"The truth will set you free. But first it will piss you off."

Gloria Steinem

Friday, May 5, 2017

Columbus Day and the Italian Heritage; Further in Debt to Hank Cisco

Last October, I began a series of monthly posts dealing with ethnicity and immigration, focusing as always on my subject towns along Pennsylvania’s lower Schuylkill River.  I drew comparisons between attitudes toward immigrants now—largely Hispanic—and similar views about Italians, their predecessors as the most suspect immigrant minority in the U.S.  In February, I acknowledged that much of my inspiration came from my mentor and friend, Hank Cisco, the Ambassador of Norristown.  Hank is a proud Italian-American, with a long record of support for efforts to commemorate Norristown’s Italian heritage.

This post is again inspired by Hank, who sent a group email with a link to an article in the Italian American Herald.com, entitled “Columbus Being Pushed out of the Picture in America?”  This fits right in what what I have been writing about.  He asked for feedback, and here is mine, late though it is.

Keep in mind that what I have already written about ethnicity—and that’s a sizeable, and growing, amount—and what I shall write, in this post and forthcoming ones, derives from my perhaps unusual perspective.  As I have written before [6/26/15], I view and comment on ethnicity from the position of an outsider.  I possess no ethnicity, for a combination of circumstances, but my primary emotion from that is one of regret.  I am sure this will lead to my thinking along different lines for this subject.

The Italian American Herald is dedicated to preserving the Italian heritage in America.  The essence of the article’s argument is that, in its own words, “Part of preserving is protecting and slowly there is erupting a movement to abolish Columbus Day, a holiday near and dear to Italian Americans.” 

The statement’s phraseology demonstrates, but does not take into account the uniquely bifurcated nature of Columbus Day.  I can think of no other federal holiday that has been celebrated for such different reasons for so long.  It is a federal holiday, and has been since 1937.  The public holiday has always celebrated the beginning of the European cultural influence in the Western Hemisphere.  Yet it is also very personal, “near and dear to Italian Americans,” who celebrate it in their communities and organizations for the fact that Columbus was Italian.  The article itself links the public and the personal view of Columbus, implying that opposition to Columbus Day demeans Italian culture.

First, some background information about federal holidays.  To begin with, the fact that a date is a federal holiday does not actually mean a great deal.  Technically, such recognition applies only to federal employees and federal property.  The federal government is prohibited by the Constitution from requiring any state to observe a federal holiday.  This leaves it up to the individual state to decide.  For Italians, the ability to opt out is where the problem comes in, because a few states have chosen not to celebrate the event, or at least not as regards Columbus.

Alaska, Hawaii, Oregon, South Dakota and Vermont do not observe Columbus Day, but for reasons that vary widely.  South Dakota and Vermont recognize “Native American Day” and "Indigenous Peoples Day" as a direct alternative to Columbus Day.  Alaska’s reasoning seems to be that the date falls too close to Alaska Day.  Hawaii cannot be said to have any meaningful connection to Columbus at all, so its recognition of “Discovers Day” might be interpreted as being more inclusive than it seems.  In addition, a few municipalities have themselves abolished Columbus Day observances, following the lead of The Peoples Republic of Berkeley, California.

 Now to the nub of the argument:  Are efforts to disestablish Columbus Day directly—or indirectly—an attack on America’s Italian heritage?  

Here is where my status as an outsider comes into play.  I have always been aware of the public nature of Columbus Day; in my upbringing, Columbus Day was for celebrating one’s “Americanness,” and I can recall no emphasis at all on the Italian aspect.  The fact that the Spanish had an Italian show them the way to the new world was just one of those interesting little factoids of history.  Columbus Day was all about the civilizing mission of Europeans in the Western Hemisphere.  Columbus was purely a symbol; his being Italian had virtually nothing to do with it.  The public message celebrating the spread of western civilization runs closely parallel to the personal message that celebrates Columbus being Italian, but there is separation between them, visible at least to this outsider.

Although I cannot feel it as an Italian would, I have learned of the day’s importance to Italian Americans, and see the Columbus monument in Norristown a prime example not only of the day’s significance to them, but to that civilizing message itself.  They may run in parallel, but there is a close connection between the two.

The subject article says that “slowly there is erupting a movement to abolish Columbus Day,” but just how threatened is Columbus Day?  That clearly depends on where in this large, diverse country of ours that you live.  The author recognizes this, and even seems to find it understandable, when she says, “No wonder people are challenging Columbus Day and winning support to change it to Indigenous Peoples Day.  In the American Midwest and West, where the Italian populations are scarce and the American Indian population is huge, Oregon and Minnesota’s Italian American population is about 110,000 and others mentioned don’t reach 100,000.” 

The message I take from this is very American: the people are the authority, and the more local the better.  That means the response to any attempt to disestablish Columbus Day is going to vary quite a bit.  Anadarko, Oklahoma has abolished Columbus Day, but Norristown, Pennsylvania is not going to.

Although I would not use the term “erupting,” Columbus Day is clearly under pressure.  But here’s the rub: in all of the actions, proclamations, statements or whatever taken or made by any state or municipality opposing Columbus Day, I have yet to see one—not even one—directed against Italy, Italians, or Italian Americans.  Columbus long ago became a symbol of Europe’s “civilizing” influence on the Western Hemisphere, its public persona.  In 1892, decades before it became a federal holiday, much of the nation celebrated his 400th anniversary with what Wikipedia calls “patriotic rituals.”  That process had continued, but today we celebrate diversity, with organizations such as Italianamericanherald.com among the celebrants of diversity, Italian style. 

It turns out that celebrating diversity is not a universal good for everyone, as Italians are discovering.  Columbus is part of Italian heritage, and his memory is employed to help sustain and nourish a distinct Italian American ethnicity.  But for anyone who identifies with “indigenous peoples,” sustaining their ethnic history requires recognizing the havoc wrought upon them by the new immigrant Europeans.*  For them, Columbus is a symbol; not of Italy or Italians, but of Europe, the civilization that raped and plundered the Western Hemisphere.  The fact that he was Italian is of no significance.  Italy did not even participate in the rape and plunder of the new world for the good and sufficient reason that Italy did not yet exist.

Unfortunately, while there may be no offense intended by Native Americans, there definitely is offense taken by Italian Americans.  But is the downgrading of Columbus in areas where Italians are massively outnumbered by Native Americans a symptom of the downgrading of Italian-American history?  Perhaps only someone such as I, utterly lacking in ethnicity, would even ask such a question, but I do.  I would like to hear some thoughts on this from you, my readers, and in particular would enjoy your thoughts on my public/private distinction.  How valid is it?

I will conclude with the one point in the article with which I wholeheartedly agree: “Educating all generations is vital to Italian Americans sustaining their heritage, culture and traditions.  Honor the roots of our Italian ancestors who forged onto a new land and were once the unwelcome immigrant.”  Regardless of the fate of Columbus Day in areas with little Italian American population, those parts of America that do possess such peoples should follow the advice quoted above.  This has been the central point of all my writing in this series on ethnicity that has focused on Italian Americans.  They were indeed the unwelcome immigrants, once.

*They have a point.  Within two generations after the arrival of Columbus, the native population of the Western Hemisphere had dropped by at least 90%, largely due to European diseases.  Most of those who remained alive, or their descendants, were subsequently either killed or enslaved.