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Italian Heritage Month. How to celebrate it

Italian Heritage Month is an annual celebration which for a month celebrates the contribution of Italians and Italian Americans to the culture of the United States. It has been established back in 1989 by the then President George W. Bush and the U.S. Congress.

Italians in America

Although Italy as a unified nation did not exist until 1861, the Italian peninsula has sent millions of its people to the shores of North America. These new arrivals thought of themselves as Neopolitans, Sicilians, Calabrians, or Syracuseans. They might not have understood each other’s dialects, but on arrival in the United States they became Italian Americans. By the turn of the 20th Century, they would be ready to change the continent once more.

Library of Congress website

The early arrivals

The first person to set foot on American soil was Christopher Columbus. This is why Italian Heritage Month is celebrated every year in October. It was on 12th of October 1492 that the three caravels, the Nina, the Pinta and the Santa Maria docked on the coasts of today’s island of San Salvador, part of the Bahamas archipelago.

Those were the beginning of the new world. A new continent that not only the rulers of foreign countries aspired to in order to exploit its enormous riches. The Americas, named in honor of another great Italian explorer Amerigo Vespucci, soon became the dream of a new life for millions of European citizens first and then Asians.

Columbus, Vespucci, Verazzano, Caboto are certainly the best-known Italians to have visited the new continent at the dawn of the sixteenth century. After them a long line of Italians will face the insides of the Atlantic Ocean for various reasons.

The first known Italian to come to live in America was Pietro Cesare Alberti (1608–1655), a Venetian sailor who, in 1635, settled in the city of New Amsterdam (now New York), then a Dutch colony . In 1640 a group of 200 Waldensians arrived from Italy looking for a more hospitable place to practice their religion.

The Taliaferro family, originally from Venice, was one of the first families to settle in Virginia. These first Italians were later joined by other compatriots in a small but constant flow of new arrivals. Among them we also find the musicians John Palma (who conducted the first paid public concerts there in 1757) and Giovanni Gualdo in eighteenth-century Philadelphia.

The contribution of Italians in the Civil war

There were approximately 7,000 Italian soldiers and officers in the American Civil War.

Thanks to the mediation of Chatham Roberdeau Wheat, the Confederate army recruited a certain number of ex-servicemen from the dissolved Army of the Two Sicilies defeated by Garibaldi, who formed the Sixth Regiment European Brigade.

Most Italians fought in the Unionist army, both for demographic reasons (most of them lived in the New York area) and political reasons (the fight against slavery). Among them there were Francis B. Spinola, the first Italian American ever elected to the United States House of Representatives (1887 – 1891); Luigi Palma di Cesnola (1832-1904) who will later became the first director of the of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York; the Lombard Luigi Tinelli in exile in America since 1836 and then US consul in Portugal for 10 years.

The great migration

Until the last decades of the 19th century, Italian immigration to the United States remained limited to a few hundred or thousands of people per year. They were mainly supporters of Mazzini and Garibaldi first and later anarchists and socialists who mostly fled northern Italy for political reasons. Among them there was Gaetano Bresci who lived in Paterson (New Jersey) and then went back to Italy to kill the King of Italy Humbert the First in 1900.

Italian mass emigration began around 1880 and had its greatest peaks at the beginning of the 20th century, when hundreds of thousands of Italians, coming mainly from the regions of the annexed Bourbon kingdom, to seek a new life, new opportunities and escape the misery, they embarked towards the New World. Between 1900 and 1920 alone, around 4 million Italians set foot on Ellis Island. For several decades, the number of those in New York who could be considered Italian was greater than the same population in Rome.

Ellis Island was founded as a solution to a serious social crisis. New York’s previous immigrant processing station, a decaying fortress called Castle Garden, had become a pit of corruption and theft, where new immigrants had to run a gauntlet of swindlers, pickpockets, and armed robbers before escaping with their freedom and their paperwork. In order to ensure a safe, controlled, and regulated entry process, the federal government took over immigrant processing and erected a set of new, purpose-built facilities on an island in New York Harbor

Library of Congress Website

Among those who had to pass the rigid controls on the island off the coast of Manhattan were certainly Joe Petrosino, the parents of Amadeo Giannini (Founder of the Bank of America); Saint Frances Cabrini (Patron Saint of Immigrants); Giulio Gatti Casazza (Director of the Metropolitan Opera House in New York)

The great migration, especially from the regions of southern Italy, continued until the early 1950s when, due to a decree, the entry of new immigrants into America was limited, assigning a maximum quota of arrivals per country of origin.

According to the official census (United States Census Bureau) of 2000, almost 16 million (5.6%) of people residing in the United States declared they had Italian ancestry, thus representing the sixth largest ethnic group in the nation. In the 2010 census this number increased to approximately 17,250,000. However, according to some important Italian-American cultural associations, Americans who have some Italian ancestry in their family are estimated at approximately 25-30 million people.

Italian Heritage Month

The very first Columbus Day was held in San Francisco in 1869. Since then every year in each state of the Union the 12th of October becomes the opportunity to celebrate the Italian Heritage and the contribution of Italians to the culture and wealth of the country.

The first state to officially recognize the anniversary was Colorado in 1905 and 1937, at the instigation of the Knights of Columbus (a Catholic association that had adopted the name of the great traveler). President Franklin Delano Roosevelt established Columbus Day as a national holiday throughout the United States of America. Since 1971, the day on which this anniversary falls has been set for the second Monday of October.

In recent years, various criticisms have been leveled at this anniversary, linked to the fact that the arrival of Columbus on the new continent would have begun the extermination of the indigenous populations. Some cities have in fact canceled the holiday, sometimes replacing it with a day to commemorate indigenous populations.

The protest against the celebrations in honor of Christopher Columbus had already begun last year. Large cities such as Los Angeles, San Francisco, Seattle and Denver had, already in 2017, made the decision to no longer honor the memory of Christopher Columbus and with it the discovery of America. Instead of parades in the city, a moment dedicated to indigenous populations. Christopher Columbus has in fact become a symbol of the genocide of Native Americans and according to some, celebrating his memory and deeds actually means denying the impact that the discovery of the continent had on these populations.

Il Giornale

*Cover Picture as available on the Library of Congress Website. Detroit Publishing Co., publisher.

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