I grew up with family stories. My maternal great-grandfather, a hard-working immigrant from Abruzzo, reacted to some now forgotten blow to his honor by hanging himself with his youngest daughter's jump rope in their West Philadelphia basement. His wife, Philomena, was left to raise eight children, alone. She suffered another devastating loss when her 3-year-old son, Freddy, found some matches, set fire to his clothing, and burned to death. My grandfather Michael was the first to be born in this country after his family made the long Atlantic crossing, from Naples. The older sister he would never meet, named Lucy like my own mother, died on the boat from a fever. Another sister, Concetta, died at 16 giving birth to her first child.
The stories are not unique, and every family has them. The names change, and the triumphs alternate with tragedy, but every one of us has these flickering candles, illuminating both our truth and our fiction, sitting on our genealogical shelves. My identity, for better or worse, is rooted in these stories and the people who wrote them with their agony and joy, and while I am fully American in my beliefs, loyalties, and passions, there will always be a part of me that belongs to Italy.
That's why I found myself crying on a sidewalk in South Philadelphia on Monday, staring at graffiti sprayed on Passyunk Avenue. At some point before daybreak, a vandal with a can of paint in his hand and grievance in his heart defaced the History of Italian Immigration Museum, a non-profit venture run by Filitalia International.
Along the front of the museum he'd written "COLUMBUS = MUSSOLINI = RIZZO = TRUMP = FASCIST." At the entrance to the building, he'd added "ITALIAN AMERICANS AGAINST RACISM, SLAVERY, GENOCIDE, RAPE, STOLEN LENAPE HOKING."
There were paint smudges on the brick tiles embedded in the sidewalk and engraved with the names of immigrant families who had come to Philadelphia from the northernmost provinces at the foot of the Alps, from the villages clustered around Sicily's Mount Etna and all the places in between.
It's no longer surprising when the social-justice warriors raise their voices on Columbus Day, demanding an end to a holiday that, they believe, honors a tyrant. Their jeremiads and lamentations usually produce yawns as I stuff my face with another cannoli and sip my Amaretto. This modern-day attempt to avenge the indigenous for crimes allegedly committed against them hundreds of years ago is another example of virtue-signaling from groups that have nothing better to do than shove their identity politics down other people's throats.
But to vandalize a museum honoring Italian immigrants crosses a line.
Social-justice warriors have neither history, nor timing, on their side. While it's true that Columbus and his men did engage in battles with the natives, and while I'm fairly certain the "can't we all get along" mantra espoused by Rodney King didn't get a foothold in 1492, the idea that the evil Europeans were the aggressors and the indigenous were helpless victims is ridiculous. It was war, and both sides fought with equal ferocity.
Some people actually believe this stuff. And they're entitled to their delusions.
What they are not entitled to do is defame my culture, my history, my traditions, and my ancestors with their racist agenda. What happened on Monday is, by every metric, a hate crime. The person who sprayed those repellent words outside of the museum was accusing all Italians of criminal acts, the kind of collective guilt that we're not supposed to levy against any other group.
Imagine if "terrorist" was sprayed in front of a mosque, swastikas were painted on a synagogue, a noose was hung from a tree in North Philly. You don't have to. All of those things have happened, and the outrage was justifiably palpable.
I lay a claim to my own share of outrage. On behalf of Philomena, Freddy, Michael, Lucy, and Concetta.