Proud to celebrate Columbus Day as an Italian American child. St. Patrick’s Day, with its Irish dancing, shamrocks, and green cupcakes, didn’t deserve the attention it received at Catholic schools. But it was still significant.
It turns out that the Irish had a better role model. Columbus, no matter how you look at it, is not someone Italians should honor. And should abandon efforts to save a holiday that brings no glory while exacerbating the anguish of the descendants of those he exploited.
The historical record has become quite clear over time. Despite his skill as a navigator, Columbus mistakenly believed he could find a fast route to India and China by sailing west, and he persuaded the Spanish monarchs to fund his expedition.
Instead, he arrived in the Bahamas and met the Taino people. When he met them, he wrote in his journal that these peaceful Indigenous people had the makings of “good servants,” and he put them to work mining gold — with the risk of amputation or death if they fell short. Later, he would ship thousands of Taino back to Spain to be sold into slavery, while diseases brought by the explorers wiped out the tribe.
Columbus was extravagant even by the standards of the time. As governor of the West Indies, he imposed such harsh punishments on anyone who got in his way, including Spanish colonists who dared to defy or ridicule him, that he was sacked by his royal supporters and returned to Spain.
The need to honor Columbus extends beyond praising a single person. It also entails adhering to a Eurocentric worldview that extols white male explorers who “discovered” continents inhabited by “uncivilized” barbarians.
Indeed, extolling Columbus aided the United States in projecting an image of itself as exceptional. As his legend grew, he became a model for American bravery and perseverance in the face of adversity, someone whose explorations had been blessed by Divine Providence. His journey to America paved the way for the establishment of the United States, which was also blessed by God.
Italians were not even the primary focus of America’s early adoration of the explorer. Only when Italian Americans were being lynched and the Italian government became enraged did the Italian immigrants’ desire to honor Columbus and associate their heritage with him coincide with diplomatic efforts to defuse a diplomatic crisis.
In 1891, 11 Sicilian immigrants were lynched in New Orleans after a mob blamed them for the death of the city’s police chief, despite the fact that they had not been convicted by a jury. Sicilians were targeted for lynching in part because they worked in the same jobs as African Americans and frequently lived in their communities, causing Southerners to regard them as more Black than white.
The Italian government, on the other hand, was not so upbeat. It severed diplomatic ties with the United States and demanded (and received) reparations. To make amends for the incident, President Benjamin Harrison declared a one-time holiday in 1892 to commemorate the 400th anniversary of Columbus’ discovery of the New World. However, Harrison did not single out Italians, but rather praised Columbus as “the pioneer of progress and enlightenment.”
Nonetheless, that proclamation laid the groundwork for a federal Columbus Day holiday, which was established in 1934. The holiday “played a critical role in the process by which Italian-Americans were fully ratified as white during the twentieth century.”
I’m not the only Italian American who has decided to forego the holiday. Last month, Italians for Indigenous Peoples’ Day testified before Massachusetts state legislators, urging them to replace the Columbus Day holiday with Indigenous Peoples’ Day.
Surprisingly, the holiday’s defenders refuse to acknowledge Columbus’ history of atrocities. Despite all historical evidence to the contrary, Basil Russo, president of the Conference of Presidents of Major Italian American Organizations, maintains Columbus as a “good Christian” who treated Indigenous peoples “with respect and compassion.”
It is difficult to let go of the myths that have shaped the Italian story in the Americas. But these myths are stifling our progress. They are impeding the development of a more authentic Italian narrative, one that sheds light on the lives of our immigrant parents and grandparents, as well as their heroism, and provides us with new ways to celebrate our heritage.