OPINION: Let’s abolish Columbus Day

It's time to find another way to celebrate Italian-American heritage

It’s a simple proposal: Abolish Columbus Day and find another way to honor Italian contributions to this country.

That’s what more than 50 Italian academics, artists and activists are currently proposing. I’m one of them. We’ve signed on to two letters, one to Italian American community leaders asking them “to facilitate an open discussion within their communities in order to explore more appropriate ways…to acknowledge and celebrate the legacy of sacrifice and generosity that Italian Americans have given to this nation.”

He didn’t sail for Italy, he didn’t discover America — and he committed atrocities.

The other calls on the Italian American Congressional Delegation “to open a dialogue with members of the Native American Congressional Caucus, leading to the abolition (and/or replacement) of Columbus Day as a federal holiday.”

I’m Southern Italian, but I feel no pride in a man who happened to be born in the Republic of Genoa 400 years before there was even a nation called Italy. A man who sailed for Spain. A man who committed numerous atrocities and was eventually called back to that country to answer for those crimes.

Columbus Day became important for Italians in this country for reasons that should be familiar to many other ethnic groups. When we arrived at Ellis Island, Anglos didn’t exactly roll out the red, white and green carpet. They considered us barbarians of a separate race who would topple Anglo culture. Employers openly discriminated against us, running newspaper ads that made it clear we couldn’t apply. In the south, Italians were lynched because we weren’t seen as white. The largest of those lynchings took place in 1891 in New Orleans.

In 1924, Congress severely cut back on how many Africans, Italians, Jews and Eastern Europeans could enter the country and outright banned Asian and Arab immigrants, thereby closing any open borders the country might have had.

Faced with conditions that mirrored their homeland, many Italian and Sicilian immigrants became leaders in the worker strikes of the early part of the last century. Two such labor organizers, Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti, were executed in 1924 for a murder they didn’t commit. In the courtroom, the judge referred to them as “dagos,” a derogatory term for Italians. Worldwide protests could not stop the execution.

During WWII, thousands of Italians were relocated, deported or jailed after the government abandoned a plan to place us in internment camps. Joe di Maggio’s father was restricted from visiting the family business. Opera star Enzio Pinza was arrested by the FBI. 

Associating Italians with Columbus Day was a way to gain acceptance and whiteness. It was a whiteness won, in this instance, on the backs of native peoples who, as the recent fight against the North Dakota pipeline once again demonstrates, are still mistreated on this, their land. A whiteness that has robbed us of our language and much of our culture and history, and left us with right-wing public figures such as Frank Rizzo, Rudolph Giuliani and Joe Arpaio. 

It’s time for us to embrace the real heroes, such as Vito Marcantonio, the Harlem congressman who, in the 1940s, pushed for black civil rights and a federal anti-lynching law. Or 14-year-old Camella Teoli, whose scalp was torn by a spinning machine and who bravely testified before Congress in 1912 about the abuses in the textile mills.

Or the thousands of activists who took to the streets to win us the rights all of us workers often take for granted, including the 40-hour week, vacation and sick time, and work place conditions that don’t put our lives at risk.

Arrivederci, Cristoforo Colombo. P.S. Take the damn Blue Angels with you.