again.
On Oct. 10, 2016, across the Americas, we celebrate Día de la Raza in Latin America, Día de las Américas in Belize and Uruguay, Discovery Day in the Bahamas, Día del Respeto a la Diversidad Cultural in Argentina and in the United States, Columbus Day. The national holiday has become synonymous with the controversies over the brutal colonizer and, unfortunately, with Italian-American pride parades across the country. In theory, it makes perfect sense to celebrate our Italianità on a day that is coincidentally in the middle of Italian-American Heritage Month, especially if we forget Columbus’s legacy.
Today, many Italian-American groups herald him as a good representative for our community at a time when Italian-American depictions in the media are less than ideal (often, outright offensive and harmful). Unfortunately, that is far from the truth.
Columbus is worlds away from the Italian diaspora that created our communities within the United States and around the world, and it is insulting to both our ancestors and to the indigenous people to celebrate him as our hero. To understand this dilemma, it is necessary to understand the history of Columbus day as an act for recognition within a marginalizing state and the history of Italian-Americans as a traditionally marginalized, working-class people.
The establishment of Columbus Day in the early 20th century was not a one-way road, but a product of two different groups working to achieve two very different goals. One was the United States government, which established Columbus Day as a federal holiday in 1937. The act of celebrating the first colonialist served a greater purpose of legitimizing the United States’ imperialism in East Asia and Latin America.
The other group were the Italian Americans, who had been celebrating Columbus Day since 1866, when Angelo Noce lobbied for the day on the grounds of celebrating Italian-American contributions to the United States. It is difficult to judge Noce for his efforts to legitimize the Italian-American presence in the United States after a surge of discrimination that started in the 1860s when mass Italian immigration to the U.S. began. However, it is also difficult to agree that Columbus actually represents Italian-American contributions to the United States. For many reasons, the statement doesn’t ring true. Logistically, Columbus never even set foot on mainland North America, instead hopping between islands in what is today the Bahamas.
He also was not from “Italy” as we know it today, but rather the Republic of Genoa, a country barely on the Italian peninsula that sat at the very top of Northern Italy. In contrast, most Italian immigrants came from Southern Italy, which to a non-Italian may not make much of a difference, but is crucial in understanding the context in which Italian-immigrants were arriving. They were fleeing centuries of constant conquest, occupation and agricultural serfdom, and upon arrival were described as the “beaten men of beaten races” in popular magazines.
In fact, it was the Northern Italian state of Piedmont that had invaded and conquered Southern Italy during the unification of Italy (or the Risorgimento) that led to the economic catastrophe in the South. The Piedmontese army found itself at war with Brigantaggio, or Brigandage, which involved poor, rural Italians fighting against occupation and massacre.
While some Southern Italians fought, many others decided to leave, and those that did comprised the bulk of the Italian-American communities in the United States. Columbus had nothing to do with the struggles of these people, our ancestors, and does not represent any of their accomplishments. He more accurately represents the “accomplishments” of Spain, as it was under the Spanish Crown that he sailed.
In response to these criticisms, many Italian-American groups have defended Columbus Day, usually on the grounds that he wasn’t “that bad” or that he was successful in spreading Christianity to native populations and furthering our understanding of the Earth and navigation.
Ultimately, none of these “successes” bear any significance to Italian-American communities, and yet these groups believe celebrating him can improve our reputation within the media, as more than just the violent criminals or buffoons we are often depicted as (depictions that have historically been used to discriminate against us). If Italian Americans are looking for an alternative to the mafia-saturated, gangster-induced images we are often confronted with, a man who literally enslaved and mutilated native people should not qualify.
Instead, Italian Americans should be celebrating the many individuals who have come from our communities and who have helped our communities. Figures like Vito Marcantonio, a progressive congressman who represented East Harlem when it was an Italian and Puerto Rican neighborhood. Or Angela Bambace, who also lived in East Harlem, and was the first Italian woman to hold leadership in the International Ladies Garment Workers Union. Or Arturo M. Giovannitti, a labor organizer involved in the Bread and Roses Strike. Or Ralph Fasanella, an Italian-American folk artist whose paintings represent the quintessential Italian-American immigrant experience.
I also want to know why groups like the National Italian American Foundation or the Order Sons of Italy don’t march in solidarity with the many Italian Americans lynched, attacked or killed as part of our history as immigrants. It is essential to note the struggle with the traditional American racial systems that excluded us from whiteness.
Why don’t these groups celebrate figures like Sacco and Vanzetti, or the victims of the 1891 New Orleans mass lynching of Italians, the largest mass lynching in United States history? Assimilation has erased the radical resistance Italian-Americans often espoused in the face of overt discrimination.
Today, many Italian-American communities face an uncertain future. Forceful assimilation robbed us of our cultures, and today, we are left struggling to keep it alive. We also face a greater threat of racism in our communities as we’ve adopted the majority values and have collectively forgotten our history within civil rights and workers’ rights. Reckoning with these histories is essential to both self-decolonization and paving the way for strengthening our relationships with indigenous communities. In order to create a future for our identity and for our communities, we need to actively reflect on our history of resistance and end our idolization of Columbus, abandoning him for better representation and better solidarity with the indigenous people. Of course, Italian Americans need to acknowledge their complicity in colonial legacies. At the same time, ignoring the contributions of Italian Americans in active resistances to American hegemony is damaging and ahistorical.
Italian-American communities must reject Columbus as a tangible symbol of their identity. The character of Pino that we see in Spike Lee’s film, “Do the Right Thing,” is an unfortunate example of the mentality that is acquired when a group abandons their history for the sake of assimilation, and unfortunately, it could cause the demise of Italian-American communities.