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Hands off Christopher Columbus: Alberto Milani’s Italian American Muster

Interview with Alberto Milani, President of Italy America Chamber of Commerce, promoter of "Giù le mani da Colombo" committee

Alberto Milani leads the most important Italian American Chamber of Commerce in the United States, and declares to La Voce di New York that he has been defending the Columbus Day and the Genoese explorer’s statue, which has been threatened with being torn down in Manhattan: "Colombus's biography also has some dark passages, but he first believed in the American dream"

He discovered it by accident. Or maybe he found it by mistake. There are those who think that he was moved by curiosity. Others, on the other hand, by his resourcefulness. He was convinced of the existence of a world beyond the Azores intrigued, probably, by geographic maps and mathematical calculations that outlined the face of the Earth. He managed to see it for the first time at night. He wrote in his diary that he had noticed a distant light, much like a candle. That was the beginning. And since October 12, 1492, the America of Christopher Columbus began to build its own identity. In part European. Creole. New.

For many, he became a conqueror. For others he was an exceptional navigator and a dreamer, who sought luck beyond imagination. But more than five hundred years after the discovery, on the pedestal that holds the statue of the Genoese explorer, in a corner of Queens, the inscription: “Do not honor the genocide, take it down!” Do not honor genocide, tear it down. Like every year, as Columbus Day approaches (the date chosen to celebrate the discovery), there are so many divisions and controversies over the disputed figure of the first Italian who landed in America. Everywhere, in the United States, decapitated statues and damaged monuments, because they are considered an unjust tribute to a historical figure, not judged positively by everyone, guilty of having initiated the extermination of natives and indigenous peoples.

In New York, mayor Bill de Blasio announced a commission that within 90 days will have the task of removing “hate symbols” scattered around the city. There are some who feared for the explorer’s statue at Columbus Circle and that is why the Italy America Chamber of Commerce has decided to set up “Giù le mani da Colombo” [Hands off Columbus] committee to defend the image of the man who, according to President Alberto Milani, “was the first to believe in the American dream.”

Alberto Milani, President of Italia American Chamber of Commerce

President Milani, why did the Italy America Chamber of Commerce want to be the protagonist in this discussion about Christopher Columbus by setting up this committee?

“As an Italian community we are always rather good and quick to start with some initiatives but then probably not so effective in putting them together. We are a country of a thousand bell towers. By creating this committee, we first thought about giving an institutional signal to convey all the various initiatives, both public and private, to then arrive at our press conference scheduled for October 12. ”

Do you think that setting up “Giù le mani da Colombo” may help to keep not only the statue but also the figure of the explorer intact?

“I hope so. There are some aspects to keep in mind. The first is certainly tied to activities to properly assess historical facts. ”

Christopher Columbus, in fact, is a historically controversial figure.

“Obviously. Colombus’s biography also has some dark passages. True, this country was born, in part, by the colonialism and the oppression of the rights of those who existed before, but this is its history. There must be revision, in life and values, and we, in Europe, are certainly more experienced if we think of Germany, Italy, Spain or the former Yugoslavia. However,it is necessary to keep into consideration public sentiment and if this is shared then fine, but if it is not, moving the statues is like burning the books. I would fight in the same way if there were other monuments or other shared values to defend today. Regardless of Columbus. ”

Why would the removal of Columbus statue be an attack on the Italian-American community?

“If we start from an assumption, the emblem of the Genoese explorer is a historical symbol, with dark sides like most of the institutions that existed in his era. But today, the statue has a very strong meaning for the Italian community. ”

Why do you think so?

“It represents the American immigration to the United States therefore, it designates what we, as a community, refer to. We believe that, beyond the general appearance of the statue, there is a second value which, in our opinion, is more important. ”

Which one?

“It’s about celebrating our Italianness [italianità] during Columbus Day. Los Angeles ended as we know (the celebration was replaced by the Indigenous Peoples Day) and even though these are democratic processes, voted in full legality, we must bear in mind that they are not born in a few days. There are processes that, for years, are to be discussed and then, in the end, they lead to a result like that. We would like to avoid it and this is one of the reasons why this meeting will take place on October 12th. In fact, we prefer coordinating an action that will allow us to keep our positions in the future. ”

Every year, though, there are talks about it.

“That part of revindicating the rights of the natives has always existed. Personally, I think these two values should not be opposed against each other: putting the right of the natives against the right of the Italians to celebrate a feast is not the correct approach. The Italian community then has always been one of the first to embrace all the possibilities of manifestation, including the one of the natives, so I do not think this is the problem.”

How are things going since you announce the committee’s initiative?

“I’d say good. I think we have reason to believe that the alarm has re-entered, both for the parade and the statue. Governor Cuomo intervened first and then, in the second round, Mayor de Blasio. Then, I do not know how it will turn out with the statue in the future, I think there will also be a problem related to the square and its name. ”

Cuomo and de Blasio had two different reactions.

“I think the facts of Charlottesville have also lit up the situation for them. Let us not forget the electoral period for them. For a mayor, whoever he is, it becomes difficult to take sides when there is no assurance on the outcome. In 90 days, a commission decides which statues will be deemed to be discriminatory. These are pretty strong words: I have no knowledge of all New York monuments, but I will be curious to see which monuments will be identified as such. As for Cuomo: a few days ago he took the side for keeping it, surely for his probably stronger Italianness [italianità]. But I also believe that the reactions, not only ours but also from other organizations have influenced, especially in New York where the Italian-American community is very strong and above all it is very much felt. It would have been very difficult to hold the opposite view. ”

In your opinion, how does this issue seem to have been sharpened this year?

“I think that the historical revisionism of this time has been a bit lit up by the facts of Charlottesville, which then led to magnify a situation that every year reappears. I hope that this historical review is done in general not with arrogance, not with impositions, but on the basis of public sentiment that today wants to continue to celebrate Colombus, in his name on the dates that we feel appropriate and not with other symbols.”

What is Colombus for you?

“One of the most interesting traits personally, is the will to go the extra mile, which is a bit of what distinguishes those who came to this country. During this time, I had to conduct some historical research, and I found various versions of this reconstruction. In one it seems Colombus did not know what to face, and in another he seemed to have had information that others did not have before facing the journey. In any case, he incarnates the spirit of Italian resourcefulness, even just before leaving, looking for what we would call today a sponsorship for his dream, his belief. I think this is very similar to the American dream. Even today, we are looking for sponsors, we try to move to a new and unknown world and try to assert ourselves. Unfortunately, Colombus was a great navigator and, says history, perhaps not a great governor, however, the first part was made with what I think is the right spirit of the Italians.”

Have you perceived a different feeling between Italians and Italian-Americans about this matter?

“Absolutely. I am Italian, born and raised in Italy, but for more than 25 years here and I have to say Columbus is for the Italian-Americans, which is a process in life that happens, a symbol when there is this transformation, between being Italian and becoming Italian-American. He is seen very strongly by the community, even and not just as a sourceof pride. Moreover, let us not forget that the first Italian migrations did not have the rights we enjoy nowadays, nor did they have the right to express their Italianness [italianità], which was neither well-viewed nor encouraged. So, in the end, for these people, Columbus has always been seen as the symbol of the first Italian immigrant to come here. So it definitely has a much higher value. However, we have had large support from Ligurian or Genoese associations that certainly see Columbus in a different way. Both are valid, but the values of Italianness [italianità] abroad become stronger. ”

President, so will Columbus remain standing?

“Yes and I believe the parade will surely take place this year. I think the statue is a symbol of another right that I set out to defend. I will do it as President as long as I will hold office and I will also do it as an Italian-American if I should not be president any longer. As a man and as an Italian-American, what annoyed me was the fact that I could not celebrate the day in the right way in Los Angeles. I think the story should be re-evaluated, but the reasons why there are discussions about Columbus may be the same for which there should be discussions about Thanksgiving. And then we would open a bunch of unending discussions in this country and we would not celebrate anything any more.”

How do you comment on the choice to replace Columbus Day with the day dedicated to indigenous people?

“I think it’s fair to celebrate any kind of event, regardless. It is one of the rights based on which this country is founded. I have a problem at the moment an event, celebrating another’s right, begins to limit mine. I believe that none of our communities, even in Los Angeles, have been against the rights of natives or indigenous people in any other format whatsoever, but it seems to me, if I remember that it had already been proposed to do so on October 9, on earth celebration day. Also, this motion was not voted, but personally I think that in the end, due to the historical period we are living in, this situation has reignited beyond the due and this was not necessary. And, today, I wonder, for example, how would the Irish community or the various European communities have reacted if it had happened to them. I am in favor of any manifestation and I am against the fact that I have to be told how, when and what symbols I should use to celebrate my Italianness. This I defend it as my right”.

And, on the other hand, how have the new generations experienced this debate?

“The youngest are certainly more sensitive to the rights of the natives, I also asked my children, who are 16 and 18 years old. However, I believe that the overwhelming majority of the Italian Americans are on the side of Columbus. Obviously, we have gathered the opinions of everyone, even of those who support the opposite, who can even give ideas for the future.”

For example?

“There’s someone who suggested moving the statue and putting it in a museum, there’s someone who asked to use another symbol instead of Columbus. I think there will probably be a compromise. And I hope the parade and celebration will always be in New York. Also for my children. ”



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