Who should the Italian-American community rally around? I have a suggestion.
Recognition of the 1492 anniversary as significant to United States history goes back to 1792.
As 1892 approached, both Spain and the United States devised celebrations of the 400th anniversary of Columbus’ landfall in the Americas. The World’s Fair, held in Chicago that year, was called the Columbian Exposition. As a money-making venture, “Columbus” was a success. An unintended side effect was the myth’s success in making white Americans.
The year after eleven Italians were dragged from a New Orleans jail and lynched, the Genoese merchant sailor was firmly ensconced as a founding father by the white establishment, making Italian Americans just as American as the old WASP families in the DAR crowd.
Most Italian Americans trace our origins to southern Italian peasants who fled their new nation (Italy first became a country in 1861) as economic refugees, sailing to wherever in the world opportunity beckoned. In naturalization petitions, their race was recorded as “Southern Italian,” and during World War II, Italian nationals were subject to restrictions, internment, and deportation.
For decades, Italians were looked down upon and excluded from mainstream American society, even from the Catholic church. The 1891 lynching in New Orleans was lauded in newspaper headlines across the nation as justice served by the people. In protest of this treatment and to prove their American patriotism, Italians pointed out that we were Europeans, of the same heritage as Christopher Columbus.
Hard work and determination aren’t enough in the United States. We all know that if you’re a cisgender, heterosexual white man whose parents are wealthy, you can succeed tremendously with little effort or talent. Meanwhile, people who work two and three jobs are not the most wealthy and successful members of our society. Doors have been closed in the faces of generations of people of color—doors that opened to my ancestors because American society ultimately decided we were white, and we agreed with them.
Criminologists who coined the ethnic succession theory of organized crime point to the ascent of Irish gangsters up the “crooked ladder” of social class, followed by Jewish gangsters, and then Italians. I can show you a dozen houses in the suburbs of New York City or Springfield, Massachusetts, that were paid for by this kind of “bootstrapping” success. Yet organized crime isn’t the primary way Italians rose in this country. Law-abiding Italians stole their way up the ladder, too. We did it when we chose whiteness over righteousness.
The United States isn’t simply a nation of immigrants. We’re a nation that promises equality for all which we’ve never fully delivered. Our story begins with conquest and enslavement on a scale never before seen in human history.
The myth of Columbus deserves to die. He wasn’t a great man, and we should stop pretending he was just because our elders were taught to venerate him. It is appropriate to teach and remember the events of October 1492 not just for what Christopher Columbus thought he was accomplishing, but for the real consequences of his actions.
I am not my ancestors. I can’t change what they did. I can only work for justice today. That means listening to my indigenous and Black neighbors when they say that celebrating Christopher Columbus is offensive. It means listening to historians who have studied the evidence and can describe the world as it was, before and after the events of 1492. I honor my neighbors’ experiences, and those of their ancestors, and I honor the truth, to the best of my abilities.
Italian Americans can do better than Columbus. We’re a brilliant thread in the tapestry of American life. I’m confused by the actions of Italian-American community groups that have sought through a lawsuit against the mayor of Philadelphia to preserve the legacies of such deeply flawed people as Columbus, disgraced former Philadelphia mayor Frank Rizzo, and corrupt former senator Vincent Fumo. Italians have been a critical part of radical political and labor movements in the United States. Carlo Tresca. Angela Bambace. If we struggle to come up with their names, the work of Italian-American leaders to raise the profiles of our community’s best and brightest should be clear to them.
October 12th is Indigenous Peoples Day. That is right and just, and honestly, it takes nothing from me, an Italian American, to recognize this. Maybe your Italian-American family has an elaborate annual celebration of Columbus’ life and deeds, the source of many heartwarming memories. The biggest holiday of the year in my family was Christmas Eve, when we’d have an all-seafood feast before midnight Mass. On Sundays, we gathered at my grandparents’ house for a big meal of pasta and meatballs (in separate courses, thank you). My grandfather played the accordion at baptisms and first communion parties. We didn’t do anything for Columbus Day.
If you’re still looking for an Italian-American holiday that feels fresher, more American, and more modern, may I propose March 10th. MAR10 is the day we celebrate Mario, the video game protagonist who debuted in Nintendo’s Donkey Kong franchise in the early 1980s. Born in Washington state, the blue-collar Millennial is the brainchild of game designer Shigeru Miyamoto and inspired by Nintendo’s Seattle-area landlord, Mario Segale.
Mario is as wholesome and Italian-American as spaghetti and meatballs. He’s no Mother Cabrini, but in a contest for the mascot of Italian-American identity, between Mario and a 500-year old conquistador who never set foot in the United States, I prefer the digital immigrant from the Mushroom Kingdom. I know he’s not real, but neither is the myth of Columbus, and unlike the guy from Genoa, Mario’s one of us.