Bigger Picture of Columbus

To the editors:

Each year, without fail, The Crimson publishes an editorial denouncing Columbus Day. Yet again, the editorial board has exposed a saddening ignorance of what the holiday represents to many people in this country, specifically Italian Americans.

The significance of the celebration of Columbus Day is tied uniquely to Columbus’s Italian ethnicity and Catholic faith. While The Crimson’s anti-Columbus Day editorial bemoans “Euro-centrism,” they have conveniently forgotten that sad time in recent American history when Catholic ethnic immigrants—especially Italian Americans—were subject to violence and discrimination. It was a time when the expulsion of Southern European “inferiors” from this land was the objective of mainstream nativists in American politics, many of whom found moral support from the Puritan bigots of this university.

Not only did Columbus “inspire generations of men and women to search out the farthest reaches of the world” and “help lay the foundation on which America was built,” as President Barack Obama stated this Columbus Day—his legacy gave Italian Americans a powerful reminder of their people’s contributions to this country, at a time especially when their citizenship and patriotism was so unfairly and maliciously impugned. Each Columbus Day, our nation participates in what is now a 150-year-old tradition of honoring Italian contributions to American society, which began with Christopher Columbus.

The ongoing historical debate over the personal merits of Christopher Columbus is reserved for another time and place. For now, consider that many figures in American history are remembered for their accomplishments rather than their participation in the follies of their respective eras. We honor George Washington no less on Presidents’ Day because he owned slaves, but rather we honor him as the father of our country. To sacrifice the reputation, dignity, and heroism of a visionary man as a “symbol” for the worst excesses committed by colonial governments is both unfair and obtuse. Christopher Columbus—in his courage, independence of mind, and strong faith—rather symbolizes what was best about our civilization, not what was worst.

Sabino Cassela and Peter Rossi

Queens, NY, Washington D.C.

October 18, 2009

Sabino Casella and Peter Rossi are both past presidents of the Harvard College Italian American Association.