Maledetto Cristoforo Columbo e quando ha scoperto l’America.
(Damn Christopher Columbus and his discovery of America.)
—A popular curse among Italian immigrants
The attention on Confederate-focused statuary in public spaces has led to reflection on other historical figures carved in marble or cast in bronze. Perhaps no other individual has single-handedly spurred such impassioned ethnic controversy as the fifteenth-century Genovese navigator, Christopher Columbus.
For nearly two centuries, many Americans have lauded Columbus as the heroic discoverer of a new world. Even so, in his time, Columbus was critiqued and investigated for his cruelty to Native peoples as the Spanish-appointed governor of the newly claimed territories in the Caribbean. In his desire for profit—the Spanish court had awarded him 10 percent of future spoils—Columbus tortured and enslaved Arawaks and Taínos, and he established the repartimiento system of forced labor in the desperate search for the islands’ negligible gold. These and other atrocities established a genocidal approach to colonization of the Americas; they remain a crucial aspect of Columbus’s legacy.
In recent weeks, we have traced an almost daily call to remove Columbus statues on public sites in cities such as Detroit, New York City, St. Paul, and San Jose. These are not new appeals but in fact voices in a decades-long debate. Similarly, anonymous iconoclasts have of late vandalized Columbus statues, smashing the oldest known one, erected in 1792, in Baltimore and toppling one in Yonkers. But this too is not new, as unidentified actors annually have doused Columbus images with symbolic red paint in places like Boston, Houston, and Providence. Protesting traditional representations of Columbus, members of the American Indian Movement in Denver and Pueblo have defaced Columbus statues by pouring blood on them and, and in the latter city, affixing images of Adolf Hitler and a skeleton holding brown baby dolls to the statue.
We cannot easily compare Columbus statues and monuments with those that glorify Confederates, armed traitors to the nation and defenders of slavery. Most Confederate monuments were erected as part of Jim Crow and in opposition to the Civil Rights Movement. The proliferation of Columbus representations to a large degree occurred in a different context; namely, the arrival and fraught assimilation of more than four million Italian immigrants at the turn of the twentieth century. The dynamics of symbol-building around Columbus for a once marginalized and attacked immigrant community—whose descendants are now firmly planted in corporate boardrooms, the highest echelons of political power, and white suburbia—necessitate a nuanced discussion about class and race in the United States.
The countless memorials to Columbus that now dot the U.S. landscape were constructed in a variety of different circumstances. Columbus, as a symbol of individualistic resolve and ultimately of Manifest Destiny, emerged as an American cult hero before most Italian immigrants arrived. Washington Irving’s 1828 multi-tomed paean reveals early lionization of Columbus, as does the 1893 Chicago’s World Fair dedication to Columbus’s first voyage. The Knights of Columbus, a Catholic voluntary association founded by Irish immigrants in 1882, was instrumental in championing Columbus as an icon for Catholic assimilation.
In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, Italian immigrants saw the American idolization of Columbus as a way to deflect the onslaught of xenophobic and racial prejudice and violence they encountered, and for which they were relatively unprepared, as new arrivals in the United States. They bought into and contributed to a specific Italian reading of Columbus in relationship to their brutal experiences of bigotry. Italian Americans built their emerging identity as provisional whites out of this hagiography.
The connections between Columbus and Italian Americans developed in great part through the work of Italian immigrant prominenti, ethnic leaders who served as intermediaries between WASP elites and the working poor and who supported an upper-class notion of Italian national identity. These included Angelo Noce, a publisher who spearheaded the first declaration of Columbus Day as a state holiday, in Colorado, in 1907, and Carlo Barsotti, a banker and newspaper editor who solicited funds from primarily working-class immigrants to erect New York City’s Columbus monument in 1892. These leaders, many from northern Italy, “argued for full inclusion as Americans based upon an imagined ‘Italian’ heritage of civilization and whiteness,” as historian Peter G. Vellon reveals. In Columbus, they perceived a tool by which to forge an Italian national identity which did not exist among the vast majority of immigrants from southern Italy whose geopolitical affinities were to their local villages. By perpetuating ideas of a united Italian community based on racial hierarchies and a grand history of an assumed, singular Italian civilization, the prominenti imposed elitist notions of a unified Italian American community that was removed from working-class understandings of history and social formations, and that relied on Italians aligning themselves with a white majority. At the same time, the prominenti devalued and inhibited a whole host of Italian working-class cultural expressions that became more and more associated with ignorance and vulgarity—from undermining the practice of Catholic street feasts to belittling the use of Italian regional dialects.
The quintessential prominente, Generoso Pope, was instrumental in cementing Italian Americans to Columbus. A powerful businessman and influential newspaper owner in New York City, Pope was pro-Fascist. He used his Italian language daily Il Progresso Italo-Americano during the 1920s and 1930s as propaganda for the Italian dictator, and he led Columbus Day gatherings at Columbus Circle where audience members made the fascist salute (and anti-fascist Italian Americans protested both vocally and physically). Critical in securing the Italian American vote for Franklin D. Roosevelt, he later lobbied FDR’s administration for an annual national Columbus Day, eventually proclaimed in 1937.
Significantly, many Columbus statues around the country were commissioned, paid for, and built by Italian immigrants. The statues were not created—as in the case of Confederate statues—to impose political dominance over others; on the contrary, the monuments were a means to gain entrance into a racist society under the cover of whiteness. Theirs was no doubt a troubling, but all-too-common, approach to assimilation. Contributions of small change from working-class Italian immigrants helped underwrite statues like the grandiose marble one dedicated in 1892 in New York City or the smaller bronze one erected in 1930 in Easton, Pennsylvania. In some communities like Easton and Richmond, Virginia, the Ku Klux Klan actively campaigned to prevent the placement of Columbus statues in public spaces in opposition to Catholics and “foreigners.” In short, these monuments were historically contested sites where Italian immigrants sought visibility in the remaking of local landscapes and the larger political sphere.
In 1971, politicians and business people, many of them Italian American, succeeded in making Columbus Day a federal holiday. This legal holiday—which, importantly, has never been officially named as a day for Italian Americans—came about with the rise of the white ethnic revival, when the national discourse around normative whiteness shifted from “Plymouth Rock whiteness to Ellis Island whiteness,” as Matthew Frye Jacobson has noted. In brief, Columbus Day coalesced at the moment ethnic Europeans became most invested in whiteness, in the face of civil rights movements of African Americans and other minority communities, including, importantly, Native Americans.
Today, representatives of local and national voluntary associations such as the National Italian American Foundation, UNICO National, and the Order Sons of Italy in America have come out vigorously in opposition to the removal of Columbus statues in the name of Italian American victimization, while rearticulating their support for Columbus Day. Their position perpetuates the elite Italian national history championed by the prominenti in the early twentieth century and the limiting Italian American identity that developed with the white ethnic revival.
These self-appointed ethnic leaders claim to speak not just for their membership, but also on behalf of a larger and unspecific Italian American community. Yet, numerous Italian American poets, activists, and scholars have long spoken out against Columbus and his legacy. In different moments, groups such as the New York City-based Italian Americans for a Multicultural United States, the San Francisco-based Italian American Political Solidarity Club, and the national NoColumbusDay group, as well as individuals such as poets Diane di Prima (“Whose Day Is It Anyway?”) and Robert Viscusi (“An Oration Upon the Most Recent Death of Christopher Columbus”), have offered counter-narratives to a purported Italian ethnic solidarity and its symbols. But these voices, as strong as they are, do not hold the same weight as marble.
The lack of commemorative public art dedicated to Italian American activists—such as Angela Bambace, Pete Panto, and Carlo Tresca, who struggled on behalf of workers’ rights, and James Groppi and Vito Russo, who fought on behalf of civil rights—or victims of anti-Italian violence, such as the eleven men lynched in New Orleans in 1891, let alone the executed anarchists Sacco and Vanzetti, is not surprising. Early-twentieth-century ethnic leaders ingratiated themselves with the Anglo-Saxon ruling class, profited from the working poor, spoke out against unions, and aligned themselves at times with Fascists. Over the years, the labor and civil rights of working-class Italian Americans were ferociously suppressed. Barring only a few examples, such as the 1918 Colorado Ludlow Monument and the planned memorial to the 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire in New York City, Italian Americans have rarely worked for the commemoration of their working-class immigrant history and have ignored, forgotten, or otherwise erased aspects of their collective experiences.
All symbolic works, especially those that bear the weight of group identities, are open to re-interpretation by members of a pluralistic society. Understanding the historical context in which commemorative objects are erected reminds us of the dangers of investing too much symbolic power in any one individual. We instead imagine alternatives and look toward a new generation of Italian Americans who find different ways to bear witness to their histories and evolving lives.
Laura E. Ruberto is a professor in the Department of Arts and Cultural Studies at Berkeley City College and the author of Gramsci Migration and the Representation of Women’s Work in Italy and the U.S. (2007). Joseph Sciorra is a director at Queens College’s John D. Calandra Italian American Institute and the author of Built with Faith: Italian American Imagination and Catholic Material Culture in New York City (2015). Ruberto and Sciorra are the co-editors of the two-volume New Italian Migrations to the United States, Vol. 1: Politics and History since 1945 (2017) and Vol 2: Art and Culture since 1945 (2017).
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