The meaning of Cristoforo Colombo and Columbus Day
The meaning of Cristoforo Colombo and Columbus Day
Dear President Joseph R. Biden Jr.:
I write to address a matter of great concern for Italians and Italian-Americans in the United States: the meaning of Columbus Day. As intended by its anonymous father, Mr. Angelo Noce, the original meaning of Columbus Day is Italianity, brotherhood, and equality.
Today, the Italian-American community comprises more than 16 million Americans descending from the Italian immigrants of the last century. From 1880 to 1914, 13 million Italians migrated out of Italy making one of the largest voluntary migrations in recorded world history. Mark Choate, Emigrant Nation: The making of Italy abroad. (Harvard University Press, 2008). Between 1900 and 1914, 3 million Italians arrived in the United States. Id.
In the United States, Italians—as many other minority groups— were victims of countless acts of discrimination and were relegated to work in the most dangerous mines, live in the worst neighborhoods, and discriminated against because of the color of their skin, language, and their Catholic faith. The 1891 New Orleans lynching of 11 Italians—the largest single lynching in U.S. history—is one of the darkest moments of the United States’ long history of anti-Italian discrimination.
In Mother Cabrini’s words, “The hardest labor is reserved for the Italian worker. Few regard him with a sympathetic eye, care for him or remember that he has a heart and a soul: they merely look upon him as an ingenious machine for work.” In the United States, she found Italians “slave away until someday a cave-in, explosion or accident of some kind cuts their life short, leaving their wives widowed and their children fatherless. They did not even need a grave, having been buried in the tomb in which they spent their whole lives.” From the late 1880s, Ku Klux Klan became very active against Italians because they were aliens and Catholics. Anti-immigrant sentiments grew in parallel with KKK memberships. Catholic churches and charities were vandalized and burned.
One of these immigrants was Mr. Angelo Noce from Genova. In 1850, Mr. Noce emigrated with his family to California where he worked for both the San Francisco Examiner and the Sacramento Court system before moving to Denver, Colorado, in 1882. During the 1876’s Cristoforo Colombo festivities of the Italian community of San Francisco, Mr. Noce conceived the idea of the legal holiday by witnessing a sentiment of brotherhood and equality in celebrating the Italian heritage. Mr. Noce truly believed that the legal holiday could bring “a beneficent influence upon the minds of men, that it might become universally accepted and well understood and afterwards bring forth profitable results—that is, that Columbus Day would become legally recognized in the glorious land of George Washington—where Liberty is not a myth nor a by-word; in this land of equality and brotherhood.” Noce, Angelo. Columbus Day in Colorado. Denver, Angelo Noce, 1910, 23-24.
Criticism against Cristoforo Colombo is not a novelty of this century. In 1928, in Easton, Pennsylvania, the Italian community raised funds to erect a monument honoring their origins. Cristoforo Colombo was chosen as a link between their native land and the new one. On April 22, 1929, the Columbus committee received approval from the Easton school board to place the statue in front of the high school at Northampton and 12th street.
The project, however, sparked strong criticism from the Ku Klux Klan and other groups. The KKK was against placing the monument of an alien on American school grounds. On November 13, 1929, the school board reversed itself and withdrew its approval for the Columbus statue.
Nevertheless, the Italian community continued its quest by lobbying the local administration. On August 5, 1930, the City Council granted permission to put the Columbus monument on River Side. In the aftermath of George Floyd’s homicide, Columbus Monument in Easton has been under criticism once again. An online petition has been submitted to describe the monument as a “symbol of Indigenous genocide.”
The Italian community of Easton raised $13,000 for the Monument although the services of the artist, Giuseppe Donato, were donated. The Mayor of Easton, Hon. Salvatore Panto objected to the request of removing the monument. Mayor Panto recalled that his grandparents mortgaged their house to help pay for the statue that was honoring their Italian heritage.
Mayor Panto’s grandparents’ action of mortgaging their American home to pay tribute to their Italian native land and heritage is more than illustrative or exemplary. It is clear evidence of the strength of their sentiment for their Italian nationality and heritage which can only be compared to a religious belief. In America, Columbus monuments and celebrations of Columbus Day are enshrined in this sentiment.
Mr. President, history repeats itself for those who do not learn from it. Italian tradition, culture, and heritage are once again under attack by the false claim that Columbus represents evil in someone’s eyes: whether that evil is labeled alienage and Catholic faith in the 20th century or Indigenous genocide in the 21st century, the willful misunderstanding is analogous.
Cristoforo Colombo is and has always been a symbol of our Italian heritage and a tribute to the sacrifice and efforts made by us and our ancestors as immigrants leaving our Mother Land in the quest for opportunity—that is, the American Dream. This is what we are celebrating with Cristoforo Colombo: the nature and experience of being Italian immigrants in the United States.
I can speak of this topic not only as a descendant of a coal miner who emigrated to the United States in the 1920s but because, I too, am an Italian who came to the United States seeking the opportunity to achieve the American Dream. I also had to face the gravest odds and a good deal of discrimination because of who I am—my nationality and my accent—of which I do not like to speak of.
As such, I understand the meaning of Cristoforo Colombo as much as my ancestors. When I celebrate my heritage and my ancestors’ legacy, I mean no harm to other traditions and cultures. Rather, I mean to celebrate and pay tribute to the Italian heritage, Italian emigration, and Italian contribution to the United States.
I welcome the opportunity to contribute to the celebration of other traditions and cultures as I strongly value and support diversity, especially in the marketplace of ideas, which is one of the fundamental and great principles of these United States. As I endorse, advocate for, and champion the ideals of a free marketplace of ideas, I urge that Italians and Italian-Americans shall be heard and that our point of view is fully considered on the matter of Cristoforo Colombo and Columbus Day. We strongly support the establishment of Indigenous People Day—but not at the expense of our Italian heritage.
In conclusion, Italians and Italian-Americans consider and have always considered Cristoforo Colombo as a symbol of their national and cultural identity. I urge you therefore to preserve the original meaning of Cristoforo Colombo without any willful misunderstanding from the 20th and 21st centuries. Cristoforo Colombo means Italianity, equality, and brotherhood.
Native Americans deserve to have their culture and tradition celebrated as much as Italian Americans do. In celebrating traditions and cultures, the aim is to foster community rather than alienation, to promote unity rather than division, and to encourage tolerance rather than bigotry. Starting from these premises, the Italian American community does not understand why Indigenous People Day must occur on the same day as Columbus Day, especially if the objective is harmony rather than hostility. Furthermore, International Indigenous People Day is already recognized also and celebrated on August 9th as per the UN Resolution 49/214 dated February 17, 1995.
We welcome the opportunity for a meeting with all the interested parties to resolve the present misunderstandings between Native American and Italian American communities.