Italian Americans, forget Columbus

The defense of the statues marks a shift to the right, in defense of privileges acquired over the decades

The Christopher Columbus statue is removed in Grant Park in Chicago, following protests and police violence.

By Luca Peretti 
Translated by Amy Bizzarri

It’s early morning on June 24th when a few dozen Italian Americans have gathered around the statue of Columbus in the Italian neighborhood of New Haven, Connecticut. For days there had been rumors circulating about the removal of this statue inaugurated in the late nineteenth century, when the first Italian immigrants began to arrive here to work in local industry. Over the years, they would become the largest ethnic group of the city, and yet in the area surrounding the statue—in a neighborhood that has now changed immensely due to economic and historical forces—there are still the Catholic church, restaurants, social clubs, in other words the center of Italian American life. These descendants of Italians have very little in common with the haggard, discriminated-against immigrants who came here to work twelve-hour days for their WASP masters. The defense of the statue of Columbus is above all the defense of privileges acquired over decades.

As the Black Lives Matter protesters arrive throughout the morning, the tension rises. In the afternoon, in front of a few hundred people and a few thousand others connected via livestream, the statue is removed by the city, and not knocked down as in other US cities. “Today they chose shame instead of pride,” said Alfonso Panico, former honorary vice consul of Italy in Connecticut.

These reactions are not surprising. The most vocal and prominent part of Italian American communities in the US is firmly conservative, and generally hostile to the protests of the past few weeks. We have seen groups of Italian-American boys wandering around armed with bats and clubs, and in some cases even more, in various U.S. cities: in Philadelphia, someone even showed up to defend the statue with assault weapons; in the Bronx and in many other cities where Italian Americans were once harassed, lynched, and exploited, today, many Italian Americans mingle with other racist whites. Defending Columbus is part of a broader defense of the space members of the US white elite have gained. As noted by Joseph Sciorra and Laura E. Ruberto, two of the main scholars of these themes, in an article published on the Process blog, “Columbus, as a symbol of individualistic resolve and of Manifest Destiny, emerged as an American hero before the arrival of the majority of Italian immigrants,” but then it is these same Italian American immigrants who, between the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, “built their emerging identity as provisional whites on the hagiography of Columbus.” It is a fundamental step: these statues, and the myth of Columbus in general, rose up during their efforts to assert themselves, to claim a strong and real presence, at a time when Italian American communities were still discriminated against, often violently (the last recognized lynching of an Italian took place in 1910). And they do so in the name of a fictitious national unity abroad and imagined commonality between emigrants from different areas of Italy, north and south, poor and rich. Perhaps the most prominent Italian American of his time, Generoso Pope, owner of the pro-fascist newspaper Il Progresso Italo-Americano, was instrumental in using Colombus to support his own causes in the 1920s and 30s, engaging in lobbying efforts that led to the designation of Columbus Day as a national holiday in 1934.

The history of Italian Americans and Italian emigration to the US seems to us Italians a very distant, almost folkloric past, as our American relatives have grown increasingly detached from us, while new Italian emigrants to the USA do not feel part of this history at all. Yet many Italian Americans vote or can vote in the Italian elections, and although it is often ignored, this “Italy outside Italy” has contributed to building the identity and traditions of our country during the twentieth century. This is also why we need to deal with it and see what happens within the communities. Note, for example, how clear the position of the historical associations representing Italian Americans is today: Columbus is an important historical figure to be valued and respected, so there’s no way one would even think of throwing down the statues or canceling Columbus Day, which is celebrated the second Monday in October (but which in many states has actually been changed to Indigenous Peoples’ Day or abolished altogether). Leading organizations (Columbus Citizens Foundation, Italian Sons and Daughters of America, the National Italian American Foundation, the Order of the Sons and Daughters of Italy, and UNICO National) have come together to found the National Columbus Education Foundation which will focus on “educational and communications activities to correct false narratives on Christopher Columbus.”

The latest news, however, is that several voices opposed to this approach have spoken out quite vocally in recent weeks: among others, Bella Ciao Buffalo, a group of young Italian Americans from Buffalo (NY), expressed their support for Black Lives Matter and the riots of recent weeks in a long post on Medium, recalling precisely how Italians have also been poor, exploited, and discriminated against in the USA; in Canada, on the other hand, the “Italian Canadians for Black Lives Matter” are active, launching initiatives to rename places dedicated to Columbus and supporting the protests; while in Philadelphia there is also a petition “Against Columbus – Philly Italians Against The Columbus Statue” and then there are also the individual voices of institutional representatives, such as Chicago alderman Daniel La Spata, or in New Haven, Congresswoman Rosa DeLauro, elected for the first time in 1991 and with very strong roots in the city, who expressed support for the removal of the statue of Columbus starting with her own story as a working-class, marginalized Italian-American woman. For three years the “No Columbus Day” campaign has been ongoing, promoted by Italian and Italian American scholars who are calling for the abolition of the Columbus Day holiday.

The petition and the campaign have been relaunched in recent days, just as the statues of Columbus and the Confederate generals came down: “Do Italian Americans truly want to remain associated with a holiday and historical figure so clearly linked to genocide, colonialism and a white-washed history?” the scholars wrote. “We are convinced that most Italian Americans, and Americans in general, do not want it.” For many Italian Americans, it is therefore time to choose new heroes, or at least to problematize and emancipate themselves from the figure of Columbus. Possible heroes to remember and monumentalize include the two Italian American anarchists murdered in 1927, or Vito Marcantonio, who served East Harlem for seven terms in the United States House of Representatives, labor organizer Carlo Tresca, or even less radical heroes such as the former mayor of New York, Fiorello La Guardia, or Ella T. Grasso, the first female governor of Connecticut, or ecclesiastical figures such as James Groppi or Mother Cabrini, the first US saint. Diane di Prima, in her poem “Whose Day Is It, Anyway?” makes a list of possible alternative “days” to that of Columbus: “Lawrence Ferlinghetti Day? / Tina Modotti Day? / Sacco and Vanzetti Day!” and even provocatively includes others such as Al Pacino and Frank Sinatra. While the white American identity is finally being deconstructed, it is also time for the Italian American communities to rethink their symbols, and in some cases not oppose the removal of the old ones, Columbus first and foremost. And so as the marble heads of the Genoese navigator come down or are moved elsewhere far from sight and (hopefully) from mind, as the monument to the racist former mayor of Philadelphia, Frank Rizzo, is first smeared and then removed, as people apprehensively begin to discuss even changing the name of the city of Columbus (capital of Ohio), the debate within the Italian American and Italian Canadian communities will not only become more heated but also fill out with different voices.

Originally published here in Il Manifesto.
Thanks to Tim Bertucci for his assistance in editing the translation.

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