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Finally fixing an historical accident

The great wave of Italian immigration to the Americas occurred from the 1870s through the 1930s. As is well known, the overwhelming majority of these immigrants originated from Southern Italy and Sicily, the region designated as the Mezzogiorno.

These typically uneducated, typically illiterate, impoverished people did not arrive in the Americas with Cristoforo Columbo in their hearts and paeans of praise to him on their lips. Columbus was, after all, a native of Genoa. And to the disenfranchised sons and daughters of the Mezzogiorno, Genoa seemed as far away from their native villages as Timbuktu. Italy had only become a unified nation in the 1860s and the new republic had lavished few benefits on the traditionally oppressed Southern Italians and Sicilians. Accordingly, celebrations of various patron saints, especially those linked for generations with specific villages, held highest priority.

Appeals from the new immigrants for the benedictions of Columbus were few and muted.

But this was soon to change. Upon arriving in the United States, the Italians and Sicilians were to suffer the familiar range of physical terrors and assaults on the soul that greet new immigrant groups. They learned quickly that the streets were not paved with gold and that their lives would not soon improve radically. Italian immigrants in the South and as far west as Colorado were lynched by the KKK and other white supremacy groups, along with African Americans and Jewish Americans, through the 1920s. The most notorious of these lynchings involved 11 Italian immigrants, none of whom had been found guilty and most of whom had been acquitted at trial, in New Orleans in 1891. The news of such brutality spread to all Italian-American communities in the United States. The New World had sent its message and its meaning was clear.

The Italian government, invariably more sensitive to oppression in the new world than to the brutalities it administered to the same people in the old world, vehemently objected to the lynchings. In response, President Benjamin Harrison hatched a scheme to mollify Italian and Italian Americans: a national celebration in 1892 to commemorate the quadricentennial of Columbus’s voyage. Why not?

A passel of cities and hamlets were named after Columbus, the Irish hierarchy of the Catholic Church in 1892 anointed the Knights of Columbus as a primary social organization, “Columbia” had long been recognized as another way to refer to America, Columbia College matured into Columbia University in 1896, and the list goes on.

The Italian Americans might have been uneducated and impoverished, but their mommas raise few fools. Madonne! This Genoese sailor might well be our ticket to full membership. Maybe we, too, would soon be “white.”

The fine tuning of Columbus as symbol continued with political movements to declare a national holiday in his honor, complete with extravaganzas and parades. By 1909 several states formally recognized Columbus Day as an annual holiday. In 1937, President Franklin Roosevelt issued a proclamation designating October 12th as Columbus Day. And by 1968, that proclamation was extended to make Oct.12 a federal legal holiday. Columbus Day was transformed into the Italian equivalent to the Irish’s St. Patrick’s Day, without the green beer but with plenty of Nero D’Avolo and infinitely better food.

Columbus was now the most powerful symbol of security and badge of membership that an Italian American could brandish. For example, when Mussolini, a dictator who was once praised highly by the media of the United States, declared war on France in 1940, anti-Italian sentiment in this country exploded. One of the responses of the Italian Americans to counteract this venom was to change the names of many of their social clubs to “Columbus Clubs.” The great navigator was the ultimate ethnic trump card.

Under such conditions, the Southern Italian and Sicilian immigrants begrudgingly put aside their longstanding provincial grievances and joined with one another, and with Northern Italian immigrants, and began to identify themselves as “Italian Americans.” At some point they noticed the decidedly favorable press that the entrenched groups in the United States had bestowed upon Christopher Columbus: “discoverer of the New World,” “courageous explorer,” “founder of the land of tolerance and hope.” Suddenly, at once and forever, Columbus was no longer merely a Genoese but an “Italian.” Just like them. What greater claim to membership could they hope to lodge? One of them, an Italian, had “discovered” the very land which they themselves had recently chosen! Better still, there was no need to do all the difficult political work usually necessary to canonize a hero. After all, Columbus was already mythologized by the trusted historians of the Anglo-American world. All that was needed was some marginal adjustment, some additional reinforcement: “In 1492, Columbus the Italian sailed that ocean blue.”

My point: The elevation of Cristoforo Columbo, sailing under the flag of Spain and perpetrating numerous, indefensible atrocities in the name of Christ and religion, as an Italian American symbol of belonging was an historical accident, not an explicit design of Italian immigrants. We must applaud the brilliant compromise of the Buffalo Italian American federation and Mayor Byron Brown’s administration: remove the Columbus statue from and rename West Side Park; reaffirm the month of October as Italian Heritage Month; and recognize the second Monday in October as Italian Heritage Day. To my Irish American friends: You have the green beer, the unsurpassed jubilance, and the irresistible blarney. But we have the wine, and do we ever have the food. Besides, we all know that St. Patrick was an Italian!

Ray Belliotti is a Fredonia resident, author and former State University of New York at Fredonia professor.

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