October 12 is a day claimed by many Italian Americans as their day. It is Columbus Day. Though there is no official coupling of Italian Americans to the Genovese colonizer and explorer, many Italian Americans have linked themselves to Columbus as a symbol of ethnic pride. This ethnic pride has manifested itself through the Columbus Day parades. At a time when Columbus, the historical figure, is receiving proper historical scrutiny, many Italian American “leaders” have doubled down on their support for Columbus and his so-called connection to Italian heritage. This leaves the many Italian Americans who do not link their heritage to Columbus scratching their heads while seeking alternatives.
In Stamford, Connecticut, Italian Americans have set an example of what a post-Columbus Day parade America could look like. They have created the That’s Amore Festival. I am not claiming the organizers are anti-Columbus. Some, maybe even all of them, could be pro-Columbus Day. Regardless, this festival teases out elements of what a post-Columbus Day America could look like.
The event was spearheaded by Italians of Connecticut, Hey Stamford, Elite Entertainment Live Events, and Parachute Concerts. In essence, it was a street fair celebrating all things Italian and Italian American. It was a two-day event, with a Saturday night concert featuring the legendary Alfio and the rising star, Sal “The Voice” Valentinetti. On Sunday, October 13, Stamfordites took to the street and celebrated a day dedicated to Italian music and cuisine. This is where the potentialities emerged.
One feature of the festival, that stood out to born and bred Stamfordites, such as myself, was the inclusion of local Italian American businesses and institutions. UNICO, which was founded in CT, had a presence along with Stamford’s famous Italian Center. Popular eateries such as Pellicci’s, John the Baker, Mario the Baker, Enzo’s, Columbus Park, and Di Mare were turning out some of their most popular dishes (such as Enzo’s Penne alla Vodka!). What this brings out is the local history and plates of Italian Americans living in that community. The celebration of local Italian food and intuitions can serve as a model for other Italian American communities that want to emphasize and celebrate their local lived histories. Celebrating local Italian American history could help sever the grand narratives of the Columbian connection.
Another feature of the festival that stood out was the music and performance choices. Besides the two stars that performed the night before, artists and dancers arrived from Italy to perform regional dances. One group was from the province of Cosenza and performed their local folk dances. Other performers practicing folk dances were from Stamford’s Minturnese Social Club. The choice suggests two things. On one hand, it is preserving a dialogue between the Italian diaspora and Italy. On the other, the specificity of the folk dances fosters a plurality in the Italian ethnic experiences and histories, once again moving away from the grander narrative of the “Columbus people.”
Finally, a feature that stood out the most clearly to me was the Italian heritage tent. At the back of the festival there was a tent that had information about Italian history and culture. There was a map on display, where people could place a sticker on which city, or town in Italy their family hailed from. Most of the stickers were in the South, the so-called Mezzogiorno. Also in the tent, there were small cutouts providing information on the regions of Italy, so that Italian Americans could learn more about them. Additionally, there was a poster celebrating Italian explorers. Obviously, Columbus was included. Intentional or not, this tent was de-emphasizing Columbus, and presenting a richer Italian history through other great (though problematic) men and regional histories.
The “That’s Amore Festival” provides a model of a what celebrating the Italian heritage in America could look like as an alternative to the Columbus Day parades. To be clear, it is not an anti-Columbus festival. However, the festival provides potentialities of what post-Columbus Italian American heritage celebrations could look like. The inclusion of local Italian American establishment modulates the grand narratives with local histories, in the plural, that reflect the lived experiences of Italians in their communities. The inclusion of regional folk dances pluralizes Italian culture and serves as a bridge connecting the diaspora with its ancestral regions in Italy. Finally, the heritage tent serves as a first step to Italian Americans who wish to explore their regional histories, again in the plural. In short, if one thing is clear about this festival, it is that it is steeped in love and passion for the Italian and Italian American heritage, culture, and history. It also provides a glimpse of what future ethnic celebrations can look like. Now that’s amore!