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Columbus Day's Meaning For Italian Americans


Washington, D.C., has joined hundreds of U.S. cities in seven states in replacing Columbus Day with a day to celebrate Native Americans. Of course, Christopher Columbus was Italian, and his day has had special resonance for Italian Americans.

Joseph Sciorra is with the John D. Calandra Italian American Institute at Queens College in New York, and he joins us from New York now. Professor Sciorra, thanks so much for being with us.

JOSEPH SCIORRA: It's a pleasure to be here.

SIMON: What did it mean to many Italian Americans to have Columbus Day established as a federal holiday back in the 1930s?

SCIORRA: One has to remember that when Italians arrive here in the late 1880s in mass - we're talking about 4 1/2 millions who come - Italian immigrants who come between 1880s and 1924 - they encounter America that is xenophobic, that is engaging in acts of violence against immigrants. One has to remember the lynching in New Orleans of 11 Italian Americans in 1891 so that Columbus becomes this figure that Italians latch on to as a way to get a foothold in this incredibly hostile environment that they find themselves in.

SIMON: So what has the reaction been among many Italian American groups and Italian American families to the emphasis in recent years on seeing the racism and brutality and violence in Columbus' personal history?

SCIORRA: There's an emotional bond to Columbus. I've read poetry which has - says, you know, when I look at the figure of Columbus on a statue, I don't see Columbus. I see my grandfather. I see the sort of worker's hands in his hands. I see the visage, his visage. And I see that of my grandfather. So there's a really emotional bond there.

I should say that, you know, this is not an issue of Italian Americans against Native Americans or Native Americans against Italian Americans. It's not a versus - it's not a war that's going upon these two groups. And I think that's always important to keep in mind.

SIMON: Any calls for a Leonardo da Vinci day?

SCIORRA: Yeah. Diane di Prima, wonderful poet out of San Francisco, has a fabulous poem called "Whose Day Is It" (ph) in which she lists a litany of possible alternatives, everyone from Yogi Berra to Connie Francis to Frank Sinatra.

SIMON: I'd be proud to tell our daughters, well, you've got Yogi Berra Day off from school.

SCIORRA: Yes. I'm smiling because every year on Facebook, I celebrate a different Italian American figure - not an Italian figure, but an Italian American figure, you know? I think a number of Italian Americans have made that understanding, have made that switch that supporting Columbus and his, quite frankly, barbaric acts is not something that people want to associate themselves with. And so you see it in a number of different ways. I know on Staten Island, this happened a few years ago where Italian Americans are opting for an Italian American heritage day and moving themselves away from the idea of a Columbus Day as a marker for Italian American identity.

SIMON: Joseph Sciorra of Queens College, N.Y., thanks so much for being with us.

SCIORRA: Thank you for having me.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.