Italian-American pride means goodbye, Columbus

Let's honor ancestors worthy of recognition

I’VE BEEN THINKING a lot about Christopher Columbus lately. That wasn’t always the case. Growing up an Italian-American kid, in an Italian-American town in New Jersey, we had summer feasts celebrating our Italian pride—but Columbus never entered my mind much, beyond the day off from school.

When I had my own children and began raising them a block from the Columbus statue on Boston’s waterfront, the subject came up more frequently—questions about the seam on its neck left by multiple reattachments; or why we’d name a park for someone like Columbus, given what they’d learned about him.

Recently though, our headless neighbor has become unavoidable. Mayor Marty Walsh tucked the statue in a warehouse after its latest decapitation, awaiting a discussion on its fate with the North End community. In the meantime, I’ve learned a few things in my conversations with neighbors, colleagues, friends and family members. Two observations seem especially telling.

First, even among Italian-Americans, many people don’t associate Columbus with being Italian. That’s more likely the case the younger the person that you ask, or the further they live from the Northeastern US. Second, every Italian-American I spoke with, no matter their views on Columbus, included one common element when discussing their heritage: their Nonni. Our grandmothers seem central to what being Italian means to many of us. Same goes for me.

When Italian-Americans celebrate Columbus today, we’re doing it to pay respect to the fortitude and sacrifice of our grandmothers and other ancestors who laid the groundwork for the success we enjoy here today. We’re rightfully proud of them. So why allow them to be overshadowed by a symbol with such a disgraceful reputation? Columbus isn’t the hero they deserve.

It doesn’t align with the stories we heard growing up, but there’s little doubt about the true nature of Columbus in the year 2020. Kidnapping, enslavement, rape, genocide. His atrocities are common knowledge. Our kids learn them at school. With these horrors in their minds, will it make our children proud of their Italian heritage when we invoke Columbus to celebrate it, or when we take them to play in their neighborhood park?

My children, my Italian-American nieces and nephews, other children I’ve spoken with in the neighborhood all find this choice (and yes, it is a choice we’re making) unfathomable. In their minds, association with Columbus doesn’t honor our Italian heritage, it slanders it. They don’t see removing the statue as a slight to us, our neighborhood, or our Italian heritage; they see it as a slight to Columbus—one that’s clearly deserved.

They’re not alone. Like Confederate generals, Columbus statues are being removed across America—last week he was even served an eviction notice by the mayor of Columbus, Ohio. While a small number of pro-Columbus protestors with assault rifles and baseball bats recently gathered in Philadelphia to defend their statue of Columbus, dwindling numbers of elected officials or organizations nationwide have been willing to publicly support keeping statues of Columbus.

It’s the same in Boston. When North End state Rep. Aaron Michlewitz issued a statement on Twitter that was non-committal about the fate of Columbus, it was met with intense backlash and calls for the statue’s removal. He hasn’t issued a statement about it since. When a Grafton-based Italian-American organization scheduled a rally at our park, it was quickly cancelled following the mayor’s intercession and lack of interest from the local Italian-American community. (Since then, even they’ve left the door open to moving the statue to private property.)

Most Italian-Americans I spoke with were more direct – it’s time for us to move past Columbus. From leaders of neighborhood organizations to my own fiercely-Italian mother, the balance seems to have tipped — people are no longer asking whether to replace Columbus, but with whom? There’s a long list of Italians and Italian-Americans many would rather see garner the public’s attention and celebration. Da Vinci, LaGuardia, Galileo—a few even mentioned Sophia Loren.

While Sophia Loren is certainly statuesque, we already have two potent symbols of the Italian-American experience linked to the North End: Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti. Executed in 1927 after a controversial trial in a biased criminal justice system, amidst a wave of anti-Italian sentiment, their story resonates now more than ever.

A century ago our Italian-American ancestors were targets of violence and white supremacy. While Sacco and Vanzetti were afforded some privileges of whiteness, like all our immigrant ancestors, they were still routinely targets of bias and discrimination because of their dark complexions, their Catholic faith, and widespread nativist bigotry about them stealing American jobs. Sound familiar?

Italian-Americans adopted Columbus as a symbol of their pride and as a way to legitimate themselves to white, mainstream America. That was their choice 100 years ago. Columbus presents us with a different choice today. We can either allow ourselves to be continually goaded into fighting on the wrong side of an already-lost culture war, or we can choose to find better ways to honor our heritage.

Twenty-five years ago, San Francisco’s Italian community renamed its annual Columbus Day parade the Italian Heritage Parade. It’s now in its 152nd consecutive year. They’ve proved it possible to celebrate Italian heritage without invoking slavery, rape, and genocide. Let’s give it a shot here too.

The summer of 2020 seems an especially good time to decouple our heritage from the image of Columbus—and by commemorating Sacco and Vanzetti, we’d be giving Italian-Americans a touchpoint to reflect on how bias and discrimination harmed our ancestors, and continue to cause harm today.

When we see stereotyping and dehumanization of people of color in the US, we’ll remember that Italians were once stereotyped and dehumanized. When we see our government’s discriminatory actions against immigrants, we’ll remember that Italians were targeted by the bigotry of the Quota Act of 1921 and Immigration Act of 1924. When we see people in the streets protesting our criminal justice system’s unjust use against black Americans, we’ll remember how it was used against Italian-Americans in the past, and that we took to the streets then too.

Meet the Author
Sacco and Vanzetti Day has been a holiday in Massachusetts since 1977, celebrated on August 23rd—the height of North End feast season. The park where the Columbus statue stood is blocks from where Italian-Americans organized the pair’s defense committee and marched in their funeral. There’s even a mold for a statue, by the sculptor of Mount Rushmore, waiting in the Boston Public Library’s archives.

That’s my suggestion—but whatever we decide, let’s celebrate our heritage in a way that will make our ancestors and our children proud.

Lisa Green is a North End mother, political activist, and a co-founder of the Boston Coalition for Education Equity, which is working to restore Boston’s right to elect its School Committee.