An Open Letter to Italian Americans on Columbus Day


Dividi il companatico, raddoppia l’allegria.

“Divide the bread, double the happiness.”

In high school, I won a scholarship from a local Italian-American group. My mom (the Italian half of my last name) and I attended a small reception for local winners. The names were called — Anthonys and Giovannis and Domanicos, on and on until I was recognized — “Robert Jones”. We just looked at each other and laughed — the one Italian word in my name had been forgotten.

I’m a proud Italian. Anyone who’s had the misfortune of knowing me long enough knows this. I speak un poco, and some of my favorite meals ever were devoured at a long table in the basement of our relatives’ home in San Marino. Italian Americans haven’t played much of a political role for some time, but one cultural debate has thrust us back into the spotlight. You guessed it — Columbus Day. It’s a national issue that plays out somehow in your backyard every year. The city of Cambridge, where I currently live, recently chose to celebrate the holiday as “Indigenous Peoples Day”. The Dean of my own graduate school sent our school a note acknowledging the controversy around the holiday, writing:

“There are many who see the day and the legacy of Columbus as a persistent insult to indigenous peoples whose ancestors were killed, kidnapped, or otherwise oppressed by Columbus and his colleagues. Others see the holiday as an opportunity to celebrate Italian-American culture and contributions.”

We all know the debate around Columbus Day. I love how we’ve started to question it and believe that it must change. But I’d seriously never heard about Italian Americans identifying with Columbus Day before. I come from a very tight-knit Venetian and Piedmontese family, but I was never taught to connect my Italian identity to this holiday. Then I got an email from the Order Sons of Italy America, an Italian American heritage organization, calling to “save Columbus Day”:

“Our holiday consistently under attack, we are asking the White House to rededicate the Presidency to both the holiday and to our community. We also ask the President to once again host an annual signing ceremony in celebration of Columbus Day, the entire Italian American Community, and the importance of the immigrant experience in building our great nation.”

Sure enough, it’s been celebrated by Italian Americans for a long time. There’s a reason of course: many Italian immigrants, facing so much hate in the US, saw Columbus Day as a way to celebrate their heritage and to legitimate themselves in the national culture, which then saw Columbus differently. But it’s been a century. Cultures change. Neither Italy nor Spain celebrate “Columbus Day”. Many people have rightly challenged why we value Christopher Columbus, a man who doesn’t embody anything that we as a people espouse. And, as the above messages show, we stand awkwardly in the middle of this change. It’s time Italian Americans really talked about Columbus Day.

It seems like a simple question: why do Italian Americans need Columbus Day? And why Columbus? It took a while to find some arguments, but eventually I found a document from the Sons of Italy titled “Why We Should Celebrate Columbus Day.” Let’s see what it has to say…

“Columbus Day recognizes the achievements of a great Renaissance explorer who founded the first permanent European settlement in the New World. The arrival of Columbus in 1492 marks the beginning of recorded history in America.”

History existed before 1492. It was recorded, too — the Spaniards destroyed tons of Mayan records. So why celebrate the beginning of history, as recorded by Europeans, in America? Who gives a hoot that some narcissist seagoer decided to write, “wow, this island is so beautiful! And the people are so primitive! I killed some of them today.” This…isn’t worth a federal holiday.

Plus, his sailing to the Caribbean just really didn’t matter as much as some would like to believe. The Vikings visited the Americas half a century before Columbus (we have Leif Ericsson Day to commemorate that!). Columbus *never* visited North America. The idea of a round planet was already in vogue before he stumbled into Haiti.

“Columbus Day celebrates the beginning of cultural exchange between America and Europe. After Columbus, came millions of European immigrants who brought their art, music, science, medicine, philosophy and religious principles to America. These contributions have helped shape the United States and include Greek democracy, Roman law, Judeo-Christian ethics and the tenet that all men are created equal.”

I’m not going to rehash how Columbus wielded his “ethics” on entire communities. The atrocities are now common knowledge, and certainly many others will cover that story today. It was a different time in the 1400s sure, but that never excuses slavery and rape and murder. There were contemporaries who, while they weren’t perfect, still denounced slavery. We really shouldn’t celebrate Columbus’ ethical code. And it’s equally ludicrous to tie an entire tradition of philosophy, morality, and religion to the memory of a single island-hopping slaver.

“Columbus Day is one of America’s oldest holidays. The tradition of observing Columbus Day dates back to the 18th century. It was first celebrated on October 12, 1792, when the New York Society of Tammany honored Columbus on the 300th anniversary of his first voyage”

Tradition is not something that just happens. We learn tradition and decide to either pass it along or reinvent it. We get to make it! A holiday should not exist just because it’s old…

“Columbus Day is a patriotic holiday. In fact, the Pledge of Allegiance was written in 1892 in honor of the 400th anniversary of his first voyage. That year, President Benjamin Harrison declared Columbus Day a legal holiday.”

Independence Day is a patriotic holiday. Memorial Day is patriotic. President’s Day is patriotic. A holiday that celebrates an exiled Italian explorer’s jaunt around the Bahamas is not patriotic.

The document goes on to list a few more reasons for keeping the holiday, including: the US “has a significant collection of Columbus memorabilia” (hey, we’ve got his stuff!), and the fact that the holiday is a FEDERAL LAW (you don’t want to break the law, do you?). There’s simply no reason why Italian Americans should feel so connected to Columbus Day. He was a deplorable man, disliked by his sailors and rejected by his home country, who did nothing of renown, brutally oppressed people, and never even stepped foot on what is now American soil. There’s just no reason to celebrate him, no matter how you look at this.

But there is one reason. The fight to save Columbus Day is a proxy war between those who want to recognize previously-shushed voices in American culture and those who seek to mire us to what we have been. While Italian Americans have no reason to be attached to this holiday, we’re being sold the idea that if it’s lost, our heritage — and that of all of white America — will fade away with it. This really isn’t about Italian Americans, but we’re being courted by a fearful mass who feel their privileged position in American culture slipping away, and who have found a champion in that persimmon ball of rage who promises to “Make America Great Again.” Because of that fear, they’ll grasp at anything, including Columbus Day, to drag America back to a previous, less tolerant, less humane, but slightly more familias time.

And what they’re selling is bullshit. This isn’t about being politically correct, this is about validating the history of this country in totality — its horrors, its beauty, and the struggle of a diverse people. The indigenous people of the Americas faced aggression and violence from the first foot Columbus planted in the sand of Ayiti. And so many who came to this country — voluntarily or not — experienced hate and discrimination that I may never know personally. Although it’s obviously changed since, Italian immigrants were not even considered white for a time, and they suffered for it. My nonna never taught my mom to speak Italian because of fears she would get made fun in school, which was her experience in the 1930s. While our cultural history doesn’t include slavery, Jim Crow, or near total erasure, a trace of the struggle of the indigenous, of the immigrant, of the slave, of the non-privileged, is lodged somewhere deep within the Italian American counsciousness, like the memory of a Rutgers football National Championship. It exists, it should be acknowledged, but it means little to 16-year-old high schoolers. Italian Americans can and should stand on the side of those who struggle and those who have struggled.

Replacing Columbus Day to welcome those who have fought and who currently fight oppression is one tiny way that Italian Americans can stand with Native Americans, Latin Americans, African Americans, and so many others, to lift up the struggle of the oppressed. Replacing, renaming, reclaiming Columbus Day is a way to assert the dignity of all people, especially those who have been historically marginalized. It’s not a slight to anyone, except to maybe Christopher Columbus, and he isn’t around to protest. It’s a tiny, if only symbolic way to show that we value the humanity of our neighbor above any cultural anachronism, political football, or our own insecurity. It’s just the right thing to do.

So let’s use this year’s rehash of the Columbus Day debate to show what story matters most in the history of our founding, that of the oppressed — racially, ethnically, or however — that of those who have struggled in the face of a system set against them. Americans of Italian descent don’t have to funnel any ethnic pride through the image of a terrible dude like Columbus — an Italian with the blood of thousands on his hands — for our own validation. We can value the history and humanity and of our ancestors by standing with the millions of people who want to do the same for theirs. Share in helping remake Columbus Day in the image of those who fought hatred and oppression from the very beginning.

Dividi il companatico, raddoppia l’allegria.