Indeed, it might seem odd for Italian-Americans to even choose Christopher Columbus as a cultural icon when the Nina, the Pinta, and the Santa Maria sailed under a Spanish flag. Furthermore, Columbus never even set foot in the United States, having landed and settled in what is now Haiti. Also, until recently it was accepted that Columbus came from the kingdom of Genoa, located in what today is northern Italy. But Italy wasn’t a united country until the 1860s, and the economic burdens caused by the country’s unification were what forced millions of southern Italians to flee to other lands, including the Americas. And then there’s the recent book by Georgetown linguistics professor Estelle Irizarry, Christopher Columbus: The DNA of His Writings, that suggests that Columbus was actually a Catalan-speaking Jew from Aragon, in northern Spain.
(All of this didn’t stop the New York-based Order of the Sons of Italy from responding to the 2005 cancellation of a parade in Denver by publishing a 20-page document defending the holiday, arguing both that it’s unfair to judge Columbus by 21st-century ethical codes and that Native Americans were equally responsible for killing Europeans by introducing them to syphilis and tobacco.)
I now live on Federal Hill, just a block away from where my first-generation Italian-American grandparents met, and every year it surprises me how passionate people get about Columbus Day. Wouldn’t it make more sense to throw a parade in March for St. Joseph’s Day? That feast, celebrated on a smaller scale by the local Italian community, signals the start of spring and involves delicious zeppole. Or if the festival must happen in October — nobody wants to get rid of a Monday holiday, after all — why not simply celebrate something less politically polarizing, like the arrival of fall?
Dawn Casey-Rowe, a high school social studies teacher in Lincoln, sees Columbus Day as a great teaching opportunity. “Students, especially the younger ones, are given one side of the story, with the paintings of the three boats and this valiant hero who discovered the new world,” she says. “But nobody ‘discovered’ America, and there’s never one side to history.”
When asked whether students are surprised to hear a narrative that runs counter to the one they grew up with, Casey-Rowe says that they generally are. “I find that my students have a strong sense of social justice. I’ll read to my students from Columbus’s journal and then say, ‘Given the pros and the cons, what do you think? How do you process this narrative?’ ” “Usually he doesn’t end up being a good guy,” she says.