I’m old enough to remember my days as a kindergartener in Queens learning a version of Christopher Columbus’ story and singing the famous rhyme, “In 1492, Columbus sailed the ocean blue.”
As an Italian American on my mother’s side, I was also taught to be proud of our common heritage — and I am. For many years, that included considering Columbus as the explorer who discovered America.
But over the last four decades, the story of Columbus has become much darker and sinister. He’s no longer seen through that grade school lens of being a great man who “sailed the ocean blue,” found the New World and helped set the stage for the birth of America.
We’ve come to learn that Columbus was an exploiter of indigenous people in Hispaniola, capturing natives and either enslaving or slaughtering them. These are indefensible crimes against humanity that went without recognition for too long.
It’s no longer a dark family secret in the story of our country’s history that most wouldn’t dare tell kindergarteners because it would traumatize them.
Yet it is also a secret that some would rather just forget. They’d rather Columbus be celebrated in a positive light without acknowledging his evil actions.
But whitewashing history is akin to asking someone to drink a glass of Gowanus Canal water after it had been poured through a Brita filter. It may be more potable, but it no less leaves a filthy taste in one’s mouth — and exposes them to other harms unseen to the naked eye.
We conveniently forget that we don’t have to celebrate Columbus. We have greater Italians who deserve the recognition of a holiday doubling as a celebration of Italian culture and heritage.
Mother Cabrini, the first American canonized as a saint, is the greatest Italian American our country has ever known. She opened orphanages and hospitals to provide care and comfort to countless people in the most need. Her story, only coming into public focus more than a century after her death, is far more worthy of a public holiday than Columbus. No one will ever want to take her statue down.
Leonardo Da Vinci never made it to the New World, but his contributions to art and science continue to shape the imagination of people all over the world five centuries later. The same could be said for Galileo Galilei, who was excommunicated from the Catholic Church for daring to believe in the scientific fact that the Earth revolves around the Sun.
And then there’s Amerigo Vespucci. Like Columbus, he, too, was an Italian explorer chartered by the king of Spain to set sail for the New World, and would acknowledge its existence as a continent, not a large island. In the early 16th century, cartographers would name North and South America in his honor.
Both Italian Americans and indigenous people deserve holidays recognizing their importance, culture, heritage and contributions to our great country.
We Italian Americans should be proud of who we are, and celebrate it. But let’s stop acting as if Columbus is the only Italian worthy of a holiday — or that subtracting him from the equation is an act of anti-Italian discrimination. It isn’t.
Let’s celebrate Mother Cabrini, or Amerigo Vespucci, or the legion of other great Italians who did far more for America and for Italian Americans than Columbus ever did.
It’s not about “canceling” Columbus. It’s about choosing to celebrate people more worthy and deserving of our honor — people our kids can truly look up to.