Photo courtesy of Architect of the Capitol | Pictured above is a painting of Christopher Columbus landing on what he thought was Asia but was actually the Bahama Islands. Columbus is credited with being the first explorer to travel and begin colanization of the Americas. His expeditions were funded by Spain, even though many Italian Americans use Columbus Day to celebrate their heritage. Copy Editor Savin Mattozzi goes through some of the history surrounding Columbus’ voyage to the Western Hemisphere and encourages his fellow Italian Americans to celebrate a different historical figure.
Monday, Italian Americans across the country took part in Columbus Day celebrations, riding in floats, brandishing Italian flags on their faces and taking pride in their ethnic heritage. Throughout the past few years, there has been an increasing movement from Indigenous and Latino groups to reclaim the holiday as Indigenous People’s Day. Citing the horrors and devastation that Columbus brought onto the native people of the Americas, they advocate for the remembrance and celebration of the heritage and culture of the native population that was nearly destroyed.
Some Italian Americans see this as an affront to their own ethnic heritage and pride, and they believe that this change would belittle the struggles that Italian Americans endured during their process to become “Americans.” Basil Russo, the president of the Order Italian Sons and Daughters of America, said in an interview that “Columbus Day is the day we’ve chosen to celebrate who we are, and we’re entitled to that just as they are entitled to celebrate who they are.”
There are several things wrong with this statement, namely the ideas “we” have chosen Columbus Day and that Columbus represents “us.”
Although there were small efforts to make Columbus Day a holiday by a couple of small groups before it became a national holiday, the major lobbying effort to make it a national holiday was led not by an Italian organization, but a Catholic one. The Knights of Columbus were behind the push to make Columbus Day a national holiday through tough lobbying efforts. In 1934, under President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, it was made an official national holiday. The founder of this organization, Michael J. McGivney, wasn’t even of Italian descent; he was the child of Irish immigrants.
So when Russo refers to this holiday as one “we chose,” who is that “we?”
The second and much more significant point to be made is that Columbus was not Italian. Italy was not a country in 1492 and wouldn’t become a unified country for another 369 years. He was from Genoa, a separate nation in the northern part of the peninsula. This is particularly important considering that the vast majority of Italian Americans are descendants of people from the southern end of the peninsula. Southern Italy was a separate country, with its own languages, culture, history and ethnicity. It was formally called the Kingdom of Naples from 1282 to 1816 and then the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies from 1816 to 1861.
The reason that the majority of Italian Americans are from the southern part of the peninsula is because in 1861, the northern kingdom of Piedmont was financed and supported by the French and the British to colonize the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies. In the process, between 300,000 and 1 million people were killed in what some historians now call a genocide. People were rounded up and shot in town squares, and guerilla fighters’ heads were decapitated and studied to “prove” that the people of the south were “genetically inferior” to the people of the north. The conditions became so unlivable that there was an exodus of people to many other countries and regions, from South and North America and even as far as Australia.
Additionally, the history of what happened to the people of the south was covered up so well that today the majority of not just Italian Americans but Italians themselves aren’t fully aware of what happened in 1861.
When these immigrants arrived to places like Australia and North America, they faced a separate kind of discrimination because they were not perceived as “White” by the Anglo-Saxon majority at the time. When this holiday was proposed, this population of disenfranchised immigrants saw this as an opportunity to assimilate to American culture and become part of the mainstream.
However, the problem with this was that Columbus was not, a part of the same people that the majority of Italian Americans are from. It can be argued that he was a part of the people that were responsible for them becoming refugees and coming to this country. We have been tricked into celebrating a person from a region that was responsible for our own conquest and colonization.
This might seem like a semantic hot potato, but there is a very real, tangible and important difference between the people Columbus came from and the people the vast majority of Italian Americans are descendants of.
If Italian Americans want to celebrate our ethnic heritage, there is a century-long history of people for us to choose from. Given our shared Southern Italian ethnic heritage, why not celebrate those who defended our original and actual motherland from colonizers? Carmine Crocco and Michelina Di Cesare were famous guerilla fighters who fought fearlessly to defend our ancestors’ sovereignty and dignity. Not only are they people to be proud of, but they are a representation of our actual ancestors and cultural heritage.
It is time for Italian Americans to learn about our real history and not simply take what has been fed to us by people who either did not know our history or were intentionally trying to misinform us. We have an entire history that has been hidden from us for more than 155 years, and now is the perfect time to start learning about it.
Savin Mattozzi is a senior international studies major and staff writer for the Newswire from Portland, Maine.