While living in New York, I learned that there was a parade on Columbus Day, and that parade was to celebrate Italian-American heritage. Prior to living in New York–at least that I can remember–I had never thought of Christopher Columbus as an Italian hero. I was mortified. There are plenty of Italians and Italian-Americans who have contributed to civilization and society who weren’t genocidal maniacs. In case you’re new to this discussion about how Christopher Columbus is awful and Columbus Day makes no sense, I’ll let my best friend John Oliver catch you up. This clip was aired a year ago but is just as relevant and to the point.
At about the 2:00 mark, Oliver suggests alternate days to celebrate Italian heritage starting with Frank Sinatra Day. This got me thinking. Why don’t we celebrate our heritage on any other days? Italians (the ones in Italy) don’t even celebrate Columbus Day!
To help get the conversation started, I’ve pulled together a list of people, moments, and days worth celebrating.
1. The Unification of Italy: Il Risorgimento
Prior to the 1800s, what we know today as Italy was a peninsula of entirely separate states. Il Risorgimento was the series of events that consolidated these states into the Kingdom of Italy. Were it not for this process, we would not be calling ourselves Italians. I propose we celebrate on March 17. This is the day on which Italians mark the Proclamation of the Kingdom of Italy. They apparently only celebrate it every 50 years (Isn’t it just like Italians to take a 50-year break?) but I’m game to mark it every year. However, I’d be willing to concede, leaving that to the Irish for St. Patrick’s Day; it predates Unification anyways. Rome was captured on September 19. Let’s focus on a victory.
2. Galileo Galilei
Perhaps you’re really romantic about the renaissance and want to cling to that era. Fine. Let’s talk about Galileo. One could argue his contributions to astronomy and physics paved the way for space travel! Sure he went to bat with the church, and I know that doesn’t still well with everyone, but ultimately we’re better off. The classic Italian smart-ass, he’s credited with The expression “E pur si muove,” or “and yet it moves.” Basically, when forced to publicly give up support for heliocentrism, he said “I don’t care what you think, the friggin’ Earth spins around the sun!” Eat it Maculani! We could celebrate his birth on February 15. If that’s too close to La Festa di San Valentino, then how about his death on January 8?
3. Elena Cornaro Piscopia
Did you know that the first woman to be conferred a Ph.D was Italian? I didn’t. Born in 1646, Elena Cornaro Piscopia spoke seven languages! She headed to University of Padua for theology, but because she was a woman, was only allowed a philosophy degree. There’s a stained glass window at Vassar College that memorializes the scene of her conferral. She was conferred on June 25. Let’s celebrate the thought of offering higher education to all!
4. Any Ninja Turtle
Well, at least two of them. Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo di Lodovico Buonarroti Simoni are the reason the term “Renaissance Man” exists. They did everything. As for the other two, Donatello was a sculptor and Raphael painted a lot. Da Vinci was born on April 15, Michelangelo on March 6. Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles first appeared in a comic in May 1984. You know what, let’s stick with da Vinci. He played a big role in flight and has an airport named after him. And speaking of Italians with airports named after them…
5. Fiorello La Guardia
“Il Uomo Del Popolo!” That’s what I called him in my high school essay on La Guardia. The beloved politician was a three-term mayor of NYC. Yes, he was a Republican, but he fought bankers, corruption, and racketeering, and was on board with FDR’s New Deal. Somewhat of a personal hero to me, his mother was Jewish and he spoke Italian and Yiddish among a host of other languages. He seemed very in touch with the needs of his constituents. He wasn’t perfect, but I’d take a day off from work for him. He died on September 20, keeping it a Fall holiday.
6. Maria Montessori
You may have heard of Montessori Schools or Montessori Education. The pioneering approach to educating small children was created by Maria Montessori. Born in 1870, she traveled and lectured the world, advocating child development right up until her death in 1952. She was nominated for the Nobel Prize 6 times but never won. In a time when our youngest children are stressed by testing and losing valuable time developing naturally and independently, her lessons and methodology are as relevant as ever. I think she would have been taken aback by our adoration of Columbus. She once said “Preventing conflicts is the work of politics; establishing peace is the work of education.” Could you just cry? The first Casa dei Bambini was opened on January 6, 1907.
7. Mario Balotelli
That’s Balotelli, not Batali, I know it’s all vowels to you people. “Super” Mario Balotelli is only 25, but he’s already a world-renowned
soccer football calcio player of Italy’s most popular sport. He’s a hero because he’s a successful black soccer player in an incredibly racist country. In the face of harassment on and off the field, he dares to call himself Italian, as he should. His family moved to Italy when he was 2 and he gained citizenship when he was 18. Individuals in these positions are both beacons of hope for the oppressed and punching bags for the oppressors. And yet, he plays on. On August 10, 2010, he had his first game with the Italian national team.
8. Frank Sinatra Day
As John Oliver says, he didn’t kill any Native Americans… that we know of. What else is there to say? Everybody loves the guy! I’m listening to his music as I write this. Sure, many of the songs he sang were horribly misogynistic, but he didn’t write them, amirite?! Listen, he’s been awarded or nominated just about every award out there. He sang New York City’s theme song. I can say pretty confidently that he was not as awful as Columbus. He was born on December 12, 1915.
FACT: a few my high school paesans and I observed a moment of silence in school when Frankie passed away in 1998.
TL;DR – Colonialism and Columbus are Awful
Colonialism destroyed entire groups of people and we still live with its lasting effects. As an agent of colonialism, Columbus is guilty and celebrating a day for him is disgusting. I refuse to let him be a symbol of my heritage. I wish you all a thoughtful Indigenous Peoples’ Day.
- Why These Cities Are Dropping ‘Columbus Day’ For ‘Indigenous People’s Day’ via ThinkProgress
- Celebrating Columbus Day? Here’s Who You Should Be Honoring, Instead via Good.is
- Meet the indigenous people reclaiming Columbus Day via Fusion
BONUS FACT: “America” was named for Amerigo Vespucci of Florence, or “Americus” in the Latin. Relax, fellow Italian-Americans, we got the naming rights.