The descendants of Italians nowadays have very little in common with their ancestors, ragged and targeted by discrimination. Their defense of Columbus is, above all, a defense of the privileges they’ve acquired over the decades.
It is very early in the morning on June 24, and a few dozen Italian-Americans have gathered around the statue of Columbus in the Italian neighborhood of New Haven, Connecticut. For days, there have been rumors about the removal of this statue, installed at the end of the 19th century when the first Italian immigrants began to arrive in these parts to work in the local industry. Over the years, they became the main ethnic group of the city, and in the area where the statue is located, in a neighborhood that has seen a lot of change between gentrification and urban upheaval, one can still find the Catholic Church, restaurants, recreational clubs—in short, the center of Italian-American life.
The descendants of Italians nowadays have very little in common with those ancestors, ragged and targeted by discrimination, who came here to work 12-hour days for WASP businessmen. Their defense of the statue of Columbus is, above all, a defense of the privileges they’ve acquired over the decades.
When the Black Lives Matter protesters arrive in the morning, the tensions rise. In the afternoon, in front of a few hundred people and a few thousands more watching via streaming, the statue is removed by the municipality, as opposed to being knocked down as in other U.S. cities. “Today, they chose shame instead of pride,” complained Alfonso Panico, former honorary vice-consul of Italy in Connecticut.
Such reactions should not be surprising. The most vocal and visible part of the Italian-American communities in the U.S. is solidly conservative, and in principle hostile to the protests of recent weeks. Groups of Italian-American young men have been seen going around in various U.S. cities armed with crowbars and clubs, and in some cases with even more dangerous weapons.
Defending Columbus in South Philly, June 2020
In Philadelphia, some took to the streets with assault rifles to defend the statue of Columbus. And in New York’s Bronx, and in many other cities, Italian-Americans, once themselves harassed, lynched and exploited, have chosen to join with other racist whites. Defending Columbus is part of a larger defense of their own acquired space as members of the white elite of the U.S.
As two of the main scholars on these issues, Joseph Sciorra and Laura E. Ruberto, write in an article published on the Process blog, “Columbus, as a symbol of individualistic resolve and ultimately of Manifest Destiny, emerged as an American cult hero before most Italian immigrants arrived,” the same ones who, between the late 19th and early 20th century, “built their emerging identity as provisional whites out of this hagiography.”
This was a crucial moment: these statues, and the myth of Columbus in general, rose to assert themselves, claiming a powerful and real presence, back when Italian communities were still discriminated against, often violently (the last recognized lynching of an Italian is from the 1910s). And they did this in the name of a fictitious Italian national unity abroad, based on commonality among emigrants from different areas of Italy, north and south, poor and rich. Perhaps the most prominent Italian-American at the time, Generoso Pope, owner of Il Progresso Italo-Americano and a pro-fascist, was instrumental in using Columbus to support his causes in the 1920s and 1930s, a lobbying work that led to the establishment of Columbus Day in the 1930s.
From our perspective, the story of Italian-Americans and Italian emigration to the U.S. seems a very distant one, almost a part of folklore: American relatives are more and more detached from it, and new emigrants to the U.S. do not feel themselves part of this story. However, many Italian-Americans vote or have the right to vote in Italian elections, and, although it is often ignored, this “Italy outside of Italy” has contributed during the 20th century to building the identity and traditions of our country. For this reason as well, it is necessary to pay attention to it and see what is happening within the communities.
One should note, for example, how the position of the historical associations representing Italian-Americans remains very clear-cut nowadays: Columbus is an important historical figure to be valued and respected, and it is unthinkable to remove the statues or to cancel Columbus Day, which is celebrated on the second Monday of October, but which in many states has already been transformed into Indigenous Peoples’ Day or abolished altogether.
The main organizations (the Columbus Citizens Foundation, Italian Sons and Daughters of America, the National Italian American Foundation, the Order of the Sons and Daughters of Italy and UNICO National) have joined together to found the National Columbus Education Foundation, which will focus on “educational and outreach activities on correcting the false narrative about Christopher Columbus.”
There is, however, also something new, as several voices opposed to this approach have made themselves heard rather vocally in recent weeks: among others, Bella Ciao Buffalo, a group of young Italian Americans from Buffalo, New York, in a long post on Medium, have proclaimed their own closeness to Black Lives Matter and the riots of recent weeks, recalling precisely the manner in which Italians have been poor, exploited, and discriminated against in the U.S.
In Canada, the “Italo-Canadians for Black Lives Matter” are active, launching initiatives to rename places dedicated to Columbus and supporting the protests, while in Philadelphia there is also a petition “Against Columbus – Philly Italians Against The Columbus Statue.”
There are also individual voices of institutional representatives, such as Chicago City Councilman Daniel La Spata or state representative Rosa DeLauro in New Haven, elected for the first time in 1991 and with very strong roots in the city: De Lauro has said she was in favor of the removal of the statue of Columbus precisely because of her proletarian and marginalized Italian-American family history. For three years now, the “No Columbus Day” campaign launched by Italian and Italian-American scholars has been calling for the abolition of Columbus Day.
The petition and the campaign have seen a moment of revival, as the statues of Columbus and Confederate generals all came down: “Do Italian Americans wish to remain attached to a holiday and a historical figure so clearly linked to genocide, colonialism and white-washed memory?” a group of scholars including Sciorra and Ruberto write, declaring their conviction that most Italian Americans, and Americans in general, do not.
For many Italo-Americans, it is time to choose new heroes, or at least to question and emancipate themselves from looking up to the figure of Columbus. There are many heroes they could remember and monumentalize instead, such as the two Italian anarchists murdered in 1927, or Vito Marcantonio, the legendary senator from Harlem, or Carlo Tresca. But even if we look at less radical figures, we have the mayor of New York, Fiorello La Guardia, or Ella T. Grasso (the first female governor of Connecticut), or ecclesiastical figures such as James Groppi or Mother Cabrini, the first saint in the U.S.
In her poem Whose Day Is it Anyway?, Diane di Prima makes a list of possible alternative “days” to celebrate instead of Columbus Day: “Lawrence Ferlinghetti Day?/ Tina Modotti Day?/ Sacco and Vanzetti Day!” and many others, including the intentionally provocative choices of Al Pacino and Frank Sinatra.
As the white American identity is finally being put into crisis, it is also time for Italian-American communities to rethink their symbols, and, in some cases, to not fight against the removal of the old ones, starting with Columbus.
The marble busts of the Genoese navigator are being taken down or moved elsewhere out of sight and (hopefully) away from public affection. The statue of the former racist mayor of Philadelphia, Frank Rizzo, was first defaced and then removed. And there are even timid discussions about possibly changing the name of the city of Columbus, the capital of Ohio.
Thus, the debate within the Italian-American and Italian-Canadian communities is also becoming more serious and is starting to include different voices.
Clash at Wooster Square park, New Haven, June 24, 2020
Photos by Peter Hvizdak / Hearst Connecticut Media