Once again this year, the debate on Christopher Columbus has been animated. In a nutshell, the two opposing views are: the statues should go because they’re a symbol of genocide, versus, the statues should stay in the name of Italian-ness in America. Compared to past years, however, the debate has been more charged because it has been superimposed on the national debate on statues, symbols of the pro-slavery Confederate States. Yet every year, since I came to America (25 years ago!), as soon as Columbus Day and the parade on 5th Avenue draws near, my interior dialogue, wholly personal, is rekindled in the same way, and I try to understand why Italians in America chose this Genovese navigator as a symbol of heritage pride. Is the rationale ethnic or cultural? It is definitely not a national justification since, at the time of Columbus’ voyages, Italy was merely a “geographical expression.”
For me, an Italian (a Sicilian, actually, so an “exaggerated Italian”) who was not raised in America but arrived later in life, the strong attachment to the figure of Don Christopher can’t certainly be the same as that of an American of Italian origin. I believe that like me and many others of my generation (born in ’64), Columbus was one of the great explorers of his time. In school, we studied his voyages and had to be careful to not confuse what he did. For example, we never said he “discovered” America! If we gave that answer during an oral test, we failed and were sent you back to our seat. If anything, Columbus had, in searching out a new route to the Indies, opened a “new world” to commerce, from Europe and to Europe.
Besides, as a good Italian “sport,” my “nationalist” passion for Columbus’ expeditions was less than enthusiastic because of the so-called “C factor”: “C” for Caravels. The Niña, the Pinta and the Santa María of the first voyage were waving the Spanish flag. And if, as a Sicilian of that era, I could say that at that moment in history even Sicilian was part of the same “team,” now 500 years later, as an Italian, the situation seems different. Everyone knows that we, in the race to arrive first, are more excited about the car than the driver. So for someone who was raised routing for the Austrian behind the wheel of the red Ferrari to win the Formula 1 Grand Prix, how could we get excited about a Genovese who perhaps reached the Americas first? For the record: in reality, he was about 500 years later than the Vikings, but on a foreign (read: Spanish) “team.”
This long introduction is to warn the reader that, as an Italian raised in Italy, I’ve never been able to get as excited about Columbus as Italians raised in America. And what I’m about to say about the controversy over the statue (if it should be taken down or kept up, but not only that), is certainly affected by the fact that I belong to that immigration wave of the “Italians last to arrive” to the US. This necessary premise complete, I believe first and foremost that the statue should not be taken down. Although I recognize that for some it could be a symbol of terror, it must be said that Columbus statues – including the one in New York – were not erected for the same purpose as were those statues of General Lee, which were erected more than half a century after the American Civil War had ended. There are distinct differences between the two cases. Columbus, for many Italians who emigrated at the turn of the century, represented a life preserver onto which they could hold in those moments when, despite being in US for years already, they continued to drown in the ocean of prejudice and racism of an America of “Wasp power,” born and bred.
Joseph Sciorra and Laura Ruberto said it best in their most recent essay, that for certain prominent people like Luigi Barsotti or Generose Pope, the statues were useful to help them be accepted, and subsequently to do business with the Wasps in power, who held Columbus in favor to some degree (maybe because of the way he too treated Native Americans?). But for the poorest of immigrants who arrived with cardboard boxes, still forced to take on the menial jobs, and made their modest donations so that the Columbus statue in New York would be erected, it represented something quite different: moral redemption or national belonging. Or perhaps even more, the need to belong to a homeland that, for a class of immigrants who arrived without any sense of national conscience, at the most a “parochial” or maybe not at all, in America it became a necessity, to not feel they belonged on the lowest rung of the ladder of social classes. Basically, to not feel like “the blacks.” Columbus, a symbol accepted by the Wasps, served to not only make them accepted as Italians, but also to make them still feel a little Italian. Subsequently, it would be Mussolini to give Italians in America “the Fascist Homeland.” Before him though, there was no one if not Don Christopher to help them in that way.
It is said that these statues, a symbol of an emigrant people seeking integration in America to suffer less the judgments and racism reserved for non-white ethnic groups (everyone was white with Columbus), should be preserved as the emblem of that history of the assimilation suffered. It’s here that my perplexity grows when it comes to marching in the parade on Fifth Avenue, and showing Italian pride in the name of Columbus. Maybe it’s because I belong to my generation that grew up in Italy, but I can’t wave my Italian flag passionately in the name of Columbus. And I think, after learning from my Colombian colleague, that not even in Colombia, the country that carries the explorer’s name, they do not dedicate a day to him (in fact, the day Columbus is celebrated in the US, Colombia celebrates the indigenous resistance to the conquistadores’ violence), how am I supposed to be enthusiastic about Don Cristopher? I would have preferred to celebrate another day, “Italian Day in America.”
Maybe the day of the birth of our Republic, June 2nd? Thoughts? Well, Italy’s liberation came thanks to the help of Americans, yet millions of Italians crossed the ocean for America long before the birth of the Italian Republic. But then, in this case, there would be no hero. Yet in the history of Italy, finding a hero is not difficult. And if there must be a heroic figure (in the more than “ingenious” sense, however) to represent my Italian pride, my personal choice for obvious reasons is an athlete who still makes my heart beat – Paolo ‘Pablito’ Rossi, of the 1982 World Soccer Championship in Spain! I know, I know, generational madness, so then I would suggest a musical genius recognized worldwide. Not only for his music, but also for the language used in his music, as Professor Stefano Albertini recently wrote. Ready for this? Giuseppe Verdi!
Verdi, unlike Columbus, lived in a newly united Italy. Actually, we know that with his music, he influenced the souls of the resurgence. What’s more, it was that Peppino (nickname of Giuseppe) who was not Garibaldi, that many patriots hailed in the walls of Italian cities under Austrian occupation. They did it with that VIVA VERDI (Long Live Verdi which stood for “long live Vittorio Emmanuel, King of Italy.” Verdi too, already with his music that speaks Italian gave life to a culture that otherwise, perhaps, would have certainly not have lasted long.
I’m not just throwing out the name of Giuseppe Verdi to taunt you. I learned with great joy, in fact, that this year the renowned author-director-actor Finazzer Flory will be marching on 5th Avenue, impersonating this great man, Peppino Verdi! How wonderful! Seems to me that this time, I’ll gladly attend the parade but not to exalt the exploits of a great driver, pardon, explorer, who arrived with his ships borrowed from a Spanish queen to a land that he hadn’t planned on. I will go to the Columbus Day parade instead to praise the deeds of a great artist, to celebrate the great operas of an Italian that were born when Italy too was being born – an Italy that despite all its conflicts was always beautiful and no longer lost. I will go to the Columbus Day parade to praise an Italian, the greatest opera composer of all time, whose lyric opera represented and continues to represent pain and joy, love and struggles of human life. Including, possibly, those experienced by Italian immigrants in America.
Might it just be Giuseppe Verdi the musical hero to bring together the generations of the Italian American community in the US? This I don’t know, but a good LONG LIVE VERDI on 5th Avenue, a loud LONG LIVE VERDI will not only pay tribute to Italian pride, but will also dedicate an anthem to the art and beauty of all of mankind. In the name of music, absolutely, that perhaps would succeed to finally unite everyone, even the Italians in America.