Update: Long after I penned this essay, Cambridge MA (which is not Boston but is near and different from Boston) renamed Columbus Day “Indigenous People’s Day.”
The photograph above is of the Columbus Statue in the North End, doused with red paint in 2006.
Columbus Day has become a holiday of disdain, and there are many people who feel it should be taken off the books. It is a little like the Martin Luther King Jr. day maneno in reverse. If you were a progressive and thoughtful American you’d have supported having a state-wide Martin Luther King Jr. day, and probably also a street named after the highly influential slain civil rights leader. If, on the other hand, you were a Republican and/or racist white supremacist type (and there are a lot more of those than gentile people like to admit) than you’d have come up with some lame excuse for not having a Martin Luther King Jr. day or a Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue in your state or town. When the Federal version of MLK day was being debated in the US Congress, it was the likes of Jesse Helms who opposed it. Numerous states resisted adding MLK day, and it was not until the year 2000 that all states in the US celebrated the only US holiday for the birth of a famous person who was not white, by actually taking the day off.
Columbus Day is a little more complicated. Columbus day is the celebration of the Discovery of America by Europeans and marks the beginning of the Conquest of the Americas by said Europeans. Ironically, Columbus day has a lot more to do with Mexico and south and of course the Caribbean than it has to do with the United States. Also, as by now everyone knows, the actual “Discovery” of America by Europeans did not consist of Columbus landing in the new world; Europeans on boats had bumped into the New World a bunch of times earlier. But, Columbus had a publicist. Also, many of the earlier events of discovery were probably done by people with only a vague sense of larger scale geography (or no sense of it at all), people who were sneaking around and did not want to share their knowledge, or people who were not part of the great Western Machinery of self legitimizing rhetoric we call “History” and thus could have wanted to take credit for this “Discovery” but we ignore them. Mainly fishermen.
And, of course, the Americas was totally full of people before Columbus was born, thousands and thousands of years before he was born, and other than one of the Pre-Columbian discoverers I allude to vaguely above, all came after the peopling of the New World by the folks now known as Native Americans in the land of Columbus Day, as First Nation people in Canada, and as Citizens south of the Rio Grand.
There are two other reasons that Columbus Day is complicated that many of my Midwestern friends, colleagues, and family are unaware of or only know vaguely of, and that may be mostly an East Coast thing, and really, concentrated in the Northeast. One has to do with ethnic identity the other with economics. Ethnic identify first…
Columbus may have sailed for Spain, but he was Italian. Perhaps Americans have a hard time remembering this now, but Italians were a denigrated suppressed immigrant minority at one time. Most Italian-Americans come from Ellis-Island scenario ancestry, and most Italian Americans can trace their genealogy to the ghettos of the East Coast (most famously New York, Boston and a few other cities, but with patches all up and down the coast). Italian Americans were not viewed as fully human by some, were exploited as a low paid working class by all. The initial phases of the Industrial Revolution in the United States (which followed the English Industrial Revolution by quite a few decades) was fueled by water power and young women from failing farms from the New England hinterland, and ethnically they were mostly English. But that was not enough. The total amount of cloth and other product made in New England’s mills with water power became minuscule by the end of the 19th century, and the most numerous hands operating the finger-slicing arm-removing machinery of these mills became almost entirely immigrant, with a large percentage being Italian. Conjure up in your mind the worst stuff that people say and think today about “Mexicans” (many of whom are actually from Mexico, but really, anybody from south of the Rio Grande). Take that and sharpen it, make it more explicit, and imagine it expressed in the highly radicalized culture of the late Victorian and Edwardian period, and that is what people thought about Italians. By the middle of the 20th century, it was still fashionable to make fun of Italians. It didn’t help that Italy was an Axis Power during World War II, and when they turned on the Nazis (sort of) they were instantly subjugated. From an American point of view, the liberation of Italy following the landings on the Mediterranean was fundamentally different than the landings at Normandy. The former was a bit more like letting a guy out of jail who you felt sorry for, the latter was a true liberation of an ally, even if in truth neither perspective is accurate. When I was a kid, Italian jokes (jokes at the expense of Italians, that is) were common, insulting, and referred to the characteristics of incompetence and cowardice.
In the 1960s, Italians became more famous and in some ways more liked by other Americans for a dubious reason. An Italian Author, Mario Puzo, wrote the Godfather, which became a best seller, and led to three blockbuster movies. This book was written in the context of contemporary cyclic rise in media attention to the Italian Mafia, which had shifted in and out of the public limelight over time as internal (to the Mafia) struggles made them more and less overt. The way that works is this: There really was a Mafia run by traditional “families” (patrilines) mostly in the greater New York City area. They really did have fights now and then that involved shooting. Typically, the fights would emerge on a generational basis, and this meant that the soldiers in those fights were inexperienced. Really, it meant that they were bad shots. So a fight emerges, there is a lot of bad strategy, bad tactics, and bad shooting until enough of the operatives climb high enough on the learning curve, and the issues at hand that started the fighting move closer to resolution. The rate of adding to the death toll goes up, then the rate goes down. I remember when a similar mob war (but not Mafia) happened in Boston and the number of deaths per week formed a perfect bell curve centered on the first of the year. As the curve trailed off everyone took credit; the Mayor, the Governor, the Police Chief, various church leaders, and so on all claimed a stake in the effort to stop the crime wave. The irony is that it was a Federal Prosecutor (who shall remain nameless here) in New York who started the crime wave by pushing an entire crime syndicate out of Long Island and on to Boston where, in order to settle in, they had to make a lot of offers that people could not refuse, as it were. The ironies pile up beyond that but I shall not go into them here. The point is, being Italian in the first part of the 20th century meant being exploited and often viewed as subhuman. Being Italian in the middle of the 20th century meant, in part, being viewed as a criminal, and this on top of the post World War II legacy mentioned above.
I remember when Mario Cuomo became governor. It was a very big deal because in the minds of the Italian Community in the upstate New York, this was one of the first times an Italian had risen to great political power, and over the years that Cuomo reigned in New York, he was paid great attention to by politicos across the country. He gave one of the most memorable convention speeches ever, not eclipsed by Obama’s 8 years ago, and only equaled by Clinton’s of last month, if that. That Mario Cuomo was great is his own doing. That he was sainted by the Italian American community is proof of their ethnic solidarity, their prior low position, and of a palpable rise to normalcy that can happen when one of one’s own becomes a hero to others.
I have not done this in years and have no idea if it still pertains, but there was a time when the Columbus Day celebration in Little Italy was a very big deal. I know this was true for New York’s and Boston’s Little Italy neighborhoods. But they were only barely celebrations of Columbus Discovering America. Rather, they were celebrations of Italian Catholic religious themes together with a celebration of Italian Ethnic legitimacy. If the Italians could have Columbus, and later, Cuomo, they had value. Plus, the celebration itself, like all periodic celebrations positioned with certain degree of social centrality, had a life of its own and served many purposes in the community. I’m pretty sure that it is true that dissing Columbus Day is still seen by many as dissing Italians, and when one diss’s Italians, one should think of the fact that Italian Americans have gone through hell as an ethnic group.
I promised an economic side to this maneno, and I’ll be brief about it. In climates where Autumn is often summer like and summer tourism is king, Columbus day is seen as one last chance for people get to the shore, or the lake, or some other tourist venue before winter sets in. The thing is, this is often a cold or snowy weekend, or in the case of the East Coast, there are subtropical storms and nor’easters around this time. So, if you run a business on Cape Cod, for instance, a good vs. bad Columbus Day weekend meant not needing a loan vs. needing a loan to get through the winter when your Clam Shack was closed down for the season. This is true of course, of all holidays; the world or retail marketing seems to always absorb and incorporate holidays into its ultimate plan to sell everything to everybody and Columbus Day in no exception. Here, I just wanted to point out that one somewhat more obscure role the holiday takes, in marginal tourist areas. I’m sure you already knew about the Columbus Day Sales.
So, in the end, we in Modern America recognize Columbus Day as problematic because it marks the beginning of one of the worlds largest and most awful genocides, that of Native Americans by Europeans. But as a more local and historically shortened level, Columbus Day represents a focal point of perfectly reasonable ethnic solidarity by a repressed group. The former is of course a national issue and beyond, while the latter is geographically spotty and more restricted, but should still be remembered.
I have a solution, of course. This solution resets on the premise that we do not have enough holidays anyway, and we should add more until there are at least two per month. Here’s what we do: Re replace Columbus day…that is, the Monday that is called Columbus Day…with a holiday celebrating Native Americans. Then, we add a second day that celebrates diversity. That would be a good day for communities to have their Ethnically Diverse Food Available In Small Booths In The City Park day that we all have already and that there are probably not enough of.
So, Happy Columbus Day. Or Not.
Mario Cuomo’s 1984 Convention Speech:
This essay was originally writen in 2012.