Cristoforo Colombo is revered among many Italian-Americans. Under the auspicious of Queen Isabella and King Ferdinand of Spain, Columbus stumbled upon the New World. While the great waves of Italians immigrating to America did not occur for another four hundred plus years, Italians take pride in claiming Christopher Columbus from Genoa, Italy as one of our own.
My father was one of the founding members of the Santa Maria Di Loretto Society in our hometown. In the mid-1990’s he was finally able to rally the club to fund a sculpture of Christopher Columbus to donate to our town. The Mayor, the Knights of Columbus from our Catholic church, The Di Loretto Society families, and an Italian priest friend of my father’s were all on hand for the dedication ceremony. Suddenly, several vans screeched to a halt near our gathering. Native Americans spilled out from the vehicles, waving signs and railing against Columbus. Several police cars pulled up, which did little to quell the demonstrators. Our Italians were bewildered: Columbus had paved the way for them to leave poverty in southern Italy to realize their dreams in America.
My father sprang into action, approaching the police and the demonstrators.
“Good after-a-noon. I’m a Frank-a; we just-a come to-a give-a the City a statue. We no wanna make-a trouble,” he said.
Undaunted, the Native Americans shouted about the decimation of their tribes and the usurping of their lands.
“I come-a here in-a 19-a-33. I no gotta nothin’ to-a do with-a that. It no was-a right to-a take-a you-a land, but –a we,” he said, gesticulating toward all of us on the other side of the sculpture, “come-a here in-a peace. We no do-a nothin’ to-a you.”
The leader of the demonstration motioned for his comrades to cease shouting and waving the signs.
“I can-a offer-a you some-a cake and-a some-a coffee. Please-a join-a us. It –a be an honor.”
Maybe because my father had served in both the Italian Army, and in the U.S. Army, perhaps because he knew what it was like to have something snatched away, maybe because he was once a stranger in a strange land who still spoke with a thick accent, who flashed a smile and greeted all warmly that made the Native Americans shake his hand and thank him for his kindness, for his empathy. The Native Americans piled back into their vans and drove away waving.
Maybe if Christopher Columbus and those who followed had extended a kind hand, Native Americans might have experienced a better outcome. Imagine.
Ciao for now.