Submitted by John C. Mitchell
I am Italian American from my mother’s side. My childhood memories are of meatballs and bocce games at my grandparents’ house, and family summers on the Jersey Shore. Christenings, First Communions, and weddings are a huge deal. We eat and drink too much, talk too loudly and with our hands, and can’t leave a party without hugs and kisses for everyone. Like any Italian American, I love my heritage. Our people include giants of history like the Medicis, Dante, and da Vinci, and modern icons like Lady Gaga, Francis Ford Coppola, and Nancy D’Alesandro Pelosi. Their accomplishments are a source of pride.
Christopher Columbus, another famous Italian, is a different story. His voyage opened the age of exploration, in which Europeans settled in the Western Hemisphere, eventually establishing great nations like our United States. Yet Columbus and his successors didn’t “discover” a new world in 1492, but rather invaded a world already inhabited, scholars estimate, by between 60 and 112 million people, perhaps double the population of Europe. Charles C. Mann, in 1491 and 1493, paints a picture of life in the Americas before and after Columbus’ arrival. Explorers and settlers found a continent teeming with advanced civilizations, nations that built Cahokia, Chichén-Itzá, and Macchu Picchu. Far from primitive, pre-Columbian civilizations rivaled the great empires of Europe, until Europeans nearly wiped them out. A century after Columbus, Native Americans were impoverished and exiled, and over 90% of them were dead. Most succumbed to imported diseases like smallpox, measles, and bubonic plague, while millions more fell to the predations of the conquistadors, who sacked cities, raped women, and effectively enslaved whole families under the encomienda system.
After 1776, the original people of America continued to endure unspeakable brutality. We the People, under color of law, perpetrated acts that today meet the definition of genocide. We removed Native people from their ancestral homes to inhospitable outlands, then pushed them further away in search of gold and oil. Our soldiers massacred Native people and slaughtered the bison herds that fed them. We denied them citizenship and the vote and tried to stamp out their languages and traditions. We tore children from Native families and sent them to “boarding schools,” notorious reeducation camps that enforced assimilation. These atrocities all happened. You can look them up.
All this history should lead us to reconsider our holiday honoring Columbus. His feats make him a person of world-historical significance who should be studied, but not celebrated. His most notable accomplishment is, for nearly 7 million of our fellow citizens, the first in a long train of abuses and injustices by European settlers. Italian Americans must see that a holiday created to celebrate our heritage and our ancestors’ triumph over bigotry—discrimination which no longer exists in any meaningful way in America—rubs raw a centuries-old wound. Clinging to Columbus Day evokes a similar sentiment as Robert E. Lee Day in parts of the Old South, where the oppression of Black Americans is ignored to praise our country’s most illustrious traitor. Simply stated, our devotion to Columbus Day hurts others.
Letting go of this holiday should not make us any less proud to be Italian, nor diminish our heritage, nor undermine the accomplishments of our people. Rather, it shows that we respect and take care of everyone, something my late grandfather Frank DiGiacomo—a son of immigrants, combat veteran, and union man—taught me from a young age. It is with his words in my mind that I strongly encourage all Bedford voters, especially those of Italian descent, to approve Article 34 at Annual Town Meeting, commemorating the second Monday of October as Indigenous Peoples Day in Bedford.