My mother used to talk about the time, when she was a little girl in New Britain — I don’t know, maybe she was 8 — and a teacher took her aside and told her she should ask her mother to fix her hair in a way that was “less Italian.” (I keep hearing “less Eye-talian,” but that’s just me.) This would have been around 1925, and I choose to think the teacher was probably just trying to help a little girl “fit in” with the other kids. Nowadays, of course, she’d be up on charges of cultural insensitivity. How times have changed.
I realize that some classic parental tales of childhood hardship may have benefited from just a bit of enhancement. Yes, I believe that Mom had at least one dress that her mother had made from a flour sack (big milling companies printed their sacks with attractive designs for just that purpose). And yes, I believe that there were times when she had cardboard in her shoes when the soles wore through. But no, I don’t believe that her long walk to school was uphill both ways.
Anyway, in those days Italian Americans were trying hard to assimilate, to “Americanize,” after several millions, mainly from the poor south of the peninsula and Sicily, had come here between 1880 and 1914. That’s how and when both of Mom’s parents got here. They just wanted some rispetto in a country that was run mainly by White Anglo-Saxon Protestants and, to a lesser extent, by the Irish immigrants who got here earlier and already spoke the language.
Worse things had happened. In 1891 there had even been a mass lynching of Italians in New Orleans by a frenzied mob seeking vengeance for the killing of an Irish-surnamed police chief. Inflamed by a local newspaper and shouting “We want the Dagoes!” the mob shot dead and mutilated 11 victims. Other slurs for Italians include “wop,” “ginzo” and “guido.” The singer/actress Cherilyn Sarkisian, a.k.a. Cher, used to refer to her first husband, Sonny Bono (perhaps fondly) as “the little goombah.”
Where am I going with this? Well, like Rodney Dangerfield, Italian Americans didn’t get no respect, which is mainly why we find statues or busts of Christopher Columbus in places where many Italians lived, including New Haven, Hartford, Middletown, Meriden and Southington. He was one famous Italian, and respectable at the time. Nowadays we understand that you can’t very well “discover” a place that was already inhabited, and that the atrocities he inflicted on those people make him truly a bad guy. Maybe worse, he ushered in the era of rapacious European colonization of much of the world.
Columbus did not commit treason against the United States, however, like those Confederate leaders whose statues are now falling, and he did sail the ocean blue in fourteen hundred ninety-two. But in 2020 he’s a bum, and that’s that.
What to do? Well, we could find some other paisan to honor — Dante? DaVinci? Fermi? Galileo? Marconi? Michelangelo? Or we could add historically accurate signage to the Columbus monuments that are already there at public sites. Or we could move those memorials to private property, where they more fittingly belong. We could even get rid of Columbus Day and make Election Day a national holiday, thus celebrating our democracy every fall by voting.
But what would Mom say? Don’t ask.
Reach Glenn Richter at email@example.com.