As the son of two Italian immigrants, I am proud to be Italian-American. My parents deeply instilled in me the Italian values ââof family bonding, hard work and frugality. My mom came to America as a teenager and my dad moved into his twenties; they both worked hard to support their families and owned and operated successful restaurants in the Philadelphia area from the 1970s to the 1990s.
I love my culture and in recent years I have rekindled a passion for all things Italian. I am the animator of the Italian-American club at the local high school where I teach. My wife and two children celebrate the feast of St. Joseph every March 19 with a meal of homemade pasta e fagioli and zeppole from the Termini brothers. We try to visit Italy every few years and stay in the Abruzzo region where my extended family still lives, so that I can remember my ancestors and my children can be connected to their heritage.
So people are often surprised when I tell them what I think of Christopher Columbus as an icon of Italian-American culture.
After graduating from St. Joseph’s University, I moved to the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, home to the Oglala Lakota Nation, South Dakota, where I taught for three years.
Shannon County, where the reserve is located, is one of the poorest counties in the United States. The poverty rate is three times the state average, and life expectancy is comparable to that of many underdeveloped countries. While living there, I had the privilege of forming many lasting relationships and getting to know a group of people who are still feeling the effects of American policies that have extracted land and wealth from Indigenous peoples.
For the people of Pine Ridge and other indigenous groups, the landing of the Nina, Pinta and Santa Maria in the Caribbean opened the floodgates to destruction and despair. While Columbus himself never set foot on North American lands, he symbolizes the land plunder and genocide that accompanied European colonization. In Indian country, the year 1492 does not represent a discovery and new possibilities, but rather 500 years of oppression and death at the hands of European settlers.
“Columbus’ embrace would be a betrayal of the families I have grown to love and care for on the Great Plains of South Dakota.”
Prior to my stay in the reservation, I could be seen proudly waving an Italian flag at a local Columbus Day celebration regardless of its implications. However, after living among the Lakota people and building such meaningful relationships, I had no choice but to abandon Columbus as a symbol of my Italian-American pride. Kissing Columbus would be a betrayal of the families I have grown to love and care for on the Great Plains of South Dakota.
With the country in shock after nearly a month of civil unrest following the murder of George Floyd at the hands of the Minneapolis police, this question of Columbus’ legacy has once again taken center stage. In Philadelphia, it happened at Marconi Plaza in south Philadelphia where clashes between protesters and Italian-American supporters of Columbus turned violent.
As Italian-Americans, we can do better. We should certainly create opportunities to celebrate who we are and the great contributions Italian immigrants make to the United States. However, we can be creative and compassionate and replace our symbols of pride with images that celebrate a community that has won, fought for the American Dream, put family relationships first, and has sought to build something meaningful. better and brighter for future generations.
In 2017, Los Angeles City Council voted to replace Columbus Day with Indigenous Peoples Day. Michael Bonin, city councilor and great-grandson of Italian immigrants, responded to an email from an Italian-American urging him not to change the holiday.
Bonin said, âI thought about my ancestors and their history. And to me, celebrating Columbus Day doesn’t honor their history, their struggle and their history; he insults him and he fouls him. They came here to build something, not to destroy something. They came here to gain something, not to steal something. They came here to make their children’s lives better, not to take something away from someone else’s children.
As it stands, Mayor Jim Kenney and the City of Philadelphia are taking action to remove the Columbus statue from Marconi Plaza, and for what it’s worth, I support it. I implore those who are determined to keep Columbus as a symbol to understand the injustice this monument represents. I urge the city of Philadelphia to work with the Italian American community so that we can replace Columbus with a symbol that better represents our culture and honors our ancestors who gave so much to their families, to this country and to this city.
Dino Pinto is a teacher at St. Joseph’s Preparatory School, where he teaches a course on Native American Studies.