Process Blog Home

Toppling Columbus, Recasting Italian Americans

Christopher Columbus bronze statue (1992) by Joe Incrapera in Houston’s Bell Park. Removed by the city June 19, 2020.  Photo courtesy of Joseph Sciorra.

In response to the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis, Black Lives Matter demonstrators have taken to the streets in the United States and throughout the world, marching against police brutality and systemic racism. Participants in this ever-expanding movement have quickly turned their attention to public statues and monuments of historical figures who have been denounced for some time now as symbols of colonialism and slavery. To decolonize public spaces, protestors have attacked statues with spray paint and sledgehammers and toppled them from their pedestals. They have targeted a range of monuments, including those honoring Confederate president Jefferson Davis in Richmond, slave trader Edward Colston in Bristol, and the brutal King Leopold II in Antwerp, among others. The list of what historian Simon Schama calls “de-pedestalisations”[1] grows on an almost daily basis: conquistador Juan de Oñate in Albuquerque, mayor Frank Rizzo in Philadelphia, and president Theodore Roosevelt in New York City. History has caught up with these once glorified figures. A wave of pain, frustration, and anger is sweeping them away, sometimes quite literally into the waters.

At the fore of these vilified persons is Christopher Columbus, memorialized in statuary throughout the United States. Cast and carved sculptures of the fifteenth-century Genovese navigator and colonizer have been decapitated in Boston and set aflame and tossed into a lake in Richmond. Across the country, municipalities have hauled away figures in order to prevent them from being toppled. The city of San Francisco carted away the 4,000-pound statue that stood for sixty-three years near the landmark Coit Tower, as did Columbus, Ohio, where the mayor called for the removal of the eponymous figure from city hall. In response to these and other popular actions, the White House issued two executive orders directing the prosecution of “anarchists and left-wing extremists” who “vandalize a monument, memorial, or statue” and the establishment of “a statuary park named the National Garden of American Heroes.”

The vast majority of these Columbus statues and monuments were created by Italian American communities and gifted to municipalities throughout the twentieth century. As scholars of Italian American history, our interests in material culture, public space, and the construction of collective identity have been deeply intertwined in many of the global realities of 2020. We, along with other Italian Studies and Italian American Studies scholars, are unified against Columbus heroification. We have asked ourselves, how does the ongoing and complicated history of Italian Americans’ memorialization of Columbus fit into contemporary decolonizing efforts? We add our voices here in hope of contributing to larger conversations around racism, history, education, and civic commemoration.

The 2020 removal of Columbus statues across the country is part of a decades-long struggle around public symbols of colonial oppression and racist violence. Italian Americans have many competing perspectives about it. Their reactions to and involvement in this year’s protests illustrate the diversity of Italian American identities. For some, Columbus’s image has come to symbolize the genocidal violence by which Europeans colonized the Americas. For others, Columbus represents the legacy of historic xenophobia against working-class Italian immigrants that made achieving the so-called American Dream all the more challenging for their descendants.

Some Italian Americans find it difficult to uncouple their ethnic identity from Columbus and they continue to defend his monuments even though his history as a brutal colonizer and slaver is well documented. Proponents of Columbus employ a range of rhetorical strategies but continue to prioritize an Italian American emotional and ethnic identity to the Genovese navigator. New York State Governor Andrew Cuomo, who in 2018 supported listing the Columbus Circle monument on New York State’s and the National Registry of Historical Places, suggests that Columbus can be remembered apart from his actions:

I understand the feelings about Christopher Columbus and some of his acts, which nobody would support. But the statue has come to represent and signify appreciation for the Italian American contribution to New York. So for that reason I support it.

Christopher Columbus bronze statue (1957) by Vittorio di Colbertaldo in San Francisco’s Pioneer Park. Removed by the city June 18, 2020. Photo courtesy of Laura E. Ruberto.

Other Italian Americans ignore the symbolic significance of Columbus’s association with genocide and colonization. They argue that an attack on the physical representation of Columbus is an attack on Italian Americans as a group. Angelo Vivolo, president of the Columbus Heritage Coalition, a national organization created to protect Columbus Day and Columbus monuments, wrote that the “willful defilement of Columbus statues around the country . . . are acts of hate against more than 17 million Italian-Americans.” In Philadelphia during June 2020, groups of white men and women rallied to protect the Columbus statue at Marconi Plaza, a space named for the Italian inventor at the forefront of radio communication. They claimed the public space by displaying Italian and U.S. flags. Some came armed with golf clubs, baseball bats, hammers, hatchets, and rifles. One neighborhood defender, Carmen Marchetti, stated, “Everybody thinks it’s about the statue. It’s not.” As quoted on Twitter, Marchetti explained, “[W]hite people are tired of ‘feeling bad’ or ‘like they’ve done something wrong.’” The monument protectors’ actions suggest that swelling opposition to Columbus threatens those Italian ethnic identities bound to the privileges of whiteness. Differences between self-appointed statue defenders and Black Lives Matter protestors have resulted in confrontations not only in Philadelphia but also in Nutley, New Jersey, New Haven, Connecticut, and elsewhere.

Meanwhile, Italian Americans who oppose Columbus have long been marginalized within Italian American spaces. They have witnessed the cooptation of Italian American identity by conservative, sometimes racist, defenders of Columbus. They have educated themselves by reading the proliferation of scholarship about Italian Americans’ relationship to whiteness on the one hand, and their historical involvement in labor activism, leftist politics, and social justice movements on the other. (See “Select Bibliography” below). This body of knowledge has provided a better understanding of Italian Americans’ resistance to and place within structures of power in the United States.

Their anti-Columbus perspectives and initiatives have also grown out of and should be considered part of a longer history of political work by those who self-identify as Italian Americans and who have repeatedly positioned themselves as allies of people of color, the LGTBQ+ community, immigrants and refugees, working class whites, and other marginalized individuals and groups. Since the 1990s, Italian American progressives have urged that Columbus be abandoned. Organizations such as New York City-based Italian Americans for a Multicultural United States (IAMUS) and events such as San Francisco’s annual “Dump Columbus, Embrace Humanity” literary readings have helped lay the foundation for Italian American praxis in 2020.[2] Many other scholars, artists, and writers have long activated against limiting and malignant stereotypes of Italian ethnicity and Italian American lived experiences prevalent in consumer and media culture.

We have observed Italian Americans, often from a younger generation, campaigning in the streets and on social media for the removal of Columbus monuments. These activists are working to decouple Columbus’s toxic legacy from the history of working-class Italian American immigrants. On June 18, in Philadelphia, activists Adryan Corcione and Samantha Pinto led an online “teach in” to encourage Italian Americans to take anti-racist action. In Boston and Stamford, Connecticut, Italian Americans’ efforts to remove Columbus statues have initiated conversations about alternative heroes and icons. In an editorial to the New Haven Register, local historian Frank Carrano wrote about the Columbus statue in Wooster Square:

I understand the emotional connection to the old ways and paying homage to our ancestors and the choices they made over 100 years ago, but at some point, we need to understand that if we are to continue to identify as Italian Americans, we will need to find a better model to hold up than Columbus. No one likes to have something taken from them — it always makes the loss seem more personal. But we should view this as an opportunity to reemerge as a fully formed version of the modern Italian American.

Speaking at the beheaded Columbus statue in Boston’s North End, Heather Leavell, a founder of the Massachusetts group Italian Americans for Indigenous Peoples’ Day, said:

Our parents have told us stories about the level of discrimination they faced and the fear that what was worked so hard for might be lost, but this is not unique to Italians, being discriminated against. We unfortunately allied ourselves with a white supremacist in our attempts to be recognized in this country.

Italian American politicians have also begun to detach themselves from a pro-Columbus stance at both local and national levels, from San Jose mayor Samuel Liccardo who supported removing a Columbus statue from city hall in 2018 to Connecticut congresswoman Rosa DeLauro opining similarly against a Columbian monument in New Haven’s Wooster Square in 2020. We cannot help but consider that Italian Americans who support Columbus appear to be on the losing side of historic cultural–political battles over meaning and values.

Italian American communities seeking to maintain visibility within public spaces are increasingly thinking locally. Should San Jose honor a figure like banker A.P. Giannini? Perhaps San Francisco should reclaim existing public statues of pacifist-artist Beniamino Bufano? Does it make more sense for Stamford to name a park after Bruno Giordano, the city’s first Italian American mayor, than Christopher Columbus? Would executed anarchists Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti make better symbols for Italian Americans of Boston? These questions are for those communities to decide. We find the possibilities of local history as an alternative to the singular, one-statue-fits-all approach significant. Yet, we remain skeptical about using monuments of individuals as models of civic commemoration in the twenty-first century.

Christopher Columbus marble statue (1979) by Andrew J. Mazzola located at Boston’s Christopher Columbus Waterfront Park. Removed by the city June 11, 2020. Photo courtesy of Laura E. Ruberto.

Long ago, elite immigrants, the prominenti, celebrated Columbus because of his ability to unite Italian Americans, regardless of their origins in Italy or their place of residence in the United States. Today, though, Columbus’s presence in the Italian American imagination has greatly diminished. The statues of him that remain have become outmoded relics. In 1992, the late literature professor Robert Viscusi penned “An Oration upon the Most Recent Death of Christopher Columbus” as part of a protest around the quincentenary of Columbus’s first voyage. The protest was organized by a Latino student group at Brooklyn College where Viscusi taught. In the thirty-three stanza poem, Viscusi outlined some of the conflicting emotions that Italian Americans felt about Columbus, observing:

there’s an awful smell
where he must dwell
we will live without columbus
who we used to love so well[3]

As Viscusi suggests, with Columbus’s steady fall from grace Italian Americans have had to make sense not only of the atrocities attributed to him and his image but also to discover their place in a new world without him.

Laura E. Ruberto is a professor in the Department of Arts and Cultural Studies at Berkeley City College. Joseph Sciorra is a director at the John D. Calandra Italian American Institute, Queens College, City University of New York. Their essay, “‘Columbus Might be Dwarfed to Obscurity’: Italian Americans’ Engagement with Columbus Monuments in a Time of Decolonization,” was recently published in Public Memory in the Context of Transnational Migration and Displacement: Migrants and Monuments, ed. Sabine Marschall (London, 2020). They are also the authors of “Recontextualizing the Ocean Blue: Italian Americans and the Commemoration of Columbus.”

[1] Simon Schama, “History is Better Served by Putting the Men in Stone in Museums,” Financial Times, June 12, 2020, Accessed June 27, 2020.
[2] Laura E. Ruberto and Joseph Sciorra, “‘Columbus Might be Dwarfed to Obscurity’: Italian Americans’ Engagement with Columbus Monuments in a Time of Decolonization,” Public Memory in the Context of Transnational Migration and Displacement: Migrants and Monuments, ed. Sabine Marschall (London, 2020), 74–75.
[3] Robert Viscusi, Public An Oration Upon the Most Recent Death of Christopher Columbus (West Lafayette, 1993).

Select Bibliography on Italian Americans, Race, and Working-class Histories

Danielle Battisti, Whom We Shall Welcome: Italian Americans and Immigration Reform, 1945–1965 (New York, 2019).

Marcella Bencivenni, Italian Immigrant Radical Culture: The Idealism of the Sovversivi in the United States, 1890–1940 (New York, 2011).

Philip A. Cannistraro and Gerald Meyer, The Lost World of Italian-American Radicalism (Westport, 2003).

Jennifer Guglielmo, Living the Revolution: Italian Women’s Resistance and Radicalism in New York City, 1880–1945 (Chapel Hill, 2010).

Jennifer Guglielmo and Salvatore Salerno, eds., Are Italians White?: How Race Is Made in America (New York, 2003).

Thomas A. Guglielmo, White on Arrival: Italians, Race, Color, and Power in Chicago, 1890–1945 (New York, 2003).

Chiara Grilli, “The Making of the Italian American Colonizer: Colonialism, Race, and the Italo-Ethiopian War,” Interventions: International Journal of Postcolonial Studies, May 12, 2020. Accessed June 29, 2020.

Timothy J. Lombardo, Blue-Collar Conservatism: Frank Rizzo’s Philadelphia and Populist Politics (Philadelphia, 2018).

Stefano Luconi, From Paesani to White Ethnics: The Italian Experience in Philadelphia (Albany, 2001).

Richard Moss, Creating the New Right Ethnic in 1970s America: The Intersection of Anger and Nostalgia (Madison, 2017).

Nunzio Pernicone, Carlo Tresca: Portrait of a Rebel (Oakland, 2010).

Jonathan Rieder, Canarsie: The Jews and Italians of Brooklyn against Liberalism (Cambridge, Mass., 1985).

Peter G. Vellon, A Great Conspiracy against Our Race: Italian Immigrant Newspapers and the Construction of Whiteness in the Early 20th Century (New York, 2014).

Kenyon Zimmer, Immigrants against the State: Yiddish and Italian Anarchism in America (Urbana, 2015).