It’s Monday, October 12, 2020. It’s 22 days before Election Day.
On this day in 1492, three ships captained by Genoese sailor Christopher Columbus landed on the Caribbean island now known as San Salvador.
To mark this occasion, the U.S. government designates this as Columbus Day. You can’t conduct business in federal offices. There’s no mail in your mailbox today – although, thanks to Louis DeJoy, that might not be because the post office is closed.
For the first, oh, half of my 66+ years, no one really questioned this idea. It’s Columbus Day – a day off from school, for sales at department stores and various other little anomalies in the daily routine.
But then the objections of the ancestors of those on Guanahani – that’s what San Salvador was called before Columbus showed up – and the members of tribal nations throughout the Western Hemisphere merged with the scholarship of historians from around the world. And they came up with this:
Columbus was a jerk. He was a slaver. He was a murderer. He was a lot of other godawful things.
But, mamma mia, even though he was working for the Spanish crown, he was Italian.
And that’s why we celebrate Columbus Day.
It has almost nothing to do with what he did. For the first century of American independence, we mostly didn’t give a damn – there were some commemorations of the event, but nobody got the day off.
The making of the holiday came in the 1890s, close to the 400th anniversary of Columbus showing up on Guanahani. Its root is the murder of New Orleans’ police chief – who, in his dying breath, said Italian immigrants were responsible.
At the time, Italians were held in low esteem in New Orleans. How low? Here’s a hint: If you’re an Italian-American who uses the “N” word to slur Black people, you’re betraying your own heritage in the process.
After the chief’s death, as many as 250 Italian immigrants and Italian-Americans were rounded up. Eventually, 19 were charged with the murder. But the trial of the first nine suspects ended with six found not guilty and a hung jury for the other three.
Unfortunately, all nine went back to jail to spend the night. And that’s when the “upright” citizens of New Orleans rendered their own verdict – attacking the jail and lynching 11 of the original 19 suspects.
This would not sit well with the rising population of Italians in the U.S. – and, in fact, anybody in the whole of Italy. The Italian government made belligerent sounds and threatened to send its navy across the Atlantic to rectify the wrong.
That sounds foolhardy – except that the U.S. wasn’t the military power it is today. Italy would actually have a pretty good chance of teaching this country a lesson.
So the Benjamin Harrison administration set off to undo the damage. It offered an apology and then, to show its good faith, proposed making Oct. 12 a holiday – a way of paying tribute to Italian-Americans by honoring the man who was, until then, the most prominent Italian ever to visit this side of the Atlantic.
And so it has remained. Until now.
Recognizing that Columbus’ faults weren’t mere quirks, the movement to undo Columbus Day has gathered steam. Chicago took down its statue. Many states renamed the day Indigenous Peoples’ Day.
Because Columbus is from the same part of Italy as my paternal grandfather and my maternal great-grandfather, I’ve been loathe to criticize. We’re Ligurians.
There’s one other thing about Oct. 12: It’s my mother’s birthday. So I associate the day with her.
She died 11 months ago – this is the first Oct. 12 that she’s not here. I left out the words “to celebrate” because she never particularly liked getting a year older – I think she preferred celebrating Columbus Day than her birthday on Oct. 12.
So I’ve had to cope with a lot of complicated thoughts about this day – especially this Oct. 12 in the starstruck year of 2020.
And here’s what I’ve come up with:
First and foremost, I miss my mother.
Second, she was passionate about being Italian-American, like my father and her father. I am, too. We deserve a day to honor us as Americans.
Third, however, she was equally passionate about fighting injustice. She believed strongly in the civil rights movement and the women’s rights movement. And if she thought Columbus wronged people, she would have dismissed himself with her patented glare and a wave of her hand.
And so will I.
But instead of just calling this Indigenous Peoples’ Day, I think there’s a better alternative.
Something called Heritage Day.
Something that allows those of us whose ancestors come from Italy to celebrate. Something that allows those of us who were in this hemisphere when strange people in boats showed up to “discover” them to celebrate.
And, yes, something that allows all people who came here in boats – willingly, under duress as a refugee or as someone’s property – and, in more recent times, planes to celebrate their heritage as well.
Why not have a national holiday that celebrates Italians and Poles and Nigerians and Koreans and Lakota and everyone else who sees this country as a land of dreams and opportunity?
My mother would like that. A lot.
Happy Heritage Day! And, even though you’re not crazy about the idea, Happy Birthday, Mom!