Divorcing Columbus:The Italian-American Dilemma

This op-ed originally appeared in the San Francisco Bay Guardian as part of the Italian-American Political Solidarity Club’s annual attempt to inspire our folks to divorce the lost explorer. Slight changes have been made to the published version. I highly recommend anyone interested in radical Italian-American history to check out “The Lost World of Italian-American Radicalism,” edited by Gerald Meyer. Book Cover

By Tommi Avicolli Mecca and James Tracy

OPINION This year may go down in history as the one new immigrants reignited a civil rights mobilization in the United States. Their efforts, like those of the black liberation movement of the ’60s, will certainly become a catalyst for progressive action from many communities. As southern Italian Americans, this Columbus Day we have to ask our community the age-old question — which side are we on?

Unfortunately, many of us have chosen exactly which side we are on: supporting racist immigrant bashers, whether they are legislators in the halls of Congress or vigilante Minutemen.

As progressive Italian Americans, we support new immigrants because of the simple fact that our folks were once in the same situation that newcomers find themselves in: overworked, exploited, and demonized for quick political gain. It’s time for the Italian American community to finally reclaim our social justice tradition, divorcing the dazed and confused explorer who discovered a country that was already inhabited.

Instead of Columbus, we honor the Italians, Cubans, and Spaniards of Ybor City, Fla., who worked in the cigar industry and were able to create a Latin culture based on values such as working-class solidarity and internationalism (see “Lost and Found: The Italian American Radical Experience,” Monthly Review, vol. 57, no. 8 and The Lost World of Italian-American Radicalism by Philip Cannistraro , Gerald Meyer ). We also remember the Italian American radicals who were a part of labor actions in the early 1900s, including the Lawrence textile, Paterson silk, Mesabi Iron Range, and New York City Harbor strikes.

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