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Italian Americans and Columbus: How the Controversies May Affect Their Vote

Did the destruction or removal of his statues have an effect on Italian Americans and could this determine their vote in the upcoming elections?

Christopher Columbus statue destroyed in Minneapolis. (Image from Youtube)

We asked Italian American experts and community representatives - but also ordinary citizens - what they think voters of Italian origin will behave like in these epochal elections. There are two questions: does the vote of Italian Americans favor one party more than the other? And could the recent controversy over the demolition of the statues of Columbus and the reactions of politicians influence the Italian American vote?

For years now, controversies have been revolving around the celebrations of Christopher Columbus and the destruction of statues that represent him. The criticisms, advanced by exponents of a more liberal political view, focus on the hotly debated history of the colonization of the United States. As history actually does document, the colonizers killed and raped tens of thousands of people who already lived on the territory. But many do not believe that it is appropriate to blame Columbus. 

In this revisionism of America, Italian Americans find themselves “cheated” and, according to them, deprived of their history: perhaps some might feel guilty, but many are mostly angry. In their perspective, Columbus was simply a navigator who, despite not being supported by anyone other than the Inquisition, by chance discovered the land of gold. They do not believe, therefore, that Columbus is the one responsible for the violence that went on for centuries on which first the colonies, and then the USA, were created. A country built on slavery should, therefore, according to this logic, tear down every statue of presidents like Washington and Jefferson, who owned slaves, and who in their time period had a very different conception of human rights from that of today.

These controversies are difficult to navigate. Those who protest the exaltation of Columbus do so as a matter of principle: they are tired of living in a country that celebrates those who treated their ancestors as animals, rather than as people. It is not a question of the Genoese explorer specifically, but of wanting to break down the patriarchal structure, which sees the white man as possessor, with the right to take whatever he wants.

On the other hand, however, there are those who do not believe that history can be erased, or reinterpreted according to modern ideals. The arrival of Columbus in America, for them, despite having caused violence, created the great country in which they now live. The violence exerted on Native Americans is justified by the different time: there were other customs, other conceptions of “good and evil”, in 1500. If you erase Columbus from history, you have to erase almost all everyone, since almost no figure in history would successfully pass the 2020 ethics test.

Christopher Columbus’ statue, beheaded in Boston. (Image from Youtube)

For many Italian Americans, Columbus represents the greatest symbol of continuity between their country of origin and their country of birth. (And there aren’t very many of these symbols). They speak with pride of this figure: they can say that the great United States was discovered by one of their compatriots, that Italy played a fundamental role, and that America, in a certain sense, is indebted to us. In short, they want to celebrate him. The recent controversies and acts of vandalism against the statues of Columbus, therefore, have touched a sore spot. With the presidential and congressional elections just a few days away, we wondered if Italian Americans may also have been influenced in their vote by controversies sparked by recent events.

For example, in Connecticut, the city of Hartford removed the statue of Christopher Columbus, a move that generated protests from Italian-American leaders, but the repercussions of this gesture on local politics are only now being perceived. In the race for the third US congressional district of New Haven, Republican candidate Margaret Streicker has just received the endorsement of two Italian American organizations. The reason? Streicker supported a group of Italian Americans who protested when the city removed the statue of Christopher Columbus from Wooster Square Park this summer, chastising Rosa DeLauro, the Democratic congresswoman, who is Italian American, accusing her of turning her back on the neighborhood where she grew up, and most importantly, on her compatriots.

Removal of Christopher Columbus statue in Hartford, Connecticut (Image from YouTube)

It would seem, therefore, that more than a few Italian Americans could side with conservatives, because they, like these candidates, validate and defend their anger at a modern reinterpretation of events that took place centuries ago. “Italian Americans absolutely vote for Trump,” says Pasquale, administrator of the Facebook group New York Italians. “And they have certainly been influenced by the polemics against Columbus. They support Trump for protectionist reasons, because they believe he is a great entrepreneur and able to create many jobs, and to pay less taxes ”.

The statistics seem to corroborate previous claims. As Donna Chirico, Professor of Psychology at CUNY’s York College and president of ILICA states: “The voting record indicates that a majority of Italian Americans voted for Trump in 2016. About 44% for Trump to 33% for Clinton,” says Chirico. “However, the predominant factor is ‘White’ and the pattern is in sync with other White ethnics such as German Americans.”

Donna Chirico, presidente di ILICA

Donna Chirico, President of ILICA

The numbers therefore seem quite clear: “The polls also indicate that Italian Americans tend to have a higher proportion of Republican voters and a higher disapproval rating for the Obama administration,” says Chirico. “The latter may have an influence on the current election. This is where Rudy Giuliani comes into the picture as he has been rallying the Italian American vote for Trump.”

Regarding the polemics against Columbus, Donna Chirico believes that there are much more relevant problems that Italian Americans should focus on: “It is a shame that the Columbus issue remains. There are so many more pressing issues that Italian Americans need to be discussing,” says Chirico. “Plus, it is a divisive issue in the Italian American community. It has become the litmus test for your Italian American-ness. It does not strike me though that this issue will sway the vote much because those in favor of Columbus tend to be more conservative, while those on the other side more to the left.”

Anthony Tamburri, Dean of the Calandra Institute

Professor Anthony Julian Tamburri, Dean of the John D. Calandra Italian American Institute at Queens College / CUNY, believes that it is not so easy to classify Italian Americans: “We have been waiting for more recent studies on this for years, but in 2008 we knew that Italian Americans were basically divided into three groups: Democrats, Republicans, and Independents,” says Tamburri. “That said, many would agree that Italian Americans have tended to become more conservative after World War II. And this trend seems to have continued over the past ten years ”. The recent polemics against Columbus, however, according to Tamburri, have affected the Italian American political tendencies: “The controversies around Columbus and voting already raised their respective heads in 2017. A number of self-proclaimed leaders of the Italian American ‘community’ called for votes in favor of those candidates who supported Columbus and votes against those who did not.”

Com. Joseph Sciame, President of the Sons of Italy Foundation

“In my personal opinion, NO, I do not feel or know that Italian Americans will go to one party at all, for we have not been united for some time,” is what Joseph Sciame, President of the Sons of Italy Foundation, former National President of Order Sons and Daughters of Italy in America and Vice-President of St. John’s University in Queens, tells us. “We have many Italian Americans who are conservative and probably as many who are more liberal,” said Sciame. “The more conservative feel that they have come from a rich background of hard work and dedication to their respective familial tasks of taking care of a spouse and children, and they find it hard to respect those who may take advantage of a system that provides for a ‘free’ ride to some.  On the more liberal side of the aisle we have those Italian Americans who have made it financially, and feel that they have to take care of the marginalized by doing more. Even when it comes to the matter of immigration, many Italian Americans feel that their grandparents came here legally and with passports, and worked harder than recent immigrants.  While that was not true in all cases, many feel as such and feel proud about something that might not always have been true. Those on the conservative side would obviously support a ‘wall’ such as the current president has forged, while the more liberal feel there should be no wall.  No again, there is no voting for one party by Italian Americans in my opinion as well as statistically!”

And the rebellions against Columbus? Could those influence the Italian American vote? “Yes, I do believe that the taking down of Columbus statues was an ‘alarm’ notice for many Italian Americans,” said Sciame. “And when the president of the USA announced that he was against such, people rallied and many Italian Americans to whom I have spoken supported him for it.  Many said to me ‘BASTA,’ for they feel that there should be a national outcry to learn more about our Italian American here: Columbus.  Bottom line with Columbus is this:  he WAS a discoverer; he did discover a NEW WORLD; and he was a man of his times.  History books argue both sides of his personal treatment of the Native Americans, and another important thing is that he never set foot in North America, but on islands in the category of what we consider the Americas.  As to what influence this might have on the forthcoming elections, it is possible, but only in my opinion, that for some Italian Americans they heard the president say what he said and that he wants to employ protection for such statues, while the opposition has never been clear as to how far he might go in defending keeping the statues of Columbus up.  I believe we need education, and six major Italian American organizations formed and now support a National Columbus Education Foundation (NCEF).  But let us face it, it is all part of the bigger picture of taking down our history.  It is happening and, for anyone to defend it, is wrong in my opinion.  Therefore, the Italian American people are going to go for the candidate who is strong in his opinion as to preserving our history and the statues of Columbus.”

Il Professore del Queens College-CUNY Fred Gardaphé

Queens College-CUNY Professor Fred Gardaphé.

Fred Gardaphe, Professor of English and Italian American Studies at CUNY and the Italian American John D. Calandra Institute, believes that Italian Americans cannot be identified as belonging mainly to one party: “By no means is the Italian American vote a single party vote,” said Gardaphe. “While many Italian Americans whose parents might have been Democrats have shifted to the Republican party, there is still a good amount who have remained in the Democratic party.” As to the controversies concerning Columbus, Gardaphe says: “Chi lo sa?  The actual number of Italian Americans who take Columbus seriously enough to take what’s happening to his legacy and his statues is, and this is my guess, a very small number in comparison to the number of those who really don’t care about Columbus.”

Italian Americans celebrating at the Columbus Day Parade

What happens if we leave the academic circles? Do opinions change? For Richard, a 45-year-old entrepreneur, third generation Italian-American and resident in Great Neck, New York, his vote is not defined by the controversy against the statues, but by the economic situation: “In 2016 I voted for Trump, mainly because I have been working long days my whole life, I earn my money honestly, and I don’t want to pay more taxes,” Richard tells us. “My past as an immigrant, considering that my family came here from Campania, makes me reflect on the incorrect behavior of the President against immigrants. But it’s not like Democrats did much better. So I’ll continue to vote for Trump”.

As for the riots against Columbus, Richard does not believe that the situation requires taking one side or the other: “The controversy does rest on good points. Everyone knows that the colonizers slaughtered the Native Americans and obviously that’s not how a new country should be created,” Richard says. “So I understand that there are people who don’t like Columbus. But I also understand those who don’t want to rewrite, or even erase, history. Still, I don’t think it’s a big enough controversy to decide who to vote for in the election. At least it isn’t for me”.

Christopher Columbus and Mother Cabrini ( Illustration by Antonella Martino )

Alessandra, on the other hand, born in Philadelphia to an American mother and a Milanese father, has very different opinions: “In 2016 I voted for Hillary, now I voted for Biden. Nobody in my family is Republican,” says Alessandra. “I know that many Italian Americans tend to support Trump, but I believe my connections to Italy have pushed me in the opposite direction.” Alessandra, in fact, has spent almost all the summers of her life in Italy, and is well informed about the situation happening in the country her paternal family is originally from.

“The American political framework reminds me of the Italian one now, with figures like Salvini and Meloni preaching more or less the same agenda as Trump,” says Alessandra. “The crumbling of American politics is similar to the one that has begun in Italy. My father has been a democrat for his whole life, and he always wanted a fair society in Italy. I want the same for the United States ”. Furthermore, her background as an immigrant makes it “impossible” for her to support figures like Donald Trump: “When my father moved to the US, he did so with the promise of arriving in a meritocratic country, which allowed anyone to make their way and succeed, as long as they had determination. Now, these ideals are at risk”. 

Finally, Alessandra does not believe that the polemics about Columbus are either unfounded or a reason to change her vote: “The colonizers have built this nation with unprecedented violence; and if those who have always been oppressed do not want to see the celebration of an event that still causes them pain and suffering, then they are right “.

From the sample we have examined, the situation of the Italian American vote is not well defined. However, it will be interesting to note, after the results of the elections, if in areas with a prevalence of Italian Americans, where a statue of Columbus had been removed, who among the candidates will be confirmed or rise to Congress, in conjunction with noticing what their positions have been with respect to these removals.

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