I’m an Italian American, Sicilian to be precise, and I hate Columbus Day. Not only was Columbus a fraud and a genocidal rapist who caused the erasure of a whole peoples, his name has been used to manipulate Italian Americans for a century. It needs to end.
Let’s unpack that a little more, because you’ve probably never thought of Columbus Day that way. I hadn’t, until I became part of the Italian folk magic community. Since beginning my journey home to my pagan roots, I’ve also become more aware of just how much of my heritage as a Sud Italian/Sicilian was murdered by the “melting pot”.
The Legacy of Columbus
As a child, Columbus Day was a school holiday, and we “learned” the bullshit narrative every American is taught. We know the names of his fucking ships, but the thousands he raped and enslaved are nameless for all time.
In my dad’s family, the Italian side, Columbus Day was basically a normal day as well. However, being within a two hour drive of New York City, there was one year when they decided to drive into the city for the Columbus Day parade. I’d never seen such a mass of green, red, and white anywhere. Everyone, including me, had an Italian flag displayed proudly in their hand. There were the Knights of Columbus in their capes and absurd feathered hats, music and dancing. It was mesmerizing and beautiful to me, a ten year old kid who never thought much about being Italian.
Yet, even in the midst of the joy and fun, it struck me as odd that Columbus was the cause of all this celebration. Did we need a person to have Italian pride and celebrate? Why him? Didn’t he do all of his “discovering” on Spain’s dime and to their credit? Sure, he was born in Italy, but what did he actually do for Italy?
Smart kid, huh? I didn’t even know the truth about Columbus yet, however I was already confused about why this guy was so important to Italian Americans, if not my own family, then at least the thousands gathered that October day in New York City.
Then someone gave your smart ass pagan writer a copy of Howard Zinn’s People’s History of the United States and Jim Loewen’s Lies My Teacher Told Me because I announced my intention to major in history in college. Well, shit. The Columbus myth shattered beneath the weight of the truth, and I was left yet again wondering why Italian Americans were celebrating this bozo.
Without another thought I left Columbus behind, hoping that eventually everyone else would learn the truth and do the same. However, I was still estranged from my own roots, had yet to begin my ancestor relationships, and did not make any connections between my own ancestors and the damage that hero worship of Columbus by Italian Americans had done.
Then I found the Italian witches, the wise women. The keepers of the old ways and stories. It’s only been through actively nourishing my own roots and connecting with others like me, that I’ve come to see Columbus not only as a fraud and evil actor who was responsible for genocide, but also a tool of white supremacy to strip Italian Americans of their culture in the name of “assimilation”.
It gets glossed over in histories of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, but Italian Americans were viewed as undesirables, dirty, criminals, uneducated, and because they were Catholic, superstitious. They were treated much as immigrants from Mexico and Latin America are today by many. My Italian ancestors came through Ellis Island and settled in New York City in the early 20th century. My grandmother was born the second oldest of six kids, in 1921.
Assimilate or Go Home
We all know the stories of the “great melting pot” that was America during this time of massive influx of immigrants from around the world. Everyone came together to create new identities as Americans and left behind the old world for something far better: the American Dream.
That’s what my Italian ancestors did. If you’re sitting here as an American reading this and you have Italian ancestry, its likely what yours did too. But what we never learned was what assimilation cost us. Did you know that among recent immigrants to the US between 1900-1920, within five years nearly half had gone back to the countries they came from? I never did. No one ever said, the cost of “melting” into that pot was so high, nearly half of people who came here decided to go back.
What were the casualties? Well, in my family, language was the biggest one. My great-grandparents came to the US from Italy speaking no English, and by the time my father was a child, he learned almost zero Italian. In less than two generations, the Italian language was lost to my family. What a tragedy. The cost of assimilation.
Cultural ways, styles of dress, language, knowledge of folk healing and remedies, these were all casualties of assimilation by Italian immigrants wanting desperately to find a place to belong in their new home. Rather than having their unique contributions encouraged or welcomed, Italians like all other ethnic immigrant groups, were told that it must be sacrificed to the “melting pot”. Another name for the melting pot is white supremacy.
We were able to keep our cooking because it was considered “exotic” at the time and something fun for white people to try. We kept our religion, as long as it was kept within our churches, schools and social clubs.
And what were we given in return? Christopher fucking Columbus. “Look,” white supremacy says, “an Italian hero, just for you! He discovered our land, and made it safe for we civilized people! Leave your dirty, superstitious ways behind and become an American! We’ll even give you a day to celebrate being Italian because this man was Italian and we value what he did.”
Sadly, most Italians bought into that, and many are still bought in. By embracing everything Columbus was as an Italian “hero” it guaranteed that the ruling whites could manipulate the Italian populations into cooperating with white supremacy, and by and large it worked. White supremacy and racism are a huge problem in many parts of today’s Italian American communities. Having secured “whiteness” for ourselves, many are now distrustful of Black people, immigrant communities, and other marginalized people. We have been lied to.
Find Your Own Heroes
Americans deserve better than Christopher Columbus.
Italian Americans deserve better than Christopher Columbus.
A man who did everything he did on Spain’s dime and in their name has nothing to do with Italy.
A man who was a genocidal con man has nothing to do with our vibrant and joyful culture.
Italians were sold a bill of goods when it comes to Columbus, and it’s time to tear it up and start again.
To quote one of the best Italian witches working today, “He was sold to us to diminish our radicalness, to settle us into whiteness, to rise in the immigrant hierarchy…our ancestors were able to somewhat “keep” their culture, all the while being seduced by and accepted into whiteness.”
It’s time to reject Columbus and all he stands for, and for Italian Americans to lead the way. Look deeply into your own roots, your ancestors. Find your Italian heroes there. Look to the radical Italians who helped drive the social movements of the early 20th century. Find your Italian sheroes there.
To again quote the Radical Sicilianne, “We can talk trauma and the loss of our cultural body. We can talk how the oppression of our own true cultural body has grown as an invasive racist virus in our bodies.”
Far from a symbol of Italian pride, everything he stands for is the opposite of what makes Italian and Sicilian culture sing. We can be devoted to the things that make our people great: “passion, togetherness, magic, love and liberation for all from the roots on up.”