Natalia Temesgen

Natalia Naman Temesgen: The many varieties of Columbus Day

Natalia Temesgen
Natalia Temesgen

Monday is Columbus Day. Before I was in college, Columbus Day just meant a long weekend off from school. Once I trekked north and entered the liberal world of higher ed, I was led to view Columbus Day as a celebration of Christopher Columbus’ arrival and subsequent mass violence against the indigenous peoples of the Americas. There were student protests and exposées meant to show that Columbus was no hero, but rather a gold-obsessed pillager with a penchant for torturing the men and women of the land. 

Years later in Boston, I saw another facet of this holiday expressed in its historic Italian neighborhood, the North End. Here, I witnessed Italian-Americans celebrating their heritage with music, food, handiwork and general revelry. Taking it in at face value, it seemed that this community saw Columbus Day as a chance to celebrate Italian culture by way of an Italian explorer’s arrival in the Americas. There didn’t seem to be much American patriotism, by which I mean I saw more Italian flags than American, but as I think back with a greater understanding of the holiday, it was quite patriotic indeed. 

This year, I dug a little more than I had in the past. Here’s what I found: Columbus did commit heinous acts. I don’t know that anyone could imagine he “conquered” the Americas peacefully.

Columbus Day, however, was born of efforts to promote equality between Americans of all national origins. As a holiday, it represents the desire of Italian Americans to be viewed as equals after generations of discrimination because of their complexion, culture and Catholicism. 

The Columbus Day movement started on the state level. The Knights of Columbus pushed their local governments to recognize Columbus as both the founder of the new world and an Italian Catholic. They didn’t want him whitewashed, but they wanted his ethnic and religious identity to be tied to his American legacy. Columbus Day sprouted up here and there as a result, until in 1934 it was recognized as a federal holiday.

The hope that Columbus Day would make for greater equality for Italian Americans was eventually realized. Today, Italian Americans and Catholic Americans face mere fractions of the discrimination they encountered at the turn of the 20th century.

And so, to a modern audience with a desire for greater American inclusionism, Columbus Day seems little more than an excuse to celebrate a white man who murdered and disgraced many brown people that are still on the margins of American society. 

While this perspective focuses more on Columbus’ actions than the holiday’s origin, the desire for equality for all Americans is central to it. And if my digging tells me anything, the thirst for equality is at the core of what Columbus Day is all about. So, perhaps — as strange as it may seem — the protest of Columbus Day is as American as apple pie.

Natalia Naman Temesgen is an independent contractor. Contact her at nntemesgen@gmail.com

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