As cities across the country increasingly reject Columbus Day, choosing instead to celebrate Indigenous People’s Day, Italian-Americans have sent a clear message: Their holiday isn’t going down without a fight.
Columbus Day, named for the Italian explorer who sailed to the Americas on behalf of Spain more than 500 years ago, has become a painful reminder of the oppression endured by native peoples. At the same time, the holiday remains an important part of Italian-American heritage, and for many, it is one worth keeping.
The rise of anti-Italianism
“It serves as a unifying factor in our community,” Basil M. Russo, the national president of the Order Italian Sons and Daughters of America, said in an interview on Thursday. But to truly understand Columbus’s importance to Italian-Americans, he added, it’s necessary to understand how they were treated upon arriving in this country.
Just as Mexican immigrants have been branded by some politicians as criminals, in years past Italians — especially dark-skinned Italians from southern Italy — were also vilified.
An estimated four million Italians immigrated to the United States from 1880 to 1920, many of them farmers and laborers fleeing poverty. In America, they encountered religious discrimination, difficult working conditions and a culture of anti-Italianism that viewed them as inferior and associated them with organized crime.
In one of the most infamous cases, 11 Italian-American men were shot to death and mutilated by a mob in New Orleans in 1891.
A New York Times editorial published soon after described the mob’s victims as “desperate ruffians and murderers.”
It continued: “These sneaking and cowardly Sicilians, the descendants of bandits and assassins, who have transported to this country the lawless passions, the cutthroat practices, and the oath-bound societies of their native country, are to us a pest without mitigations.”
Columbus is formally recognized
President Benjamin Harrison called that 1891 crime “deplorable,” and on the 400th anniversary of Columbus’s arrival in the Americas, he designated Oct. 21, 1892, “a general holiday,” describing the explorer as a “pioneer of progress and enlightenment.”
Negative stereotypes persisted. In 1893, a Times article about Italian convicts detained on Ellis Island referred to Italy as “the land of the vendetta, the mafia and the bandit.”
These characterizations, of course, were not limited to The Times.
In 1911, the Dillingham Commission report declared: “Certain kinds of criminality are inherent in the Italian race. In the popular mind, crimes of personal violence, robbery, blackmail and extortion are peculiar to the people of Italy, and it can not be denied that the number of such offenses committed among Italians in this country warrants the prevalence of such a belief.”
A public outcry over the flow of immigrants led the government to create the xenophobic Immigration Act of 1924, which set quotas on the number of immigrants who could enter the country. The law was eventually revised in 1952.
Nearly half the immigrants who arrived during the mass migration period, 1880 to 1920, ended up returning to Italy. Those who stayed fought to gain respect.
“Columbus Day is not a day that’s set aside to honor an individual, but rather is a day that’s set aside to recognize and honor a monumental historic event that began the process of over 500 years of worldwide immigration to America by oppressed people seeking a better life for their families,” Mr. Russo said.
Columbus Day became a national holiday in 1937 after much lobbying by the Knights of Columbus, a Catholic fraternal organization. President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s proclamation described Columbus as a “brave navigator” whose voyage “was the culmination of years of bold speculation, careful preparation, and struggle against opponents who had belittled his great plan and thwarted its execution.”
At the time, the holiday was held on Oct. 12. In 1971, the date was changed to the second Monday in October.
A hero or a brutal colonizer?
But the portrayal of Columbus as a hero has been dismissed by those who view him as a colonizer and oppressor of indigenous people, one whose travels helped initiate the trans-Atlantic slave trade. And although Columbus has often been called the explorer who “discovered” the Americas, Vikings arrived 500 years before Columbus’s travels.
When Columbus landed in the Caribbean in 1492, the Taino were among the first people he encountered; at the time, they were the most numerous indigenous people of the Caribbean. But by 1550, many had died from diseases brought by Spaniards.
“For us, the bottom line is Columbus Day is just a celebration of genocide,” Roberto Borrero, the president of the United Confederation of Taino People, said Thursday.
The push to reconsider Columbus Day is “definitely not something that’s against Italian-Americans,” he added. “We’re all for Italian-Americans celebrating their heritage.”
Matteo Casini, a senior lecturer in Renaissance and Mediterranean history at Suffolk University in Boston, said Italian-Americans viewed Columbus as a symbol of courage and of “defeating the unknown” that other Americans could recognize.
“Certainly from moral point of view, we have to condemn these acts,” he said. “But Columbus as a mythical figure is a completely different thing.”
In 2006, a document discovered by Spanish historians revealed the harrowing testimony of 23 witnesses who depicted Columbus as a proponent of slavery and torture during his reign over the first Spanish colony in the Americas.
“It was far more brutal than we had known,” Consuelo Varela, one of the researchers and the author of “The Fall of Christopher Columbus,” told The Christian Science Monitor. “It was a frontier society, with terrible misery and injustice.”
Queen Isabella and King Ferdinand, who ruled Spain together at the time, ordered Columbus arrested and returned to Spain.
Rethinking Columbus Day
As Americans became more aware of Columbus’s transgressions, the push to rename the holiday Indigenous People’s Day has gained traction as a way of recognizing the suffering of the groups that were colonized.
In 2017, Salt Lake City and Los Angeles County decided to recognize Indigenous People’s Day on the second Monday of every October, and a statue of Columbus in Central Park was vandalized with red paint and graffiti.
Many Italian-Americans pushed back.
“The ‘tearing down of history’ does not change that history,” John M. Viola, then the president and chief operating officer of the National Italian American Foundation, wrote in a New York Times editorial last year. “In the wake of the cultural conflict that has ripped us apart over these months, I wonder if we as a country can’t find better ways to utilize our history to eradicate racism instead of inciting it.”
This week, Cincinnati became the latest city to adopt Indigenous People’s Day.
“It’s not weak to revisit history, it’s strong to revisit history,” Councilman P. G. Sittenfeld told The Cincinnati Enquirer. “When you do that, you see the ugliness head-on.”
For many Italian-Americans, however, Columbus Day has a deeper meaning.
“We believe Christopher Columbus represents the values of discovery and risk that are at the heart of the American dream,” Mr. Viola wrote, “and that it is our job as the community most closely associated with his legacy to be at the forefront of a sensitive and engaging path forward, toward a solution that considers all sides.”