Columbus Day: How to Celebrate a Cultural Heritage

“See? Italians are a happy people,” said the North African gentleman working the silver jewelry kiosk in Washington Park during Albany’s Columbus Day Italian Festival on October 9th. He was referring to a man named Michael who loudly pounded one of the conga drums for sale. Michael was chanting something meant to spoof Native Americans, but not before he had a chance to haggle the man down to $17 for a ring he couldn’t believe fit his thumb. He smugly walked away with a blonde who was all legs. “There’s nothing wrong with happy.”

And what’s not to be happy about? On Saturday the dog walking green was transformed into “zona bambini,” with pony rides and petting zoos, an authentic marionette show that invoked images of the Emperor Charlamagne’s imperial conquest of Europe, and several Italian-style big bands. On the pond crooner Guytonno sang “Johnny B Good” and his “favorite oldies,” instructors taught any takers how to play bocce, and the APD RV sat idling all afternoon for good measure. Tinkers sold trinkets and venders sold tons of food. I mean, nothing says Italian like “Crazy Herb’s Texas Bar-B-Que.” Family fun, knick-knacks, calories, and music; how could it get any better than this?

Perhaps, if the sentiments surrounding Columbus Day truly reflected a celebration of the Italian-American Heritage there would be reason to sing its praises.

Columbus Day came to be celebrated in the United States during a 19th and early 20th century of discrimination against immigrants as a whole, but also against Italians and Catholics more generally. Perceived to be purveyors of a papal conspiracy to influence the Federal government, groups from the “Know Nothing” Party to the Ku Klux Klan outwardly opposed immigrant’s rights as American cities industrialized and came to fruition. Even as late as the 1960s, during John F. Kennedy’s campaign for president, xenophobic rumors abounded of the Pope having the young Catholic’s ear, heart, and administration. Against this backdrop, it only makes sense that an Italian-American lobby might seek to establish a holiday that celebrates Italian-American culture, heritage, and nationwide contributions. But why elevate Christopher Columbus?

Christopher Columbus did not discover “America.” Christopher Columbus took what was to be America by storm. He claimed America. He slaughtered its people; he enslaved its people; he Westernized, Christianized, and vilified its people. Lands with people who already had a rich culture, folklore, medicine, infrastructure, writing systems, tools, scientific and mathematical achievements, literally several civilizations comparable to the best the Old World had to offer, in some ways outshining them altogether. While Europe was in its dark ages, tossing human waste in the streets, spreading plagues, even dismantling Roman masterpieces to build far cruder walls and buildings, the Inca were performing brain surgery. See terrace farming. See chinampas. See Chichen Itza.

Christopher Columbus conquered America; or Cuba, the Bahamas, and parts of Central America if you want to get technical. The ways in which his crew brutalized the locals are detailed in his ship logs, and widely written about, most notably by the late Howard Zinn in A People’s History of the United States.  The attempts by Columbus, as well as generations of other conquistadors, imperialists, and missionaries, to force Anglo-European culture and Christianity onto an unwilling populace runs counter to the cultural celebration, to the survival of Italian-Americanism, its adherents were seeking to lionize in the first place. There was senseless murder. There was enslavement. There was conquest, not discovery. And Columbus conquered it all for Castille and Aragon, the Catholic Monarchies of modern day Spain, not Italy.

Why not celebrate Italian politicians who fought for the rights of immigrants to participate in the rat race for “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness”? Why not celebrate Italian musicians who contributed to jazz, blues, rock and roll, and popular American culture? Why not celebrate a culture so vibrant that it survived the journey to America, the travails of Ellis Island, and generations of birth, growth, and renewal? Why not celebrate the struggle that Italian immigrants overcame in overcrowded urban hubs like New York, New Jersey, and California to become part of what it is to be American? Why not celebrate a people who acted as the progenitors of future generations of leaders, inventors, educators, and trend setters? Let us remember the lives of true Italian-AMERICANS, not the beginning of a long history of Native American colonization, enslavement, Anglicization, and genocide. No one celebrates the life of Benito Mussolini simply because he was Italian; no one celebrates the priest turned child molestors simply because they are Catholic; Christopher Columbus should not be the exception.

So when the African vendor asked, “How do you say ‘thank you’ in Italian?” with a smile and a wink, I felt it only fitting to oblige his request.
“Grazie, I believe…”
“Gracias!” said the man, “Thank you so much! Michael is a crazy guy, but he is so happy!”

There is nothing wrong with being happy, as long as you’re happy for the right reasons. Happy Leif Ericson Day.

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