Vera Ferrara Girolami (OSIA), John Viola (NIAF) and Angelo Vivolo (Columbus Citizens Foundation)

OSIA, NIAF e Columbus Foundation: i tre Presidenti ci parlano delle loro opinioni su Cristoforo Colombo

Oct 09, 2017 13658 ITA ENG

The attacks against Christopher Columbus are almost every day in the local and national news. Cities that decide to celebrate Indigenous Day instead of Columbus Day, statues vandalized, articles describing Columbus as guilty of genocide, angry people everywhere. Angry are also the Italian Americans, or at least the majority of them.

We the Italians is just in Italy (for now…) and we are not able to organize rallies or events. What we can do is talk to important Italian Americans, and try to spread their leadership to as many people we can. That's why we are particularly thankful to the guests of this very particular interview. Vera Ferrara Girolami is the President of the Order Sons of Italy in America (OSIA); John M. Viola is the President of the National Italian American Foundation (NIAF); Angelo Vivolo is the President of the Columbus Citizens Foundation. These are the three most important national Italian American associations. We are glad to be able to bring their voice to all our readers.

This craziness against Columbus has been going on for a while, but recently we have seen a dramatic acceleration in it. What is your organization doing to support and defend Columbus?

Vera Ferrara Girolami (OSIA)

Our Organization is working to mobilize the Italian American Community to unite and fight this wherever it occurs.  We re joining with other major Italian American groups and speaking in unison against this assault. In the San Francisco and Northern California area, with about 30 other Italian American Groups, we have launched "Coalition of Italian American Organizations" which we call "CIAO". We will work TOGETHER to fight this!

John M. Viola (NIAF)

At its core, the National Italian American Foundation’s mission is one of education; and so we believe that the best we can do on this issue is to be a resource for information and dissemination of facts. We certainly understand the sensitivities around this holiday and there are multiple parties and communities who are stakeholders in this along with us, whether or not the day has become primarily one for Italian Americans. We have worked very hard over the years to be thought leaders on the topic and have tried to build community-wide consensus, which sometimes in our community is obviously difficult. So as the volume on this topic is increasing our strategy has been focused on making objective information available and serving as a resource to assess the situation in different communities and providing a rallying point for the community.

This year for Italian American Heritage Month we are launching a new website called ItalianAmericanDay.org, with the goal of making clear not only the history of Columbus and Columbus Day, but also how it became a primarily Italian American holiday, what it means to our community, and why that’s valuable for the rest of the country to understand. We brought in an incredible thinker in Dona DeSanctis who was a long time team member here at NIAF and at the Sons of Italy. She will serve as our overseer of this project and these initiatives. She has done an amazing amount of work over the years on this topic and we think she is the perfect person to join our team as a visiting scholar.  

These efforts are all coming at a rapid pace and are continuing to evolve as the situation does, but my hope is that during this Italian American Heritage Month and over the months following we’ll be able to provide valuable resources to the community and to other groups so that our arguments have an academic backing to them.

Angelo Vivolo (Columbus Citizens Foundation)

One of the strongest things we can do as a Foundation is continue our support for the next generation of Italian Americans, and help them understand the role Columbus played in helping legitimize the transition their ancestors made from Italians to Americans. The Foundation offers over 700 scholarships annually, and during that process we do everything we can to import the significance of Columbus to those who follow in our footsteps.

Another part of our support in preserving the holiday is the role we play in promoting Columbus Day to the city of New York and the entire country by planning and producing the largest Columbus Day Parade on an annual basis.

As frustrating and misguided as some of the recent discussion around the Columbus monument is, we believe it has had a unifying impact on the Italian American groups and we are determined to band together. To that end, have worked with over 39 other Italian American organizations and sent a formal letter to all politicians up for election to get them on record with their position on both the Columbus monument and Columbus Day.  This transparency will be a strong impetus for many Italian Americans when voting comes along – and it’s a great example of how working together is the best way forward for all of us.

Lastly, we have been strong promoters of a new app – available now in the US market – called Emojitalia. It’s a fun messaging keyboard, but most importantly it allows users to contact their elected officials directly to have their voice heard and show politicians their support of Columbus Day.

As you know, we operate from Italy. Please, help us understand something about the United States, the country we love as much as Italy. When several statues celebrating somebody who is a hero for a specific ethnic group, like Columbus is for the Italian Americans, are vandalized all over the country, isn't that a hate crime? Is or should the national debate address this topic this way?

Vera Ferrara Girolami (OSIA)

We believe and have asked for the police to arrest anyone caught vandalizing a statue of Columbus, yes, these are hate crimes! Once a "hate crime" has been perpetrated against us we will make sure that person or persons will be arrested.  No one shall take our history or culture from us!

John M. Viola (NIAF)

I don’t think you can label this “hate crime” per say, and I think that’s because a sophisticated understanding of what Columbus Day means in America leads you to the conclusion that for better or worse it’s not just about the Italian American community.  People need to understand that from the country’s earliest days Columbus was utilized as a national figure because he was one of the few people who existed in America’s founding narrative that was not of British descent, and therefore tied to the British Empire that we had just freed ourselves from. So he was an ideal central figure to rally around, and for the first century of our existence, and in many communities long beyond, that his holiday was dedicated to American ideals free of any ethnic bent. In the earliest days the celebrations were made up of all kinds of ethnic groups including Indigenous peoples. It was only after the New Orleans lynchings of 1891, and then eventually the internment of Italian Americans during the Second World War, that the holiday came to be seen as a day to celebrate our growing Italian American community. So I always argue that this is really a national question that we are caught up in and that’s part of the problem. By now the holiday has taken on two diverse meanings and as communities move away from it we Italian Americans are left out in the cold.

Angelo Vivolo (Columbus Citizens Foundation)

Columbus is a complicated figure in the current culture – otherwise we would not be having this conversation. As a Foundation we condemn any defamation of Columbus statues, and of course any vandalizing of them should be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law. What I think is misguided on the part of the vandals is that they are acting out with violence on these monuments because of what the man represents – I would like to believe that they may not even know how important a role Columbus has played in Italian American culture. This is the crux of our challenge.

Los Angeles is by far the biggest city to cancel Columbus Day and rename it Indigenous Day. But actually, all the Italian American institutions are on the East Coast. Is there something that can be done to help avoiding other situations on the West Coast like Los Angeles?

Vera Ferrara Girolami (OSIA)

It pains us to see Los Angeles take part in this attack on Italian Americans and our culture. I am glad the Italian Americans in New York have organized like never before to prevent the same thing from happening there. We will also join with New York to prevent paramilitary and hate groups from trying to destroy Columbus statues and rid us of Columbus Day Celebrations!

John M. Viola (NIAF)

The idea that Italian Americans are concentrated on the East Coast is actually a false one. Yes, many of the community-wide institutions are headquartered here, but we have members and representatives all over the country. There are over 1.5 million Italian Americans in California alone and hundreds of thousands in Nevada, Washington, and the other parts of the West. Unfortunately, I think the problem is one with so many stakeholders that the rest of the country simply doesn’t see it for its effects on our community. 

Angelo Vivolo (Columbus Citizens Foundation)

Sharing our point of view and giving voice to our position on Columbus’s role in our journey as Italian Americans is the most important thing we can do.  We ultimately may not win all the battles but we know we have an obligation to speak up.

Again, the Emojitalia app is a great tool that can be used anywhere in the United States where Italian Americans wish to be heard.

Let's talk about the elephant in the room: do you think that Columbus Day as a Federal Holiday is at risk?

Vera Ferrara Girolami (OSIA)

No, as a matter of fact there is a big push to have it declared a National Holiday which would void all those cities who have voted to do away with Columbus Day. 

John M. Viola (NIAF)

No, I don’t think the Federal Holiday is at risk. Changing a Federal Holiday is a huge undertaking that only Congress can engage in, but I think if we are not active in telling our side of the story in an objective and consensus-driven way that risk can grow over time. 

Angelo Vivolo (Columbus Citizens Foundation)

Federal Holidays are only changed by Acts of Congress, and have not been amended since 1983. Part of our effort will be to help educate our communities about this issue so it doesn’t come to that.

On our social media we've seen more than 10,000 comments of very angry Italian Americans. There seem to be quite a clear pattern: those who defend Columbus are against the party of the politicians who are campaigning or voting against him, almost always the Democratic Party. We are not asking you to choose a side, of course: but generally speaking, according to you, will this topic bring to a switch in the Italian American vote towards the Republicans? 

Vera Ferrara Girolami (OSIA)

I don't know, we have a large number of Democratic officials supporting our community. This topic may encourage more on both sides to unite. We have seen this occur in the San Francisco bay area as well as the New York area. 

John M. Viola (NIAF)

I don’t think this topic will affect Italian American voting patterns, because to be very frank I think it’s been a long time since there have been clearly defined Italian American voting patterns. Every poll that we have ever taken shows that our community tends to be 33% left leaning, 33% centrist, and 33% right leaning and I think at this point in our integration into the country most Italian Americans aren’t voting based on their ethnic identity but on the issues themselves. I think people are angry about the situation, but I also think that there are clear divides within our own community around the issue. I’ve found a very well-defined generation split on the issue of Columbus, where the older generation is adamant about his protection and the younger generation leans toward sensitivity to the position of those against Columbus, if not indifference to the question.  

Angelo Vivolo (Columbus Citizens Foundation)

Respectfully, I personally disagree. In our backyard of New York state and city, we have a Democrat Mayor who is misguided in his approach to the statue, but is in support of the holiday and the parade – it’s frustrating and confusing to deal with as a community, but there it is. On the other hand we have the full support of a Democrat Governor who has gone on record in support of the Federal Holiday and the Columbus Monument. 

While I agree that this issue is one that may impact voting, I think for most of the Italian American community it is something that goes across party lines.

We are working on organizing a Columbus Day in Italy in 2018, and of course we'd like very much your organization to be part of it. Do you think Italy should do more to defend Columbus, an Italian hero? 

Vera Ferrara Girolami (OSIA)

We are receiving support of the Italian Institutions in America: of course, we should build stronger ties and unite whenever our heritage and culture is attacked.

John M. Viola (NIAF)

I think Italy has a great responsibility to be a part of this situation.  In fact, much of the effort to popularize Columbus Day as a day symbolizing the Italian presence in the United States came from the Italian government in the 1920s and 1930s at which time the Italian state saw value in propagating the hero worship of Columbus as a way to unify the gigantic diaspora of Italians around the world. That’s why you see so many Columbus monuments in the US supported by the Italian state. Just as you see so many Columbus statues around the United States that were supported by the Italian government, you find those in South America and Canada as well. Interestingly we had a group of 100 Italian high school and college students at our headquarters here in Washington not that long ago, and I asked them about the issue and whether or not Columbus was a “hero”. They said he was a hero for what he did for the world, but that he was not an “Italian hero” per say, because all of his accomplishments benefited Spain and not Italy. I think there is a general indifference to him as a figure in Italy and I think that’s probably why the Italian government is less than compelled to inject themselves into a sensitive topic here in the United States.

Angelo Vivolo (Columbus Citizens Foundation)

We have always been so honored by Italy’s support of our parade here in New York – the Italian General Consulate, Italian government officials and Italian sponsors all have and continue to support Columbus Day by taking part in our Parade – so I think Italians and the country of Italy have done a lot for our Foundation and the Parade in New York over the years. It would be wonderful to see them embrace a similar event in Italy.

 

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