Considering my obvious Italian surnames, it may come as a surprise to some people that I support the San Francisco Board of Education’s recent decision to remove Columbus Day from its October academic calendar. The day will now be designated simply as Indigenous People’s Day. Both names had apparently been on the academic calendar for some time. Many other school districts across the country have also dumped Columbus in favor of celebrating those who were here before he arrived.
I’m southern Italian and proud of it. I’m not proud of Columbus.
Obviously, mine is not a unanimous opinion within the Italian/Sicilian community in this country. Especially not with the Washington D.C.-based Order Sons of Italy in America. In response to the elimination of Columbus Day, the organization’s Kevin Caira wrote to the school board: “For nearly a century, Columbus Day has been an opportunity for us to celebrate our ancestors and the struggles they overcame to assimilate into American Culture.”
We don’t need Columbus to celebrate our ancestors. I celebrate mine very well without him. Besides, Columbus is not even ours to claim, as far as I’m concerned.
Columbus sailed for Spain. Italy wasn’t even a country at the time he planted the Spanish flag on the soil of the “new world” that was anything but new or undiscovered. It was, in fact, inhabited by millions of people whose cultures spread from Alaska and Canada down into South America.
The legacy of how Columbus and those who arrived after him mistreated the Native Peoples of the two American continents is a shameful one that includes attempted genocide, forced conversions and forced labor in gold mines. At one point, Columbus was even called back to Spain to answer for his crimes against Native Peoples.
I want nothing to do with that awful legacy. I don’t want it connected in any way with my identity as a southern Italian. When Columbus left Spain to find a new route to India, my people were peasants in southern Italy living in poverty. They came here at the turn of the last century, as immigrants still do, to find a better life.
To me, celebrating Columbus is like celebrating Benito Mussolini.
School Board member Matt Haney, who pushed for the elimination of Columbus Day, told the San Francisco Examiner in response to the letter from the Order Sons of Italy, “I’d be happy to talk with them about how we can ensure that the contributions and experiences of Italian Americans are included and celebrated in our schools and curriculum.”
I’d urge Haney and the school board to do just that: include Italians and Sicilians in the curriculum. It’s only fair.
Despite Hollywood and TV’s enduring stereotypes of us as Mafiosi and/or tomato sauce-peddling mammas, Italians and Sicilians have contributed much to this country. Our history, like that of other ethnic minorities, is filled with martyrs and heroes. Martyrs such as Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti, two anarchists and labor organizers falsely accused of murder and berated as “dagos” (a derogatory term for Italians) by a Massachusetts judge who condemned them to be executed. Or the 11 Italian and Sicilian men randomly rounded up and lynched in New Orleans after a police chief was murdered, the largest mass lynching in this country’s history.
As for heroes, Vito Marcantonio is at the top of my list. A progressive Congressman representing Harlem in the 1940s, he advocated for black civil rights, the elimination of the poll tax that targeted poor voters in the South and a federal ban on lynchings. Also deserving mention are Maria Roda, Maria Barbieri and countless other Italian and Sicilian immigrant women and men who worked hard to organize workers, including those who often worked seven days a week in sweatshops. In fact, some of the worker strikes of the last century were led by Italian and Sicilian immigrants.
This is the history I claim. It doesn’t include Columbus.
Tommi Avicolli Mecca, a longtime queer and housing rights advocate, has written extensively about being born and raised in a working-class, Italian/Sicilian neighborhood in South Philly.