The Awkward Case of Christopher Columbus

by olgasoutstanding

Columbus Day has come and gone, and once again, without the Internet, I would not have noticed.  Outside of Washington, DC, most businesses do not close.  By 1995, the University of California stayed open through Columbus Day.  Public schools stay open in many places (including Los Angeles Unified School District) as well.

The founding of Columbus Day was the result of a long-term movement from the Italian-American community.  Until the Postwar period, Italian immigrants and Italian-Americans routinely faced discrimination in the U.S.  In addition, during the Second World War, there was a fascist tinge to the celebration of Columbus Day, and Italians were considered enemy aliens.  Italians of my grandmother’s generation adore Columbus, seeing mostly an Italian who gave them the right to be in the U.S. in the first place.  This is understandable.  The only slurs I’ve ever heard in my life against Italians have been from people of that generation.  They are fading, but they are present, and many of the stereotypes (Italians are criminals/involved in organized crime, Italians are uneducated, Italians are lower-class) are still alive, in blander forms, today.  My grandmother, who is Sicilian, refuses to watch any movie or TV show featuring the mafia, understandably – the stereotype was part of her childhood, even though her family left Chicago for Los Angeles when she was a child because her father refused to pay protection money.  The discrimination of that time is very real and present to the older generation.

My generation grew up with greater access to privilege, and little to no discrimination.  There is no real reason for us to need a famous figure to justify our presence here; we’ve been in the US mainstream for some generations now.  We are starting to give our children Italian names again.  Italian-Americans are now quite commonly serving in all branches of the government, from major mayorships (I’m looking at you, Eric Garcetti) to the Supreme Court (my only shoutout ever to Justice Alito here).

For proof of this, look no further than the defense of Columbus Day as a holiday.  Italian-Americans still champion this day, even though Columbus lived long before Italy existed and worked for the Spanish government.  They are now joined by former oppressors and sometime allies: conservative Protestants, nativists, and White supremacists.  Yesterday, as I was driving down the street, I saw a banner placed by neo-Nazi group Identity Evropa asking us to “thank a European-American” because “it’s Columbus Day.”  This banner was placed right in the heart of Los Angeles, home to very few White people (and fewer Italian-Americans).  It was placed to intimidate the people of color who form the majority of the city as well as the neighborhood.  In fact, in Los Angeles, it is not Columbus Day.  It is Indigenous Peoples’ Day.  This recent change may form part of the motivation for the banner.

Christopher Columbus is now being used as a cudgel by those who advocate genocide within the United States.  It is no longer the one point of pride Italian-Americans have, nor even the best.  We must not ally ourselves with the very people who once wished to expel us from this country.