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Being Italian American: Why Columbus Day Gives Me a Headache

I am a staunch American, yet every year when it comes around, it forces me to look in the mirror and ask: where are your loyalties?

by Pasquale Palumbo

Christopher Columbus and Mother Cabrini ( Illustration by Antonella Martino )

You can make film after film and T.V. show after T.V. show focusing on every negative stereotype and caricature of Italian-Americans with impunity, and you can continue to ignore the great contributions Italian Americans have made to our society, as when Chirlaine McCray de Blasio ignored the results of a public poll and snubbed the winner, Mother Cabrini. No other ethnic group is so consistently marginalized and belittled so freely as ours.

So, once again we arrive at early October and like clockwork, the annual angst over Columbus Day begins.  Just last week, the town of Nyack in Rockland County officially renamed the second Monday of October “Indigenous Peoples’ Day,” striking the most famous Genovese from the municipal calendar.  There will be consternation on both sides; one side braying that this was long overdue, the other claiming that it’s an affront to their Italian heritage.  This annual turf war gives me a headache for so many reasons.

As I have ruminated on earlier, I am conflicted as to what it means to be Italian American. Without rehashing my previous musings, I will say that at a base level, I am happy about my heritage, but I am much more vociferous in my American-ness.  Notwithstanding, I have struggled with the idea of Columbus Day for many years.  Since I entered adulthood, right around the time the reassessment of Columbus reached national consciousness, it is an issue that remains present tense.

As a child, I and the generations before me all learned about the great Italian explorer whose intrepid nature was the catalyst for what became the American experiment.  All well and good, as since we are a young nation, it’s important for us to have our foundational myths.  It’s fair to say that if we were to scrutinize these stories across cultures, I’m certain there would be plenty to criticize.  There are a lot of incorrect facts about the Columbus myth that are not controversial at all to state: he certainly didn’t discover America (at least America as seen to be the United States) and it is historically inaccurate to call him an Italian—an Italian is either a member of an autochtonous  tribe that lived outside the Roman ‘pomerium’ during the age of the Roman Republic or a citizen of a country that was unified in 1861.

I’ve discussed the notion of tribalism in the past,  and I reiterate that it is one of the main reasons we are so divided in this country.  When we focus on what divides us as opposed to what unites us, there is always an opening for a sense that one group is favored over another, particularly when we look at cultural recognition. It also seems magnified here in the Metropolitan area because of the sheer numbers of people here who belong to these groups. When you look at these groups and their celebrations, you see that the Irish have St. Patrick’s Day, whose parades seem to engulf the entire month of March; in Black History Month and Women’s History Month so many media outlets provide many hours of documentary programming; the Puerto Rican Day Parade and the Pride Parade are being praised effusively by those same media outlets.  And then we come to Columbus Day.

Regardless of how the celebration started, it has become the de facto Italian-American Holiday, honoring the contributions that the millions of Italian-Americans have made to this country—a country that my grandfathers would tell you–hearts bursting with pride– that was built by Italians just like them.  And yet, you hear nothing about the holiday other than it needs to be eliminated from the calendar, traditions be damned.  Given this disparity, one can see why the elimination of an ersatz celebration of ethnic pride over historical injustices might irk a certain group, particularly one that has seemingly been marginalized in the scope of cultural worship. This is not to say that there should not be a time to celebrate Indigenous Peoples, but that is a conversation for another day.

What this does remind me of is the notion of historical erasure that has become prominent over the last few years, particularly in terms of removing statues that have been erected in honor of historical figures whose actions in the past are egregious by today’s standards (and frankly in most cases, egregious in any epoch). Columbus’s statue in Columbus Circle was the target of protest, and in 2017, Mayor De Blasio convened a commission to examine the removal of statues of those who had questionable history.

Ultimately, De Blasio said:

“Reckoning with our collective histories is a complicated undertaking with no easy solution. Our approach will focus on adding detail and nuance to – instead of removing entirely – the representations of these histories…and we’ll be taking a hard look at who has been left out and seeing where we can add new work to ensure our public spaces reflect the diversity and values of our great city.”

While I applaud the Mayor’s statement here, this is where my piece takes an interesting turn.

In the latter part of the statement, we see that his focus was to honor other great historical figures in what became the “She Built NYC” movement.  His wife, First Lady Chirlaine McCray, headed the project and in what many perceive to be an insult, ignored the results of a public poll and snubbed the winner, Mother Cabrini.  Aside from ignoring the will of those who voted, which is egregious, the snubbed winner is an Italian-American.  This can be read as yet another marginalization of the Italian-American community, drawing howls of protest from several public figures.  Chazz Palmintieri went as far as to say that McCray’s decision was racist, and in this era where that word is tossed around flippantly, I can’t blame him.  State Assemblywoman Nicole Malliotakis sent a public letter urging the commission to reconsider, while stressing that the decision is an “affront to Italian-Americans,” and Congressman Peter King posted a lengthy dispatch on Facebook characterizing the decision as “indefensible” and adding that, “Even in this time of heightened sensitivity and so much concern about hurt feelings and injured pride it still appears to be open season on Italian-Americans.”

King is right; you can make film after film and T.V. show after T.V. show focusing on every negative stereotype and caricature of Italian-Americans with impunity, and you can continue to ignore the great contributions Italian Americans have made to our society without consequence.  No other ethnic group is so consistently marginalized and belittled so freely as ours.

And here’s the rub that gives me a headache.  I have always maintained that I am an American first and that my Italian roots are just a piece of who I am as an American.  And yet, I can’t help but feel a slow burn of anger and resentment over all of this growing inside me. Every year I look in the mirror and ask: “where are your loyalties?”.

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