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Growing up as part of the Italian-American community from my mother’s Sicilian immigrant background, the storied legends of Christopher Columbus’s daring journey across the Atlantic were often regaled at family gatherings during my youth, with this very sanitized narrative reinforced by the GOP-controlled educational curriculum in Texas. With criticism of the popular understanding of Christopher Columbus reaching ubiquity only recently, combined with the origins of the actual holiday being rooted in  solidarity against discrimination, there has not been much conversation within the Italian-American community over whether or not to reconsider the nature (or at least the name) of this significant holiday within our community.

With the ethical, practical, and historical foundation of choosing Christopher Columbus as the Italian-American community’s primary public icon deteriorating exponentially with each passing year, it’s time we had that conversation.

The blunt reality is that the now-easily accessed facts about Christopher Columbus’s arrival in the Caribbean are becoming more commonly known to both ourselves and the nation overall, and it is becoming concurrently more apparent that the “explorer” Columbus held far more similarity to the aggressive, unhinged Colonel in the Avatar film than a high-minded Neil Armstrong-esque figure setting out to explore new lands. Fellow Italian-Americans, we need a new mascot.

Medieval Encounters in the Information Age

Regardless of the commendable origins of holiday, the new attention and consciousness surrounding the brutal reality of Christopher Columbus’s landing in the Americas is now only a Google-search away to anyone with a laptop or smartphone. Whitewashed accounts of a noble voyage of discovery in dated high school textbooks quickly fall apart when compared to primary source observations by fellow sailors (and even Columbus himself) found easily on the internet.

Spanish settler Bartolomé de las Casas recounted “Our work was to exasperate, ravage, kill, mangle and destroy; small wonder, then, if they tried to kill one of us now and then…. The admiral, it is true, was blind as those who came after him, and he was so anxious to please the King that he committed irreparable crimes against the Indians”. The speed and aggressiveness in which Columbus pursued the subjugation of the indigenous inhabitants of the Caribbean was unusually violent and oppressive even for his time period. Instead of working to establish a European colony while maintaining an indigenous vassal leadership structure relatively intact (such as with the British in Africa, French in North America and Dutch in the early colonization of Indonesia), Columbus was seeking to obtain personal short-term windfall in the fastest time possible without any regard to the long-term sustainability  or survival of the indigenous populace or environment. Indeed, few of any of Columbus’s writings indicate a desire for scientific knowledge or discovery, instead exhibiting such a voracious craving for personal wealth and status at the expense of all other priorities that he was eventually reprimanded by the Spanish monarchy.

Like it or not, both the perception and reality of Christopher Columbus is that he is far more akin to notorious tyrants such as Benito Mussolini than the scholars Leonardo Da Vinci or Marcus Aurelius.

A Holiday Beyond a Name

It is without a doubt that throughout U.S. history, Italian-Americans faced discrimination, and often formed advocacy and mutual-aid societies to fight this prejudice. Many Italians are thus familiar with the origins of Columbus Day as a way of rallying the community and asserting one’s rights as visible and equal citizens. The context of the movement to establish Columbus Day however took place in a period when the common academic understanding actually matched the narrative Columbus was a discoverer; at that point in the past the choice of Christopher Columbus made sense as a recognizable Italian figure with a well-known contribution to the world.

But that time is permanently in the past. Holding on to an ultimately false and destructive narrative about Christopher Columbus will not strengthen the Italian-American community, it will only serve to further harm and marginalize the Native American community who suffered due to his actions. Selecting a new representative can also make one’s community more accessible for alliance across cultural groups; Cuban-Americans for instance often invoke the name and liberatory work of José Martí, instead of the anti-Communist dictator Fulgencio Batista resulting a greater openness to intercommunity solidarity and ability to work with more diverse communities for a common goal.

The list of notable Italians is long and legendary. As a people with a history of scholars and innovators, I am certain we can find a better way to acknowledge the contributions and sacrifices of our community without causing pain to others. One of the most prominent proposals is to replace Columbus Day with a federal holiday on Election Day. With the indisputable legacy of the Romans present in our own electoral process, I can think of few better ways to honor the heritage of our community than on the day where we all take in active part in our democracy.