Divorcing Columbus

The Italian-American dilemma
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OPINION This year may go down in history as the one new immigrants reignited a civil rights mobilization in the United States. Their efforts, like those of the black liberation movement of the ’60s, will certainly become a catalyst for progressive action from many communities. As southern Italian Americans, this Columbus Day we have to ask our community the age-old question — which side are we on? Unfortunately, many of us have chosen exactly which side we are on: supporting racist immigrant bashers, whether they are legislators in the halls of Congress or vigilante Minutemen. As progressive Italian Americans, we support new immigrants because of the simple fact that our folks were once in the same situation that newcomers find themselves in: overworked, exploited, and demonized for quick political gain. It's time for the Italian American community to finally reclaim our social justice tradition, divorcing the dazed and confused explorer who discovered a country that was already inhabited. Instead of Columbus, we honor the Italians, Cubans, and Spaniards of Ybor City, Fla., who worked in the cigar industry and were able to create a Latin culture based on values such as working-class solidarity and internationalism (see "Lost and Found: The Italian American Radical Experience," Monthly Review, vol. 57, no. 8). We also remember the Italian American radicals who were a part of labor actions in the early 1900s, including the Lawrence textile, Paterson silk, Mesabi Iron Range, and New York City Harbor strikes. This year, instead of conquest, we acknowledge those who stood up for justice. Everyone knows about Al Capone, but what about Mario Savio, a founder of the free speech movement in Berkeley in the ’60s? Most people can recite the names of Italian American singers such as Madonna and Frank Sinatra, but they don't know Cammella Teoli, the 13-year-old southern Italian girl who appeared before Congress in 1912 to testify in her broken English about the horrible working conditions in America's sweatshops. It's not surprising that Italian Americans forgot those things. We faced a lot of discrimination when we arrived: two unionists, Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti, were falsely accused of murder and executed. Italian Americans in the south were lynched by white supremacists. During World War II, thousands were relocated or jailed on suspicion of being enemy aliens. After the war, the anticommunist witch hunts began with the arrest and deportation of Italian American radical Carl Marzani. Today, Italian Americans don't have to face these threats, yet those who immigrate from Central and South America, Asia, and the Middle East do. It is unlikely that Congress will pass any form of legislation reform this year, and many cities have instituted local statutes designed to run immigrants out of town. Minutemen and similar groups are harassing day laborers in the Bay Area and beyond. As Italian Americans, we call upon our paesani and paesane to remember our roots. Emboldened racists can be stopped — when those of us they claim to represent support the work of grassroots organizations of color bravely confronting these throwbacks. By divorcing Columbus, we start to break down the logic of conquest, which invariably leads to wars abroad and repression at home. SFBG Tommi Avicolli Mecca and James Tracy Tommi Avicolli Mecca and James Tracy are Italian American radicals who organize the annual "Dumping Columbus" reading. This year it's Oct. 9, 7 p.m., City Lights, 261 Columbus, SF, featuring the legendary Diane DiPrima.