A Swede, an Irishman and an Italian were discussing the discovery of America.
“Well, everybody knows Columbus discovered America in 1492,” said the Italian.
“No,” said the Swede. “Leif Ericson reached America in 999. That was nearly 500 years before Columbus.”
“You’re wrong,” said the Irishman. “St. Brendan discovered America around 520. That was 500 years before Ericson.”
After a pregnant pause, the Italian said: “Hmmm. I don’t know if either of you is right. But I do know this – when Columbus discovered America, it stayed discovered.”
Therein lies one of Italian America’s more troubling dilemmas: Cristoforo Colombo, the incredibly courageous sailor from Genoa in what is now Italy, long has been Italian Americans’ ethnic hero, par excellence, but in recent years, he has been seen as anything but heroic by others.
Now every year around the 12th of October, the day in 1492 when Columbus landed on the Caribbean island that he called San Salvador, more voices are heard putting the man down than praising him.
It wasn’t always this way. Oct. 12 has been celebrated as Columbus Day in the United States since colonial times. He was considered an American icon, on par with the founding fathers.
Columbus Day has officially been a national holiday since 1937, although in 1970 its observance was changed from Oct. 12 to the second Monday in October.
However, starting about the middle of the 20th century, the “discovery thing” began to bother some critics. He didn’t discover America, they said. Ericson or St. Brendan did. Others contended, with a bit more to support their claim, that a nameless American Indian did.
More recent critics have made poor Chris “responsible” for the genocide of Indians and the enslavement of Africans. Indeed, every bad thing that has happened in North and South America in the last 500 years was his fault, they say.
This has caused Indian groups and their sympathizers to disrupt various Columbus Day celebrations across the country, most notably in Denver, which, ironically, is the city that first enshrined Columbus Day as a legal holiday decades before it was made a national holiday.
The disruptions have caused a counter-reaction from Italian American groups, many of which have viewed Columbus as their ethnic hero and used the day as a celebration of their heritage.
This has caused me, as a third-generation Italian American, considerable angst, for while I am proud of my ancestral hero, I am also concerned about the plights of Native Americans and African Americans – and a sympathizer of most of their causes.
Many less problematic people with Italian roots might make a better hero – A.P. Giannini, the founder of the Bank of America (and a Californian to boot), and John Basilone, the only Marine to win both the Medal of Honor and the Navy Cross for remarkably brave actions in World War II, are but two that come readily to mind.
No, Columbus is not my choice for No. 1 Italian American hero. After all he sailed for Spain, not Italy. Columbus Day, it is worth noting, is not celebrated in Italy but it is in Spain, as Día de la Hispanidad.
But at the same time, I do not think it right for others to define whom my group should honor.
African Americans would not like other people to tell them they should not regard Martin Luther King Jr. as their hero. Irish Americans certainly would be nonplussed if others told them St. Patrick shouldn’t be theirs. Ditto for the heroes of other ethnicities. Why make an exception for an Italian one?
If calling Columbus the discoverer of America bothers you, then don’t call him that. You will be in league with the Admiral of the Ocean Seas himself. He never claimed to have discovered America or any place else. He said he had found a new route to India. Hence, the people he encountered were called Indians.
I would point out that the word “discover” means, simply, to uncover. The Americas were covered to the rest of the world before Columbus’ voyages. They were uncovered following them. The same cannot be said for the voyages of Ericson, St. Brendan or anyone else – if they ever took place at all. Documentation on them is far less firm than for Columbus’ sailings.
And while the Indians certainly were the first people to come to the Americas, they did not uncover either of the two American continents to the rest of the world.
As for Columbus practicing genocide or favoring slavery, applying those terms to him is a gross exaggeration. Certainly he did things that were unsavory. But what leading historic figure didn’t? His courage and his opening of the New World certainly outweigh his flaws. Furthermore, judging a historic person by contemporary standards is always unfair. Columbus, in fact, was far less cruel than many of his contemporaries and those who followed him.
Let’s not forget, also, that many of our U.S. founding fathers, including George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, owned African slaves and voiced few objections to the killing of Indians.
The founders came along 300 years after Columbus. If they’re still heroes, Columbus certainly is, too.
Bob Masullo is a retired journalist, having worked 40 years for newspapers, including The Sacramento Bee. He was a founding member of the Italian Cultural Society of Sacramento and hosted the Festa Italiana radio program on KJAY for many years.