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
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
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
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.
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