By Fabrizio DiMichele
Consul General of Italy
It is so important for all of us to be here today to celebrate the Cristoforo Colombo Memorial in Columbus Circle. This is not an empty ritual in connection with the federal and state holiday. Neither is it a kind of formality to fulfill for a fading tradition. And this is surely not an action against anybody or anybody’s feelings.
This celebration today is more important than ever in front of repeated attempts to cancel it. Indeed, this celebration should become an occasion to remind or explain to all New Yorkers why Columbus is still so important for Italian Americans and ultimately belongs to all Americans.
It should be left to historians the complex task of reconstructing historical facts and characters. We don’t have the presumption to say that everything about Columbus was good. Columbus was a figure of his times, with a mission of his times, which was to serve the interests of the Spanish empire and evangelize the world.
We could argue for hours whether he technically “discovered “the American continent, whether slavery technically was already widespread in the same continent long before his arrival, whether he did more good or harm; etc., etc.
I would rather focus on what is really hard to contest: Columbus was a bold and visionary Explorer whose feats laid the foundation of a bridge between the old and the new world, changing the destiny of humankind forever and leading to what we called today a global world.
It is equally hard to contest that symbolically and historically Columbus contributed to the foundation of America.
There is something else that nobody could and should call into question. The origin of Columbus Day is linked to the largest mass lynching in American history, which took place in 1891 in New Orleans against 11 Italians.
The proclamation of a national Columbus day by then-President Harrison was a way to recognize the Italian sacrifices and contributions to the US. This very statue behind us was built a year afterward, in 1892, to commemorate the 400th anniversary of Columbus’s landing on the new continent.
It is hard or actually impossible to contest that for millions of Italian Americans following the path of Columbus, centuries after him, to fulfill the American dream, Columbus became a symbol of pride and recognition and a bridge toward their new country in front of widespread discrimination, prejudice and sometimes hatred.
Ladies and gentlemen, no one here is willing to ignore or minimize the history of oppression and exploitation against indigenous people in the wake of the discovery of America. No one can call into question the sufferings imposed upon indigenous people throughout the centuries. However, what cannot be accepted is a sort of zero-sum logic, which puts the Italian American heritage and the indigenous heritage one against the other; or As an alternative to the other.
What has made this country so great, a model for the whole world, and a beacon for migrants across the globe is, indeed, its diversity. America is made of many different ethnic communities and cultures, and each of them has proudly contributed to building its prosperity. As we recognize the legitimate grievances and narrative of the indigenous people, we demand and expect the recognition of Italian-American heritage and narrative.
We fully understand the frustration and bitterness of Italian Americans who see a symbol of their spirit, their integration, and their heritage turned into a symbol of evil.
Let me conclude by quoting the words of President Biden in his recent proclamation of Columbus Day. “The hard work, dedication to community, and leadership of Italian Americans in every industry make our country stronger, more prosperous, and more vibrant. The Italian American community is also a cornerstone of our close national and enduring relationship with Italy. A vital NATO ally and EU partner.”
I wish only to add to those words how proud Italy is of the Italian-American role and contribution within American society; how Italy praises Italian-Americans’ unwavering bond to the land of origin. And finally, how proud Italy is of celebrating its rich heritage and culture in the USA over the month of October.
God bless America