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Dump Columbus, Celebrate Italian Pride

By Tommi Avicolli Mecca


October 9, 2005

For years I've been saying it: As a southern Italian/American I do not identify with Christopher Columbus. Given his horrible legacy, it's time forItalian/Americans to dump "il conquistatore" and make October 12 a day to celebrate our ethnicity and our history in this country. Let's re-name it "Italian Pride Day" or "Sacco and Vanzetti Day."

I know that mine is not a popular view in the Italian/American community. Columbus Day has been deeply entrenched in Italian/American culture for a long time. On October 12, 1866, Italians in New York City initiated a celebration of the "discovery" of this land. In 1869, Italians in San Francisco called it "Columbus Day." In 1937, President Roosevelt proclaimed Columbus Day a holiday and in 1968 President Johnson made it a federal holiday.

For Italians in the late 1800s, it was important to find a way to tie their ethnicity into the history of their new home. When Italians (most of them from the deep south of Italy) first arrived here, they were seen as barbarians who would topple Anglo-Saxon culture.

Scholars considered them stupid. Leta Hollingworth, a professor at Teachers College at Columbia University, wrote: "American children of Italian parentage show a low average of intelligence. The selection of Italians received into this country has yielded very few gifted children." (Gifted Children: Their Nature and Nurture, 1926, p. 71)

In the area of employment, Italians were met with "No Italian Need Apply" signs (adapted from the "No Irish Need Apply" notices of earlier years). During World War II, President Roosevelt supported putting Italians in internment camps. A plan was designed to relocate us in sites along the West Coast. Though the internment was never implemented, thousands of Italians were forcefully relocated from their homes. Many were arrested and jailed. Their crime: being Italian. Their stories are documented in "Una Storia Segreta," an incredible exhibit that has traveled widely since its opening in 1994 at the Museo Italo Americano here in San Francisco.

Today, Italian/Americans are still victims of persistent stereotypes that paint us as criminals at worst and stupid at best. One need not look far to see them: The Sopranos gives us the Mafioso Italian, and Friends the stupid one. There's little in-between.

Columbus does not help. His legacy leaves very little to be proud of. First of all, Columbus discovered nothing. The land was already inhabited, had been occupied for centuries. Five hundred years before, a fellow European, Leif Erickson, had landed and established a settlement far to the North in what is now Canada.

Then, too, Columbus was from Genoa, became a Portuguese citizen and sailed for Spain. He "claimed" America for the Spanish Monarchy, not for the Kingdom of Two Sicilys where my people labored daily under a hot sun to live in squalid conditions.

Columbus was no St. Francis of Assisi. His cruelty to the native peoples was so widely known that at one point he was sent back to Spain in chains to answer for it. He was more interested in stealing riches than in celebrating any cultures he "found." Not a legacy I want anything to do with.

As a southern Italian, I claim Sacco and Vanzetti, two working-class southern Italian immigrants and anarchists sentenced to death for the supposed murder and robbery of a South Braintree, Massachusetts pay master and his guard. The case received international attention and on the day of the sentencing mass demonstrations were held throughout the world, including in Italian/American communities.

I want to celebrate Sacco and Vanzetti's legacy: The labor organizing, the political agitating for redistribution of the wealth, the anti-war work. I want to remember Luigi Galleani's Cronaca Sovversiva, an anarchist journal published in America in Italian. I want to remember the brave men and women who faced relocation during World War II. I want to remember Frank Sinatra's The House I Live In, a short film about America as a multi-racial society. I want to remember the radicals written about in Philip Cannistraro and Gerald Meyer's The Lost World of Italian-American Radicalism. I want to remember the Italian/American women radicals such as Maria Barbieri and Virgilia d'Andrea. I want to remember Tony Bennett, Connie Francis and all the many wonderful entertainers that have come from the Italian/American community.

I don't need Christopher Columbus to be proud to be southern Italian.

On Wednesday, October 12, Italian/American writers and others will be "dumping Columbus" in a special night at Modern Times Bookstore, 777 Valencia (near 19th), 7:30pm, $5 suggested donation (all proceeds benefit el comite de vivienda San Pedro, St. Peter's Housing Committee). Featured will be Giancarlo Campagna, Guiliana Sorro, James Tracy, Tommi Avicolli Mecca and Maria Poblet.


Tommi Avicolli Mecca is a San Francisco writer, actor, and political activist. Email mecca44@sbcglobal.net.

Editors Note: The views expressed by Sentinel columnists (Other Voices) are not necessarily the views or beliefs of the Sentinel. The Sentinel supports free speech in all its varied forms and provides a forum for a full-spectrum of view points for the benefit of our readership.



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