Christopher Columbus A Hero To Many Italian-Americans

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October marks Italian-American Heritage Month and Columbus Day. Many Italian-Americans take pride in the accomplishments of Christopher Columbus. Host Michel Martin speaks with Joseph Scelsa, founder and president of the Italian-American Museum in New York, about various celebrations marking Columbus Day, how Italians have contributed to the growth of America, and how everyone — regardless of ethnicity — can come together and appreciate Columbus Day.

MICHEL MARTIN, host:

This is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin.

Coming up, when other kids were watching cartoons every Saturday morning, he was helping his parents work in their bakery. Kevin Sbraga learned to love food and work hard at an early age, and that paid off when he was recently crowned the winner of the reality show "Top Chef."

We'll speak to Sbraga about what he likes to cook and what he likes to eat and about how his African-American-Italian heritage has influenced that. That is coming up.

But first, speaking of heritage, October is National Italian-American Heritage Month. The month-long celebration was established to coincide with festivities surrounding the Columbus Day holiday.

For many Italian-Americans, Christopher Columbus represents a source of deep pride. We wanted to talk more about that. So we've called upon Joseph Scelsa. He is the founder and president of the Italian-American Museum. It's located in the Little Italy section of New York. He's also professor emeritus of Italian-American studies at Queens College in New York, and he's with us now. Welcome, thank you for joining us.

Dr. JOSEPH SCELSA (Founder and President, Italian-American Museum; Professor Emeritus of Italian-American Studies, Queens College): Oh, it's my pleasure to be here today.

MARTIN: Can you tell us a little bit of what kinds of celebrations are typically held to celebrate Columbus Day?

Dr. SCELSA: The biggest celebration which takes place is the 5th Avenue Parade. It's actually organized by the Columbus Citizens Foundation, which is a group of very philanthropic individuals who have come together to use the parade as a source of revenue, to give out over $2 million in scholarships a year to deserving students.

And then there's Columbus feasts, you know, that people will have traditional Italian-American food and come together for just good friendship.

MARTIN: Now, of course people will remember that in 1492, Christopher Columbus sailed the ocean blue. Beyond that, just tell us a little bit more about why you think the story is worth noting and celebrating.

Dr. SCELSA: It's definitely worth noting and celebrating because 1492 is the date on which Columbus arrived in what we call the New World. So we celebrate that day as the first major European to come to the United States. It really is a seminal point from which people can look to for the future and also for the past. It changed everything.

MARTIN: Can you give us a little bit more, though, about what Italian influences might be in ways that people might not recognize, for example in the construction of the nation's capital or in the forming of the Constitution?

Dr. SCELSA: Oh, absolutely. To the quincentenary, just a short time ago, I was privileged to be part of that, and I went down to Washington, D.C., and I met the architect of the U.S. Capitol. And, you know, I asked him the same question.

And he said to me: Are you kidding? He said 40 Italian architects built the United States Capitol. After all, it is called Washington, D.C., the District of Columbia.

So, you know, that's not a small thing. There's Columbus, Ohio. There's, you know, there's so many different places that are named after Christopher Columbus.

You know, originally, it was not an Italian holiday. It's really an American holiday. And it was really first celebrated in 1792 by the St. Tammany Society in New York City, which was really not any Italians involved in, but it was really a celebration of the fact that this country had been opened up for European exploration.

MARTIN: Going back to that point for a minute, in recent years, that whole question of how we talk about that part of our history is something that has been revisited. And I just want to play a short clip from an interview we did with the late Wilma Mankiller, who was the first female chief of the Cherokee Nation. And this is what she had to say about her how she thinks about this holiday.

Ms. WILMA MANKILLER (Chief, Cherokee Nation): You know, we learned that there was this great new world discovered by Columbus with beautiful oceans and bodies of water and abundant forests and foodstuffs.

And, you know, this certainly wasn't a new world to the millions of people that had lived here for thousands of years. And there's no discussion of that at all.

MARTIN: How do you think about that kind of dialogue these days? I completely take your point and understand that Columbus Day has not traditionally been seen as a sort of celebration of Italian heritage, although that is a part of it, but as an acknowledgement of sort of the encounters of cultures and the opening of the West in all these things. But how do you think about that now, now that this is a part of our national dialogue?

Dr. SCELSA: Let me just say this: In 1892, when Benjamin Harrison, our president at that time, made this a national holiday, which was 400 years after the exploration of Columbus, it was done specifically to bring Native Americans and Italian-Americans and others together.

I mean, it was only two short years after Wounded Knee, and it was only one short year after the largest lynching in the United States, which was of Italians in New Orleans in 1891.

So it's really seen, by me at least, and by many others, as a bringing together of people, not a separating of people. And even after 9/11, it was the first parade in New York City. And I was on the streets of New York. And there were a lot of non-Italians there. And I asked them that question myself: Why are you here? They said because it was an American holiday and a chance to show that we're all Americans.

Now, I understand that there were tragedies and atrocities that took place. No one could appreciate that any more than someone who has experienced discrimination himself, which I have.

But I must say that I see Columbus Day being taken in the wrong spirit if it's seen as something that is negative. It's really that was seen and should be seen as bringing people together.

MARTIN: There are places like Berkeley, California, that have begun to refer to Columbus Day as Indigenous People's Day. And in some places, it's known as Native America Day. Does that made you sad?

Dr. SCELSA: I think there should be an Indigenous People Day, and I think there should also be other holidays to celebrate other groups, as well.

Italian-Americans have come to America and given a lot. I mean two of our Founding Fathers, William Parker and David Rodney, were Italians. Philip Mazzei gave Jefferson the words all men are created equal, was an Italian.

So we've been here from the very beginning, and I think that we need our day, too. It's not chauvinism. It's really just a matter of being proud of being part of America, and that's what Columbus Day means to me, and I think it means that to thousands upon thousands of others of Italian descent in America.

MARTIN: So what are you going to do today, on Columbus Day?

Dr. SCELSA: After going to the parade, I will be going straight down to the museum, and I will be greeting the people who will be coming after the parade down to what is traditionally Little Italy in New York and having them tour the museum, which is one of the busiest days of our year.

MARTIN: Joseph Scelsa is the founder and president of the Italian-American Museum, which is based, as he told us, in the Little Italy section of New York. He's also professor emeritus at Queens College. He's a professor emeritus of Italian-American studies, and he joined us from our studios in New York. Well, thank you, and happy Columbus Day to you.

Dr. SCELSA: And to you, too.

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