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Celebrating Columbus Day: A Peculiar Thing for an Italian in New York

In the shadow of last year's controversy, what does celebrating Columbus Day mean for an Italian in Manhattan?

The controversy exists in a strange space where incredibly divergent concepts of Columbus exist at the extremes. The two cannot come together because they employ entirely different embodiments of Columbus’ significance. So where do you stand if you condemn the slaughter he represents on one side, but appreciate his cultural relevance to a specific group on the other?

This is my fifth year in the United States. Since touching down at JFK for the first time, being an Italian man, born and raised in Milan, has strangely been an immensely important part of my experience. In the nation of immigrants, in the city of immense diversity, I found myself immediately clinging to the well woven Italian cultural fabric that I felt split me from the rest. I always felt it welcomed, taken care of, even appreciated and celebrated. In all honesty, that sensation, at least in Manhattan, has not changed. This ability to express my culture while coming in close contact with the myriad of others NYC has to offer paints the strokes of my mind’s most beautiful portrait of America. However, in a nation that has lately shown itself to be far less welcoming and accepting than such a picture would paint, celebrations of Italian culture, like the upcoming Columbus Day, become relevant times of reflection and pondering.

Christopher Columbus statue in Columbus Circle, New York.

Growing up in Italy, Christopher Columbus was portrayed by schoolteachers and popular media alike as little else if not a daring explorer. We had no Columbus Day holidays, nor, of course, was he or his history, a substantial part of our educational curriculum. Columbus’ story arrives almost as a myth, a blurred motion picture that flashes staggering figures of caravels, uncertain seas, and political drama. Back home, his name is not a representation of culture, nor does it carry with it the hefty ethical debate it does in the United States. The concept of existing as an Italian in a foreign reality where those things are true, then, makes Columbus day a particularly singular festivity.

The moment I came in contact with the conceptual reality of Columbus Day in the United States, my gut portrayed it to me, largely as a celebration of the discovery of the new world. Columbus, being the single most relevant flesh and bone representation of the discovery, simply lends the occasion his name. The trouble, of course, starts with all that occurred after that fateful day in 1492. The colonization of the Americas and the atrocious extermination of indigenous populations it encouraged, become irremovable fibers of Columbus’ historical tapestry. Inevitably, they become mixed with the cultural icon that is Christopher Columbus, casting upon it a heavy shroud of shame and disgrace. Rightfully, then, Columbus, and the national holiday with it, become objects of ethical and moral discussion and opposition. This time a year ago, raging New York City protests called for the removal of his statues from the likes of its own Columbus circle. Their message was not based on hate of a figure, but on hate of the concept of irrational invasion. They did not protest the figure, they protested the picture that is painted of it.

I believe those protests are valid, and find strange refuge in their opposition of the concept of what is supposed to be a symbol of my culture. They do not find offense in his culture, or his heritage, they point the finger to the monstrous policies his arrival in the new world warranted. To me, that is absolutely legitimate. To those on the opposite side of this controversy, perhaps not so much. Protestors found opposition from both traditionalists, and dedicated groups of Italian-Americans alike. What I can describe as a strange reality, an Italian-American born and raised in the United States cannot. For me, an attack on the figure of Columbus does not represent an attack on Italian culture, for the two concepts do not come together across the pond. For an Italian-American, on the other hand, they are justly difficult to separate, linking an attack on Columbus to an attack on cultural identity. Essentially, the conception of Columbus, as with most things, shifts with its environment. From different angles, he symbolizes different things.

Columbus is a symbol of oppression to some, of progress to others, and of Italian-American culture to others still. The violence against indigenous populations is wrong and warrants protest. The defamation of a culture’s symbol is also wrong, and warrants just as much protest. Both sides are right. The controversy exists in a strange space where incredibly divergent concepts of Columbus exist at the extremes. The two cannot come together because they employ entirely different embodiments of Columbus’ significance. So where do you stand if you condemn the slaughter he represents on one side, but appreciate his cultural relevance to a specific group on the other?

It might not feel like there is a lot of safe ground to stand on. However, if we indulge in a little child-like innocence, we might just strip Columbus of his associations and focus on nothing but his incredible discovery of a previously unknown world. We might see him not as a symbol of culture, or of genocide, but rather as a simple human incarnation of wanderlust. Silly as that might sound, passion for exploration and thirst for novelty brought Columbus to his crowned achievement. They led him to the greatest discovery in history, and they are the ones that should be celebrated with his name. Needless to say, that will not be the case. However, momentarily stepping away from controversy to wallow in this childish simplicity helps a great deal in accepting the existence of different ways of understanding. Consciousness of mind unites. In this eerie America, for an Italian abroad it represents a path towards the very best representation of the United States, far more advanced than what Columbus could ever have dreamed it would become.

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