Italian flags instead of Spanish: the peculiar Hispanity Day in the USA

Every year, on the second Monday of October, the streets of New York are filled with Italian flags. A huge parade fills the famous Fifth Avenue. Floats led by descendants of immigrants from this European country make their way through the Big Apple in small steps. As a holiday, many places close and workers enjoy a day off. What are all these people celebrating? It is none other than the peculiar American commemoration of the arrival of Christopher Columbus in America, the so-called Columbus Day. So why is the Italian flag being waved and not the red-and-yellow flag?

Italian flag

The Empire State Building illuminated in the colours of the Italian flag. | Wikimedia

Columbus Day, a tribute to Italian immigrants

Columbus Day is an American holiday that became official in 1934, although it had been celebrated much earlier in some states and cities in the country. It commemorates the arrival of Christopher Columbus in America. In other words, it coincides in terms of dates and events with Hispanity Day, but it is very different from the latter.

Thus, while in Spain this holiday is a source of national pride, which has recently been controversial, in the United States it is a day of pride for the Italian-American community. The latter claim the figure of Christopher Columbus as their own in order to legitimise their presence in the country. As a kind of tribute to their ancestors. It must be understood that for them, as the president of the Order of Italian Sons and Daughters of America noted in an article in The New York Times in 2018, ‘it serves as a unifying factor’.

italian flags

Parade down New York’s Fifth Avenue on Columbus Day. | Shutterstock

That’s why every second Monday in October, the United States celebrates a national holiday, with different events in different cities. One of the highlights is the celebration in New York and its Little Italy. The city that never sleeps organises a parade of floats which, as mentioned above, passes along Fifth Avenue until it reaches the Columbus Circle rotunda, presided over by a statue of the navigator given to the city by the Italians in 1892. Tens of thousands of people gather for this display.

During Columbus Day, it has also been a tradition to light up the Empire State Building in the colours of the Italian flag. All this is done in the name of Columbus’ supposed Genoese origin, a theory that has not yet been proven, although it is the most widespread. In any case, even if this hypothesis were true, with this claim the Italian-American community only takes into account the individuality of Columbus. In other words, they leave aside the fact that it was the Catholic Monarchs who financed the expedition and that the conquest was carried out in the name of the Kingdom of Castile.

Statue of Columbus

Statue of Columbus at Columbus Circle in Manhattan | Shutterstock

Controversy is served

However, over the course of time, opposing positions to the celebration of this day have emerged. As is well known, Columbus’ arrival in America brought with it the discovery of a new world for Europe. However, it should not be forgotten that for many indigenous communities living there it was not only not a discovery, but also their subjugation and extermination. Thus, indigenous peoples such as the Sioux, Squamish and Chippewa were massacred after this event. This is why more and more American cities are deciding to replace this day with Indigenous Peoples’ Day, to commemorate those who suffered from the occupation.

The first metropolis to renounce Columbus Day was Berkeley, a Californian city. Others such as Dallas, Seattle, Washington DC and Los Angeles followed in its footsteps. In total, around 56 cities have abandoned the holiday and given it a different focus. In May 2021, controversy also erupted in New York because public schools decided to remove the date from school calendars.

Los Angeles

A woman at the celebration of Indigenous Peoples’ Day in Los Angeles. | Shutterstock

The mysterious origin of Columbus

The celebration of Columbus Day, as mentioned above, is based on the theory that Columbus was of Genoese, and therefore Italian, origin. This is the most widely accepted guess at the moment, but it is not proven and there are many others. It is said that the discoverer of America could have been Galician, Catalan, Valencian, Castilian, Portuguese… Christopher Columbus left many doubts about his origin and even more about that of his family. Several lines of investigation remain open. In the meantime, many American cities, fewer and fewer in number, continue to celebrate Columbus Day. Italian flags fly in the Big Apple, usurping the legacy that the Spanish claim as theirs.

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