WHEN I WAS A KID growing up on the second floor of an East Boston triple decker, Columbus Day was a pretty big deal. Alternating with the North End, the grand parade organized by local civic groups passed by our house every other year, and we would either watch from the windows or, more often, sit on the front steps to observe the floats, bands, and politicians march by. In those days the parade was such a big deal that it attracted political leaders such as Frank Sargent, Kevin White, Paul Tsongas, Mike Dukakis, Frank Bellotti, and Ted Kennedy.
There was a lot of excitement and noise and neighborhood camaraderie, and it was the only day (other than a snowstorm day) when automobiles were forbidden from parking on both sides of the street. No one really paid much attention to Columbus; like Santa Claus at Christmas, some fellow dressed as Columbus would signal the conclusion of the parade by appearing on the last float, a motorized Santa Maria, waving at the slowly dwindling crowd.
The truth is we never thought for a minute about Christopher Columbus the person, who he was or what he did or stood for. Columbus was understood as the fellow who “discovered America.” Did we believe that? We probably did, just like we were taught in school to believe that Adam really ate an apple that Eve handed to him and got in trouble for it (I always liked apples, so I was secretly confused about why this was such a problem, but that’s a discussion for another day). When some years later it was revealed by more progressive grade school nuns that the apple-eating business was an allegory, I brought that news home to a shocked and unbelieving family. Perhaps they had always understood the underlying meaning of the story, but deep down they also believed (because that is what they were taught) that apple eating was somehow involved in the fall from grace.
The times were different, and the basic education that most people had about topics like “who discovered America” was facile and flawed, distorted by an agenda to offer up a sanitized version of history. Few were introspective or thoughtful enough to ask: why did America even need discovering? It had already been discovered by the indigenous people who lived here, well before the era of European colonialization. But then, like now, many people didn’t have the privilege of education or access to knowledge, or didn’t have the time to pursue it.
It’s always easy, in retrospect, to make judgments about what people believed then, and what many believe today, without understanding what people were taught at home and in school, and the limitations of that education. In my grade school and high school classrooms, no one was taught about the brutal behavior, the genocide, the enslavement of indigenous people that marked not just the Columbus-led expeditions, but much of the subsequent European conquests of large swaths of the Americas. History was sanitized. That’s not an excuse for the wholesale adoption of a sketchy, racist figure as a representative for a national heritage, but it is a reason to exercise humility in the process of enlightening and informing and opening minds.
By and large, my East Boston neighbors were the sons and daughters (or, like me, grandchildren) of Italian immigrants. Their parents came here in the great wave of early 20th century immigration, motivated (as are many of today’s immigrants) by the desire for a better life, for access to opportunities they believed were available in abundance in this nation. They were willing to bear the burden of discrimination and stereotype and humiliation. They were willing to accept the jobs others would not. All for a chance to participate in the American experiment.
If that sounds familiar, it is – it gets played out every single day in America. The newcomers are from different lands, but their stories are about the same. People seeking refuge, believing the words inscribed on the Statue of Liberty, optimistic that a better day might be ahead in a new land that was brash enough to hold itself out as the last, best hope of mankind.
My mother was one of those children of immigrants. I never knew her to read anything but cookbooks until the summer after her bypass surgery, in 1992, when I bought a used book for her on a lark. The book was “A Tree Grows in Brooklyn,” a book about a poor but aspirational young girl that seemed to resonate with her. She became a voracious reader, something she enjoyed until the very end. This passage is from the book:
“The one tree in Francie’s yard was neither a pine nor a hemlock. Some people called it the Tree of Heaven. No matter where its seed fell, it made a tree which struggled to reach the sky. It grew in boarded-up lots and out of neglected rubbish heaps and it was the only tree that grew out of cement. It grew lushly, but only in the tenement districts.”
The story is a tale of perseverance and overcoming great odds. It’s also a story of the importance of family and the equal importance of individual growth and independence and an embrace of the opportunities and possibilities of life in America.
This was in many ways my mother’s story – the youngest daughter in an immigrant’s family, a family escaping a bleak present for a possibly brighter future. A family delivered to the promise of early 20th century America, golden with hope, only to face two new challenges in a new land: the poison of systemic ethnic discrimination and the poverty of the Great Depression. These they overcame with hard work, good humor, faith, and love. They looked forward, not backward. They persevered.
And as I’m thinking about my mother and her family and the story of immigrants in America, I’m also thinking that we have lost our way in this country when too many people deny or turn back or despise the exiles and the strangers among us. As we deny them, we deny our own parents and grandparents. We deny our own history.
It was heartening to learn that Boston will begin a process of designing a memorial to Italian American immigrants as a suitable replacement for the statue of Christopher Columbus that stood in the North End. Columbus was never a meaningful or historically accurate proxy for what should be the uplifting story of Italian immigrants in America.
Like other figures whose mythologies mask the ugly truth of their deeds, memorials to Columbus must give way – in this case to the memory of those whose struggle to make America their home made our nation stronger, better, and more durable. A tribute to immigrants reflects the past and informs the present. It reminds us of where we came from and who we are, reminds us that a generosity of spirit is at the center of the moral core that ought to drive our public policies as much as it hopefully drives our individual behavior.
I embrace an Italian American heritage that has much to celebrate. We don’t need, and shouldn’t want, the mythology of Columbus in order to understand or embrace our history. It’s a good thing that the era of Columbus is over, and it’s also good that we seek not to sanitize history but to explore it with as much candor as we can muster, however painful that may be. To paraphrase a famous passage from the New Testament, our essential moral core – driven by the impulse toward charity, or love – does not delight in evil, but rejoices with the truth.
James Aloisi is a former Massachusetts secretary of transportation.