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Dear Ms. Laurino:
Mr. Twain’s quote is a good way to describe the article you wrote and was published online (see below) by the New York Daily News on October 12, the actual date established by the United States federal government as a national holiday honoring Christopher Columbus, known to native Italians–like me–as Cristoforo Colombo. (BTW: The photo accompanying your article was an interesting choice. Was it yours or the Daily News editors’? I am not quite sure what to make of its meaning. Perhaps you can enlighten me.)
To use a popular expression, the following is my “takeaway” from your article”
- You dishonor and defame the Columbus Citizens Foundation, the group that annually sponsors the Columbus Day Parade in Manhattan, by describing its founder, Generoso Pope, as “a fawning admirer of the fascist dictator (Mussolini).” By your reckoning, should all of the good work the Columbus Citizens Foundation and Generoso Pope Foundation have done, and continue to do, be labeled as “fascist,” too.
- Your reference to the Order Sons of Italy in America as the “transmission belt of fascism,” which you attribute to an unnamed “anti-fascist,” is deplorable. Founded in 1905, OSIA is the oldest and largest fraternal organization of Americans of Italian descent. It pre-dates Mussolini and his fascist movement, which remains a stain on Italy’s historical timeline. By painting OSIA as “fascist,” you use an extremely broad brush that must come from your “creative writing” course at NYU.
- Starting with the origins and official designation of Columbus Day, you conveniently left out some key facts.
In 1792, the 300th anniversary of Columbus’ landing prompted the first recorded celebration of the achievement in New York City.
The first official commemoration of Columbus’ journey occurred in 1892, just a year after the lynching of 11 Italians(all Sicilians) in New Orleans. President Benjamin Harrison became the first president to call for a national observance of Columbus Day, in honor of the 400th anniversary of Columbus’ arrival. Harrison’s proclamation directly linked the legacy of Columbus to American patriotism, with the proclamation celebrating the hard work of the American people and Columbus equally:
“On that day let the people, so far as possible, cease from toil and devote themselves to such exercises as may best express honor to the discoverer and their appreciation of the great achievements of the four completed centuries of American life.”
Harrison’s proclamation is notable in that there are no real references to Columbus’ life, work or nationality. Instead, it was very specific to the 400th anniversary of Columbus’ journey and how far America as a whole had come since then. The idea, lost on present-day critics of the holiday–like you–was that this would be a national holiday that would be special for recognizing both Native Americans, who were here before Columbus, and the many immigrants—including Italians—who were just then coming to this country in astounding numbers. It was to be a national holiday that was not about the Founding Fathers or the Civil War, but about the rest of American history. Like the Columbian Exposition dedicated in Chicago that year and opened in 1893, it was to be about our land and all its people. Harrison especially designated the schools as centers of the Columbus celebration because universal public schooling, which had only recently taken hold, was seen as essential to a democracy that was seriously aiming to include everyone and not just preserve a governing elite.
President Franklin Roosevelt created the first federal observance of Columbus Day in 1937. Here is what FDR had to say about Columbus in 1940:
President Roosevelt’s Statement on Columbus Day – October 12, 1940
“The voyage of Christopher Columbus and his diminutive fleet toward the unknown west was not only a prelude to a new historical era. For the brave navigator it was the culmination of years of bold speculation, careful preparation, and struggle against opponents who had belittled his great plan and thwarted its execution.
Expounding the strange doctrine that beyond the ocean stood solid, habitable earth, Columbus had first to make his views plausible to his doubting patrons and then to overcome the seemingly endless array of obstacles with which men of little minds barred the way to the fitting out of a fleet. Even when the three small ships were well away on their epoch-making course the crews mutinied and demanded that he turn back. Columbus, however, held to his course and on the morning of October 12, 1492, the welcome land was sighted.
The courage and the faith and the vision of the Genoese navigator glorify and enrich the drama of the early movement of European people to America. Columbus and his fellow voyagers were the harbingers of later mighty movements of people from Spain, from Columbus’s native Italy and from every country in Europe. And out of the fusion of all these national strains was created the America to which the Old World contributed so magnificently.
This year when we contemplate the estate to which the world has been brought by destructive forces, with lawlessness and wanton power ravaging an older civilization, and with our own republic girding itself for the defense of its institutions, we can revitalize our faith and renew our courage by a recollection of the triumph of Columbus after a period of grievous trial.
The promise which Columbus’s discovery gave to the world, of a new beginning in the march of human progress, has been in process of fulfillment for four centuries. Our task is now to make strong our conviction that in spite of setbacks that process will go on toward fulfillment.
Citation: Franklin D. Roosevelt: “Statement on Columbus Day.,” October 12, 1940. Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project. http://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/ws/?pid=15869
President Richard Nixon established the modern holiday by presidential proclamation in 1972.
- Your statement, “In recent years the fall arrival of Columbus Day has often yielded a harvest of rage over the explorer’s brutal imperialism,” should have been directed at Columbus’ sponsors, the King and Queen of Spain, and their conquistadores, who rode roughshod over the Americas before the English and their descendants took their turn. If you thought that Columbus committed all of the “brutalities” by himself on his four voyages from 1492 to 1502, then I have abridge to sell you.
- If the he holiday has become “barely observed,” it is because of politically correct revisionists like you, who have continually portrayed Columbus as the sole perpetrator of atrocities committed against Native and African Americans by the Spanish, English, Dutch, French, and the United States Government well-after Columbus’ last voyage to the Americas in 1502. As for the “bloody fights among Italian Americans themselves,” what in God’s name are you referring to? While I am sure there have been passionate skirmishes among Italian Americans (what a shock!) over Columbus Day, and just about any other subject, nothing I have read or heard supports your comment about “bloody fights.” Perhaps you were thinking of the film “Gangs of New York,” and confused the Irish immigrant gangs of the mid-1800s with Italians living in NYC in the 1930s.
- Your statement that “President Franklin Delano Roosevelt made Columbus Day a federal holiday in 1934, the result of decades of political jockeying to buy favor with the Italian-American voting bloc,” is simply not true. Firstly, the holiday was made a federal holiday in 1937. Secondly, there was no real Italian American voting bloc, as you describe it. Italian Americans were still considered an immigrant class, one which was still kept at arm’s length by the immigrant groups that preceded them and controlled local governments and religious institutions. Many were still not well-educated and, with very few exceptions, Italian Americans were not politically active. They remained insular and distrustful of authority. Do you really believe they “pressured” FDR, who was a wealthy child of privilege, a New York Brahmin, and relative of President Teddy Roosevelt? They did not put significant pressure put on President Roosevelt to designate Columbus Day as a national holiday. Perhaps you confused the “Italian American voting bloc” with the Knights of Columbus, which was a Catholic organization founded by an Irish priest and still-dominated by Irish Americans during FDR’s presidential tenure.
- Given your many references to Fascism, you seem to be fixated with it. What do you really know about the pre-World War II fascist movement in America? The vast majority of Italians and Italian Americans were not fascists. Unfortunately, Italians, like my father and mother, had to live in a horrific world under Benito Mussolini, who, as you may already know, was a journalist by trade. He was a megalomaniacal dictator whose title, “Il Duce” (the leader) was a misnomer, and whose example gave rise to an even bigger monster, Adolph Hitler. My father was conscripted into the Italian army and started fighting in Ethiopia in 1935. He did not see the invasion of Ethiopia as a “return to the glory of the Roman Empire,” as Mussolini did. My father had no choice but to fight in Mussolini’s wars or he would have been shot. Luckily, my father came back to Sicily for a brief furlough in 1937 to marry my mother, who then had to live with the fear that she would never again see her new husband. He went back to Ethiopia and continued to serve in the Italian army during World War II, fighting in Albania and Greece. When Italy surrendered in 1943, my father was captured by the Germans and incarcerated in a POW camp for two years. However, he did have it better than thousands upon thousands of other Italian soldiers, who were massacred by the Germans instead of being marched off to already-crowded POW camps. My mother and other family members lived in abject poverty in Sicily, a region which Mussolini thought was a nuisance and not worthy of his attention, except to plunder it for its natural and human resources. My family detested the Fascist regime, but they feared for their lives and kept quiet. As you can hopefully understand, calling someone a Fascist is extremely insulting, just like calling someone a Nazi.
- I have no doubt that there were “Fascist supporters championing Columbus Day in America (and) mirrored Il Duce’s nationalism.” Just like the German American Bund, whose main goal was to promote a favorable view of Nazi Germany, there were American fascist groups like the Fascist League of North America that tried to do the same for Fascism. But you missed one very important point: Italian Americans were becoming more and more patriotic–they loved their adopted country. Fascism, like Nazism, did not take root in America, as you would have your readers believe. As for the “grand celebrations and parades,” New York City already had a great reputation for parades—Fourth of July, Labor Day, Veterans (Armistice) Day, St. Patrick’s, and Thanksgiving. Everyone loves a parade, no? Why not the non-fascist Italians who wanted to celebrate Columbus Day?
- Luigi Antonini was a great labor leader and staunch anti-fascist and anti-communist. As Italian Americans, we all should be proud of what he accomplished before and after World War II. Yet, there is no mention of his efforts to create a Columbus Day holiday on the “Luigi Antonini Project” official web site, http://www.luigiantonini.com/index.php, or anywhere else that I searched. There is, however, mention of his connection to President Roosevelt: “Through the Roosevelt administration his leadership flourished as he developed ties to the White Houses (sic) New deal era policies. He was a presidential elector for Franklin D. Roosevelt’s third term. He was also equally apposed (sic) to the rise of communism both in the United States and in Italy (especially after World War II).” Wouldn’t you think that, if Mr. Antonini had such “political connections,” he would have used them to urge FDR to designate Columbus Day as a federal holiday, and not your “Italian American voting bloc?”
- “And so, each year the crowds, and confrontations, grew with both sides slugging out their ideological differences.” Were “both sides slugging out their ideological differences” verbally or in “bloody fights,” as you state? I am sure there were some skirmishes, but what evidence do you have that Italians were beating each to a pulp over a ceremony honoring Columbus?
- As for your assertion that the majority of Italian Americans in NYC considered Mussolini a “blessing?” (“Within the Italian-American community a deep division existed over Mussolini, who the majority considered a blessing and the minority, a scourge. By 1938, Pope’s pro-fascist Columbus Day events attracted over 35,000 people.”), what references did you cite to substantiate this? Italian Americans in touch with relatives in Italy, especially those coming here for visits, would have known how oppressive life under Mussolini was. The word would have spread very quickly throughout NYC and other Italian American communities in the USA. And, do you know if the 35,000 people who attended “Pope’s pro-fascist Columbus Day events” were all fascists?
I have not read your book, “Were You Always an Italian?,” but I plan to buy it to see if you delve into your upbringing in northern New Jersey. As the State Historian of The Grand Lodge of New Jersey, Order Sons of Italy in America, I am curious to see if you mention anything of what your parents, grandparents, and other relatives thought of Christopher Columbus, who was a product of the Rinascimento (Renaissance). I would like to see if they shared or refuted the prevalent Italian cultural identity and pride, i.e., knowing that Columbus left behind the legacy of Western Civilization and its core values of reason, science, technology, progress, capitalism, law, and the pursuit of individual rights and happiness.
BTW: I found the quote by David Chase, in your book’s reviews, to be incredibly ironic: “Finally, someone has had the intelligence and the honesty to go beyond the stereotypes….completely original and informative.” Quite a pronouncement by the creator and executive producer of “The Sopranos,” the one person in recent memory who did more to perpetuate the stereotypes of Italian Americans!
In closing, your bio on the New York University web site mentions that you “serve(s) as Assistant to New York Governor Andrew Cuomo” and “was the former chief speechwriter for NYC Mayor David Dinkins.” I wonder if you advised Governor Cuomo not to attend Monday’s Columbus Day Parade, which is sponsored by the organization founded by “fascist sympathizer” Generoso Pope. And, as I am sure you worked with current Mayor Bill DiBlasio on former Mayor Dinkins’ staff, what do you think of his marching in the parade? Judging by the photos below, Governor Cuomo and Mayor DiBlasio seemed to have had a good time expressing their ethnic pride.
I have also included below a letter about Columbus Day that Governor Cuomo sent to New Yorkers last week. His letter emphasizes “That Italian heritage has been celebrated here in New York since 1929 with the Columbus Day Parade, the largest celebration of Italian-American history in the world.”
Salvatore J. Turchio