As a son of two Italian immigrants, I am unabashedly proud to be an Italian American. My parents have instilled deeply in me the Italian values of family bonds, hard work, and frugality. My mother came to America in her teens and my father moved in his 20s; they both worked hard to support their families and owned and operated successful restaurants in the Philadelphia area from 1970 through the 1990s.
I love my culture and in recent years have rekindled a passion for all things Italian. I’m the moderator 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 Termini Brothers. We try to visit Italy every few years and stay in the Abruzzo region, where my extended family still lives, so I can be reminded of my ancestry and my children can be connected to their heritage.
Thus, it often comes as a surprise to people when I tell them how I feel about 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, in South Dakota, where I taught for three years.
Shannon County, on which the reservation stands, is among the poorest counties in the United States. The poverty rate is three times greater than the state average, and life expectancy is on par with many underdeveloped nations. While I lived there I had the privilege of making many lasting relationships and getting to know a group of people who still feel the effects of U.S. policies that extracted land and wealth from Native peoples.
For people on the 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 land, he symbolizes the land pillaging and genocide that came with European colonization. In Indian Country, the year 1492 does not represent discovery and new possibilities, but rather 500 years of oppression and death at the hands of European settlers.
Prior to my time on the reservation, I could be seen proudly waving an Italian flag at a local Columbus Day celebration without considering 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. To embrace Columbus would be a betrayal to the families I grew to love and care for on the Great Plains of South Dakota.
As the country reels from nearly a month of civic unrest after the murder of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police, this issue of Columbus’ legacy has again taken center stage. In Philadelphia, this played out in South Philadelphia’s Marconi Plaza, where standoffs between protesters and Italian-American Columbus supporters turned violent.
As Italian Americans, we can do better. We should certainly carve out opportunities to celebrate who we are and the great contributions Italian immigrants made to the United States. However, we can be creative and compassionate and replace our symbols of pride with images that celebrate a community who overcame, fought for the American Dream, put familial relationships front and center, and who looked to build something better and brighter for future generations.
In 2017 the Los Angeles City Council voted to replace Columbus Day with Indigenous Peoples Day. Michael Bonin, a city councilman and great-grandson of Italian immigrants, responded to an email from an Italian American who urged him not to change the holiday.
Bonin stated: “I’ve thought about my ancestors and their history. And to me, celebrating Columbus Day does not honor their story and their struggle and their history; it insults it, and it besmirches it. They came here to build something, not to destroy something. They came here to earn something and not to steal something. They came here to make life better for their children, and not to take away something for someone else’s children.”
As it stands, Mayor Jim Kenney and the City of Philadelphia are making moves to remove the statue of Columbus at Marconi Plaza, and for what it is worth, I am in support of 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 and this country and city.
Dino Pinto is a teacher at St. Joseph’s Preparatory School, where he teaches a course on Native American studies.