Who the Heck Was Columbus?
Italians have him, but other ethnic groups may want to stake a claim.
Or maybe not. By Michael Aaron Rockland
Each October, we celebrate Co- lumbus Day. Children celebrate because they have no school
that day. Many adults celebrate because
they have a three-day weekend. Italian-Americans, who constitute New Jersey’s largest ethnic group (;.; million
individuals), celebrate because they
believe one of their own discovered
America. Columbus Day is as Italian as
St. Patrick’s Day is Irish.
Or so I believed until I arrived in
Spain one October ;;th and discovered that Spaniards celebrate
Dia de Hispanidad (National Day
of Spain) or Dia de la Raza (Day of
the Race). Spain, as any schoolkid
knows, provided Columbus with
the ships. It made me wonder: With
the Spanish-speaking population of
New Jersey skyrocketing, will a day
come when Italian-Americans and
Hispanic-Americans argue over who
gets to claim Columbus? Will there be
competing parades? Will they debate
over whether to call Columbus by his
Italian name, Cristoforo Colombo, or
his Spanish name, Cristóbal Colón?
His name was definitely not the anglicized Christopher Columbus.
Several recent books complicate
things further. They argue that it is not
coincidental Columbus’s first voyage was
in ;;;;—the year the Spanish monarchy
expelled the Jews from Spain. Colum-
bus’s heritage, they say, was at least
partially Jewish, noting that he was from
a Spanish-Jewish family that, two gen-
erations earlier, had fled from the Spanish
Inquisition to Italy. They add that the
navigator on his voyage was definitely a
Jew, and that Columbus wrote to his son
in Hebrew. These books suggest that Co-
lumbus’s voyage had nothing to do with
obtaining spices from India; it was to find
a sanctuary for Jews in the New World,
and that he neatly covered his tracks by
calling the people here “Indians.”
Should New Jersey’s Jews jump into
the debate with Italians and Hispanics? If
Columbus indeed had an Italian, Spanish
and Jewish heritage, he might be seen as
emblematic of our multicultural land—
especially New Jersey, by some measures
the most diverse American state.
Then again, we must ask, in what
sense did Columbus discover America?
The people he discovered had already
been here for upwards of ;;,;;; years.
Still, if we insist that our land was
discovered by a European, what are we
to make of the archeological evidence
that the Norsemen, led by Leif Erikson,
arrived in Canada half a millennium
before Columbus? Perhaps Norwegian-Americans should compete with Italians, Hispanics and Jews for the honor
of having discovered America.
That’s assuming it’s an honor at
all. Historians believe that Europe-
ans brought small pox with them to
America; it likely is what killed ;;
percent of native people. The jury is
still out on whether Columbus’s men
brought syphilis to the New World or
whether they carried it back to Europe
with them. In any case, we can be sure
native peoples didn’t cheer when Co-
lumbus, or whoever, “discovered” them.
And considering how advanced the
Aztec, Maya and Inca peoples were, the
discovery of America meant the death
of civilizations superior in many ways
to that of the newcomers.
The people of Berkeley, California,
do not celebrate Columbus Day. They
call it Indigenous People’s Day. Other
cities and even states have followed
suit. When Seattle renamed the holiday, a certain Ralph Fascitelli declared,
“We don’t argue with the idea of
Indigenous People’s Day. We do have a
big problem of it coming at the expense
of what essentially is Italian Heritage
Day.” The issue surfaced in New Jersey
in an episode of The Sopranos in which
Tony’s mob was indignant at the idea
of Columbus Day being anything but
an Italian-American festival. They
attacked American-Indian protesters
who had hung Columbus in e;gy.
Is all this too complicated? Perhaps
I should spare you the increasing
speculation that the Chinese may have
landed on the West Coast of America
long before Leif Erikson or Columbus
landed in the East.
Anyway, Happy Columbus Day!
Michael Aaron Rockland is a professor
of American Studies at Rutgers University.