As the son of two Italian immigrants, I am proud to be an Italian-American. My parents deeply instilled in me the Italian values of family ties, hard work and frugality. My mother came to America when she was a teenager and my father moved away in his twenties; they both worked hard to support their families and owned and operated successful restaurants in the Philadelphia area from the 1970s through the 1990s.
I love my culture and in recent years I 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 St. Joseph’s Day 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 that I can remember my ancestry and my children can be connected to their heritage.
So people are often surprised 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 is located, is one of the poorest counties in the United States. The poverty rate is three times the state average, and life expectancy is comparable to many underdeveloped countries. While living there, I had the privilege of forming many lasting relationships and knowing a group of people who still feel the effects of American policies that extracted the lands and wealth of Indigenous peoples.
For the people of Pine Ridge and other indigenous groups, the landing of the Nina, Pinta and Santa Maria in the Caribbean opened the floodgates of destruction and despair. Although Christopher Columbus himself never set foot on North American lands, he symbolizes the plunder of land and the genocide that accompanied 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.
“Kissing Columbus would be a betrayal to the families I have come to love and care for on the Great Plains of South Dakota.
Prior to my time on the reservation, I could be seen proudly waving an Italian flag at a local Columbus Day celebration with little regard for its implications. However, after living among the Lakota people and establishing such meaningful relationships, I had no choice but to give up Columbus as a symbol of my Italian-American pride. Kissing Columbus would be a betrayal to the families I have come to love and care for on the Great Plains of South Dakota.
As the country reels from nearly a month of civil unrest following the murder of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police, this issue of Columbus’ legacy has once again taken center stage. In Philadelphia, it took place at Marconi Plaza in South Philadelphia, where clashes between protesters and Italian-American Columbus supporters turned violent.
As Italian Americans, we can do better. We should certainly create opportunities to celebrate who we are and the great contributions of Italian immigrants to the United States. However, we can be creative and compassionate and replace our symbols of pride with images that celebrate a community that won, fought for the American Dream, put family relationships first, and sought 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 urging him not to change the vacation.
Bonin said, “I thought about my ancestors and their history. And to me, celebrating Columbus Day does not honor their history, their struggle, and their history; he insults and defiles him. They came here to build something, not to destroy something. They came here to earn something, not to steal something. They came here to improve the lives of their children, not to take anything away from someone else’s children.
As it stands, Mayor Jim Kenney and the City of Philadelphia are taking action to remove the statue of Christopher Columbus from Marconi Plaza, and for what it’s worth, I’m in favor of that. I implore those who are determined to keep Christopher Columbus as a symbol to understand the injustice that 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, to this country and to this city.
Dino Pinto is a teacher at St. Joseph’s Preparatory School, where he teaches a course on Native American studies.