A Day about Italians Should Be Called Just That

By John M. Viola, President, National Italian American Foundation

For the past few years, as summer fades into autumn and October approaches, I’m inevitably inundated with calls from media to talk about the great elephant in the Italian American room: Columbus Day.


In recent years, communities around the nation have begun to explore the possibility of replacing one of the oldest American holidays with a new celebration called Indigenous Peoples Day.  Fueled by ever more accessible, and ever more complicated histories of the Italian explorer and his exploits on the American continent, voices from many quarters (including many Italian Americans) have called for a re-examination – if not a complete abandonment – of Columbus’s hero status. Far be it from me, a non-profit community leader, to opine on the nationwide trend for tearing down the heroes of the old order. After all, this same exercise has occurred all over the southern United States in relation to confederate leadership.

In my role as the President of the National Italian American Foundation, the nation’s most active organization representing 25 million Americans of Italian descent, I don’t have the luxury of exploring the positives and negatives of Columbus’s person or his historical imprint.

I have the responsibility of focusing on what columbus-day-paradeColumbus Day has become, more so than what it was intended to be, and what it has become is a celebration of our Italian American community, its luminaries (past and present), its accomplishments in this great nation, and the core values that Italian Americans continue to cherish and identify with.

Believe me, I can understand, coming from a group that did not have a necessarily easy transition to the United States, how important it is to have that point on the calendar where a community can revel in their shining piece of the great American mosaic.  That said, no community deserves more attention and examination than the indigenous peoples of the United States; a group that has faced an incredibly complex and often times sad historical narrative.

Certainly the rest of our nation should seek greater awareness of the numerous tribes dealing with issues that the average American citizen doesn’t face.  But in the battle for Columbus’s legacy, we Italian Americans run the risk of becoming collateral damage in a struggle that has unfortunately pitted two communities against each other.

There is no chance of healing old wounds by opening new ones.  I’m sure my counterparts in the Indigenous American community can understand my concerns that these worthy efforts which they are undertaking lose a great deal of their virtue when they ignore the damage that is being done to the Italian American community.

Facing this onslaught in community after community, while having to serve as the sole defenders of Columbus, is hard enough, but is made all-the-worse by the continuing inability of the leadership of the myriad of Italian American organizations around the country to come together and form a single response or strategy.

Last year our Foundation hosted a forum (which quickly descended into a screaming match) and about the only conclusion we could come to was that there were countless dsc_4676webopinions throughout our community (ranging from those who thought it was our responsibility to fight for Columbus on behalf to those who wished to do away with the holiday completely) but no chance of consensus.  As for me, I think the middle road is always the best.

I think that the Italian American community and our leadership around the nation need to be fighting to make sure that those municipalities that feel uncomfortable with the celebration of Columbus’s legacy have only one option for replacement of Columbus Day and that should be Italian American Heritage Day.

After all, Columbus Day, from its earliest inception, has been a holiday filled with political undertones: first anti-British and eventually even fascist, as well as a day set out to celebrate exploration and immigration, which has by default become a celebration of our keep-em-coming-34great Italian community.

So needless to say, tying the experience of proud Italian Americans and their innumerable ancestors to the biographical circumstances of one figure, completely removed from our general Italian American experience, leaves something lacking to begin with.

So I’m calling on these municipalities and Indigenous leadership around the nation to join me in a strategy that will leave room for everyone to celebrate and explore our various heritages.  If Columbus Day must go, let it be replaced by Italian American Heritage Day and let’s work together to find an alternative time of the year for Indigenous People’s Day, so that we can celebrate (and for most of us learn) the history of the first peoples of this incomparable nation that has welcomed so many cultures to its shores in search of a better life.

To me this day isn’t really about one man, be he famous or infamous, but about millions of men and women, overlooked and unsung, whose courage and self-sacrifice allowed Italian Americans the chance to have this better life.


John M. Viola is the President of the National Italian American Foundation (NIAF), a non-profit organization based in Washington, D.C., dedicated to preserving and protecting the Italian American heritage and culture.

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8 Responses to A Day about Italians Should Be Called Just That

  1. How about celebrating Vespucci / Filangieri day?
    One gave America its name, while the other helped to give America its soul, it seems he was one of the main creator of the American Constitution.

  2. John Restivo says:

    Well said . Thank you . Happy Columbus Day ! Chindon !

  3. Rita Palumbo says:

    I understand the Native American lived here before Columbus set foot on their shore, but in my opinion, Columbus discovered the North American continent for the rest of the world to discover,explore, appreciate.
    Columbus lived during a time of exploration and that is what he did. Unfortunately, along with exploration went conquering and other horrific acts. People’s level of conscientiousness is not what it is today. We cannot value or invalidate one’s accomplishments,in one time period, and base it on the value system of another. Columbus along with the other great navigators of his time need to be appreciated for their courage, level of expertise in sailing and navigating, and sheer intelligence for seeing beyond the narrow view of their time. People celebrate artists, heroes, sports figures, etc., from their cultures, for far less than Columbus’ achievement. As an Italian American I would like to continue celebrating the man, and the country that created him.

  4. Joseph Scalzo says:

    I Like this idea very much. We should have a day to commemorate Italian Americans and their great contributions to the United States. Columbus was a product of his time and I think some of what he did, though not excusable , has to be viewed within the context of the times. But, there were other great Italian explorers who actually might be considered like Amerigo Vespucci and Giovanni da Verrazano.

  5. G.M. Amato says:

    A very sensible and practical approach to a complex issue.

  6. V says:

    When I was a child, I was taught in school, “In 1492, Columbus sailed the ocean blue…” the same as my mother and father were taught when they were children. All the children in my class recited this rhyme, and could be heard outside the classroom, echoing through the halls.

    My father’s family were the first in their line to move to America in the 1920s. The family endured hardship, intolerance, and even violence during those early years in New York.

    With little else to claim as an identity while doors were slammed in their faces, Italians relied on the strengths of what they had been taught; not just of the former glory of Rome, not the disappointment and anger of a failed monarch, and then the lessons learned from a Facist dictator, but also that Christopher Columbus, a “great and noble Italian, braved all the odds and discovered America”; this allowed for pride, from which to draw strength, and Italian Americans endured their transition into a new country and way of life, holding up our heroes above our sinners.

    Imagine then, the shock, the betrayal, and the dismay when these now older Italian Americans are confronted with the historical facts of the crimes and atrocities committed by Columbus and his men, against the indigenous peoples who already lived there, who had no want or need to be “discovered”.

    A hero becomes a lie, and light shines on the darker passages of history as it inevitably does, and yes- our heroes can become casualties in the unforgiving lenses of history. “Cercate e troverete.”

    Columbus was financed by the Spanish crown- many Italians forget this. Many Spaniards would like to forget this as well, considering how they too, are part of this narrative. Columbus was a failed explorer by the time he landed, thinking he was in India- calling the natives “Indians” still endures today; Italians do not have that hardship: any derogatory term thrown at an Italian at the end of the day…still means “Italian”.

    Columbus was not even the “big hero” of his day; he died, essentially forgotten, and ignored by his noble patrons. I remember as a child, after reciting with my class “In 1492…”, learning of his end and feeling sorry for him. As an adult, I learned the truth, and became angry.

    Angry that a man whose crimes and atrocities are now remembered with reverence and a childhood rhyme came to be so enveloped in the identity of what it meant to be an Italian American; “we may be poor immigrants, but we discovered this place…” has been our argument in times of adversity.

    A new conversation has to start, a new identity born- not just one where we rely on an explorer who risked his life for gold and exploited human life as he saw fit, leaving scars on whole nations where his reach is still felt. We do not need a day to remember this man; I agree, we should have a day for ourselves. Cristoforo Columbo does not represent us.

    We should be looking instead at those brave Italians who were already explorers in their own right. Incomparable men, women, and children, who set off into the unknown to discover a new way of life, a new way of being, and who eventually left such a mark on this country where to be Italian is something special, and something to be cherished. We should not be so insecure that our identity is wrapped up in one man; neither Nero nor Mussolini define us, why should Columbus? We define us, we are Italian Americans.

    In 1492, Columbus did in fact “sail the ocean blue”, and he is a very important historical figure…to learn from.

    “When I was a child, I spoke as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child: but when I became a man, and I put away childish things…”

    • Marc Ottaviani says:

      Came upon this in a search for alternative ideas to celebrating Columbus as the debate is raging once again due to the protests in support of Black Lives Matter. Gov. Cuomo doesn’t want to consider changing the name of Columbus Circle here in NYC, but the time has come and so I searched for some options of what to replace it with. I thought the original essay provided a sound idea to changing the name of the holiday, but I thought your response was excellently written and should be read by more people. So, just wanted to share my appreciation. All the best.

      Marc Ottaviani
      Brooklyn, NY

  7. Nicholas E. Lo Greco says:

    There are some researchers that make a “strong case” that Columbus was of “Spanish and Jewish heritage ( I saw it on the history channel ) and was not even Italian at all. We do know that his crew was Spanish and the money that paid for his voyage was Spanish. So, if it is so important for the history revisionists, to throw paint and tear things down in an effort to get things right, I would hope it would be just as important to get “everything right”.

    In the end, I was not there and don’t know what Columbus’s heritage was and if he raped and murdered people, I do know and believe that a rapist and or murderer should not be celebrated. I also know that no one alive today knows anything more or less “in an absolute sense” than I do. So who do I side with? To be honest, both sides of these statue issues are so “extreme” I see them really as one side, that can be described as (hateful, violent, obsessed, revisionist, dishonest, self serving, delusional, afraid, petty, childish, ill, sad – I could go on but the rest of us all see what they are) So of course, there really was never a choice between these extremists, we are a nation of laws and that is what we need the law!

    So, as a people (Americans ) if this is what we want to do? (make everything perfect) I am sure we will find something wrong with most every human being that has a statue. Lets have an amendment to the constitution that outlaws statues and the like ( I am serious) because, in the end, here is my fear and question, how can you have the Washington monument? the man owned other human beings? Sooner or later it will get there (the same group throwing paint now will demand that it should be torn down) – I promise you that.

    Lets give every group their day of celebration ( Italian American Day, Irish American Day etc…) get rid of any other holidays that offend any group before it is too late. Back to the Washington monument, we can probably save it as some sort of national unity symbol associated with the passing of the amendment, as long as it is not dedicated to a single human being we should still be able to have some art work to symbolize and celebrate as Americans our great achievements while trying to reach our lofty human ideals.

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