I am unabashedly proud of my Italian roots, and of my maternal and paternal grandparents who endured endless days and tortuous nights crowded into a ship’s steerage unit, packed in elbow to elbow alongside those who were sick and vomiting, and with the stench of dysentery permeating the airless compartment. There were no beds, no bed linens, no gourmet meals. With barely a few lire in their tattered pockets they courageously sailed to an unknown land, where they hoped to find work, and be able to help those they left behind in the devastation of poverty-stricken southern Italy. They also hoped to raise the next generation to have an easier life, a less austere life—and a secure life.
The Italians who were lucky enough to overcome the hurdles at Ellis Island, and not be sent home because of a physical limitation as minor as a limp, or a cognitive lack of understanding of a random “IQ” test only to be deported as being “feeble-minded”—were determined to work hard, for very little pay, at whatever work they were assigned. They did so without complaint, no matter how fatigued and tired their bodies were from long hours of physical labor. No matter how discouraged their hearts were from the jeers of those who came here before them. They were often referred to as dirty “dagoes” who weren’t quite black yet weren’t quite white, so a curious suspicion surrounded them to the point where oftentimes when a crime was committed, Italians were the first ones accused, regardless of whether they were innocent or guilty. This happened in March of 1891 when 11 Sicilians in New Orleans were lynched by an angry vigilante mob, led by local “respected” politicians, even after the courts had acquitted them of the murder of police chief Hennessy. Anti-Italianism ran rampant through the country. Even Theodore Roosevelt (who was later to become president) wrote that the lynching of Italians was a “rather good thing”. After all, Italian immigrants were thought of as born criminals, mafiosi, or dirty beggars.
Negative stereotypes die hard. I have dedicated a good portion of my life combatting these stereotypes and prejudices. I served as Research Director for AIDA (American Italian Defense Association) for whom I launched a national survey to understand how negative Italian stereotypes originated. I helped to elevate the important contributions of contemporary Italian Americans through the many interviews I conducted on my then-radio show “The Italian Art of Living Well” at WNHU, and also sought to educate through my weekly columns for both America Oggi and then The Italian Tribune. Two of my self-help books combined my background in psychology, with both the wisdom I gleaned from my Italian grandparents and the discoveries I made through my doctoral cross-cultural research (US-Italy).
My turn-of-the-century Italian grandparents, like most, came here and worked alongside all ethnicities, believing always that our strength lied in our unity. While most other ethnic groups have risen up strongly and often with a legal team behind them, against bias and prejudice based on heritage, religion, or skin color, the negative Italian stereotypes, put-downs and jokes continue. Because we have been handed a legacy of harmony and avoiding making waves, many just want to let these insults slide—like the defacing and removal of Christopher Columbus and Columbus Day respectively.
My own grandparents, like many Italian immigrants who came during the two big waves at the turn of the century, rarely mentioned Columbus. They didn’t even particularly identify with Christopher Columbus the man. What they did identify with, however, was this United States gesture of finally recognizing them for the hard-working productive laborers, farmers, shop owners, shipyard and train workers that helped to make America better for us all.
We have all seen protesters lash out, spray paint, or behead statues of Columbus, and point out the negatives of some of his actions so reflective of his time. Native Americans are our national treasures, and it is right to be concerned about their welfare to this day, as history—far outside of Columbus—has treated them unkindly. So how did Columbus come to represent the achievements of the Italians who came to America? He didn’t even really discover the America that became the United States of today.
President Benjamin Harris was morally troubled by the New Orleans lynching of 11 Italians, and so in 1892 he decided to make amends with Italy, who had made it known that it was not going to tolerate the horrific treatment of its faraway sons and daughters. So Harris did two things. First, he offered $25,000 to the families of the innocent Italians who were murdered simply because of where they came from; and second, he wanted to create a Presidential Proclamation to honor the contributions that the Italians and Italian Americans made to this country. He had his staff compile a list of prominent Italians throughout history—Galileo, Michelangelo, Vespucci, Columbus, etc. Ultimately, because the calendar year 1892 marked the 400th anniversary of the Columbus landing (in what we now know was the Bahamas), the decision seemed like a no-brainer. Italy was so pleased by America extending the olive branch (although a formal apology for the tragedy at New Orleans came many decades later), the Italian government decided to donate a statue of Columbus to New York, to be placed at the southwest entrance of Central Park, known as the “circle”.
Yes, it was by chance and coincidence that Cristoforo Colombo came to represent our pride in the Italian American journey. But that statue goes well beyond the man himself. His journey was a long, arduous voyage into unknown territory, not too unlike the journey of our Italian ancestors. The statues of Columbus represent our eternal bond of affection with the motherland that our forefathers and mothers left behind while also leaving behind their parents, sisters, brothers, and the familiar life they knew. It represents our people’s restored dignity via the government’s recognition of the many contributions that Italians and Italian Americans have made since arriving upon these shores.
Columbus was unarguably a brilliant navigator, and a courageous leader. Like all of us, he was a product of his times. Like all of us he had many gifts, and many flaws. I choose to celebrate the more comprehensive picture of what Columbus Day symbolizes, of what the Columbus statues represented to the Italians of my grandparent’s day, and to Italian Americans today.
As a proud Italian American, I wish all of my readers a Happy Columbus Day.
© Raeleen D’Agostino Mautner, Ph.D. 2021