90. Columbus Day

I am very well aware that the celebration of Christopher Columbus is problematic, and for good reason, causing tomorrow’s holiday to split into Indigenous Peoples’ Day and Italian Heritage Day. The latter make more sense than making a big deal about Columbus. Like St. Patrick’s Day, which isn’t remotely about the actual saint, it’s a celebration of the triumph of a people once scorned, who came to this country and not just survived, but thrived.

At the parade.

To this point, I read in the New York Times this morning an article “How Italians Became ‘White,’” telling the story of the first Italians who settled in Louisiana after the Civil War, to work on the plantations which no longer had a workforce of slave labor. They were subject to the same denigration and discrimination as African-Americans, including lynching, and were widely and openly seen as dirty, criminal, and only capable of back-breaking work. Visiting New Orleans earlier this year, I was surprised to come upon an American Italian Cultural Center and a Piazza D’Italia right downtown, having always associated Cajuns, Creoles, and the French with that city and knowing nothing about its Italian roots. Now I finally understand the muffaletta, a New Orleans specialty that has always just looked like a big round Italian hoagie with olives to me.

Central Grocery in New Orleans, where the muffaletta was said to be invented in 1906.

So it was with this in mind that I made the trek into Philly this afternoon to see the Columbus Day parade. My weekly Italian conversation group has the benefit once a month of the guidance of the wonderful Maria Rossi, who tries to gently shape our pidgin Italian into something halfway resembling the real thing. She’s the Italian teacher at St. Maria Goretti High School in South Philadelphia, and she told us she would be marching in the parade with her girls.

St. Maria Goretti Italian club.
Cheerleaders from the school.

The parade was a rather small affair so they were easy to find, and I had the great honor of marching along with them for a block or so.

On my two-mile hike back to my car, though, I stumbled upon something that brought the holiday, and the reason behind it, into sharp relief: The History of Italian Immigration Museum. The fact that it was all locked up and a little dusty, and that its website’s most recent activities calendar dates to 2016, may explain why I was totally unaware of its existence. Nonetheless, I found myself standing on the sidewalk at 1834 E. Passyunk on a busy Sunday afternoon, weeping for all to see.

It was the paving stones that got me. img_5642.jpgPeople bought them to honor parents and grandparents who left so much behind in the hopes of creating a better life for future generations.

“To our family, whose love has always supported us in our life in America.”

Nearly all mentioned hometowns, which were never far from their hearts.

“We are very proud to be Italian.”

The love and gratitude were palpable. Once again, one is struck by our country being a land of immigrants, even those once derided in the harshest terms, who go on to form the fabric of who we are.

“For all the sacrifices of the immigrant families.”


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