Articles by: Bill Tonelli

  • The Map created in 1491 probably used by Christopher Columbus to navigate the Atlantic

    Columbus Died 511 Years Ago, but If You're Still Holding a Grudge, Don't Read This

    The holiday is a relic of when we admired conquistadors, when schoolchildren memorized their names (Ponce de Leon, Vasco da Gama, Cortes, Cabot, Magellan, Drake, where are they now, where are their statues for us to topple?). We identified with conquerors then, whereas now we must side with the conquered—all of them, everywhere, of all time—to be on the right side of history. Now that we are in full possession of the bountiful real estate those men stole for us.

    Is there any better indication of how trivial our public lives have become that, with all the real life-or-death torments in the world, we’re arguing about holidays and statues?

    If we’re serious about this, we’ll have to do more than relocate some sculpture and change the label on a day off. There’s a whole country in South America, a province in Canada, a district that’s the seat of the U.S. federal government, and quite a few cities and counties all over the place that bear his name. Here, in New York, there’s an Ivy League university and a major avenue. If we’re going to start sanitizing our environment, we’re in for a lot of changes.

    It seems strange there was no widespread interest in creating either Indigenous Peoples’ Day or Diversity Day until it was determined that Columbus Day had to go, to be replaced by a holiday that could also serve as an apology. Even now, we seem in no hurry to make amends beyond the ceremonial. Maybe we think that should be enough.

    Meanwhile, future generations will someday believe that we have always honored the native people and cultures here before Columbus, a lie we may be happy to tell.

    ALL WE KNEW was that he was Italian and he did something big and important, and that was enough for us. We had to dig deep to find a countryman whom all Americans might agree to admire. It fell to Columbus. Maybe if there were two Italians the nation liked, we’d be celebrating the other guy. But there was just the one.

    The fact is that the immigrants whose naive hearts swelled with pride were possibly the least Columbus-like people on the planet. What they had in common with the great man was a boat, an ocean, a dream, and no clear picture of what they’d find here. Those peasants did not come to plant a flag, claim ownership, or take advantage of anyone. If anything, they came to be exploited by those who were here first. That was their best-case scenario.

    To understand how those immigrants were welcomed in the years before there was a Columbus Day, we can refer to an article in the New York Sun newspaper, dateline Rochester, NY, July 17, 1887, that begins:

    There has been recently organized in this city a society known as the Anti Italian Nuisance League of the Fifth Ward, the object of which is to rid that portion of the city of the presence of swarthy sons and daughters of sunny Italy…

    The article then names several local officials and influential citizens who were

    …waging vigorous warfare against their obnoxious neighbors. These gentlemen say that whatever is done will be done legally, but that their organization will remain organized until the Italians are removed from their community. Their watchword is “The Italians must go.”

    Carlo Barsotti was an immigrant who came to New York City not from the lowly south of Italy but the more refined north. In 1880 he co-founded a national newspaper, Il Progresso Italo-Americano. It was his idea that statues honoring Italians of great accomplishment might offset the image (more or less accurate) of uneducated immigrants teeming in the city’s squalid Little Italy slums. In his paper he started a fund-raising campaign, and he succeeded at getting his impoverished readers to pay for monuments not only to his fellow Genovese Columbus, at the traffic circle that already bore his name, but also to Verdi (on the Upper West Side), Dante (at Lincoln Center), Garibaldi (at Washington Square) and Verrazzano (on Staten Island).

    As Bénédicte Deschamps wrote, in an article published in the European Journal of American Studies:

    The building process seemed almost of a carnal nature as it allowed Italian Americans to actually dig into the flesh of the city.

    “As long as Columbus looks at those small creatures who press around him today, and stays on his pedestal,” Barsotti said, “as long as people bow to Verdi and now to Verrazzano, I feel happy,” because “monuments remain while petty talks, gossips and calumny die away with men.”

    But petty talks, gossips and calumny have only increased their permanence since then, while stone and metal monuments are suddenly aon shaky ground.

    In Los Angeles, they’ve decreed that Columbus Day will henceforth be celebrated as Indigenous Peoples’ Day. Denver, Seattle, Phoenix, Tulsa, and other cities have done likewise. Statues are in jeopardy in New York, Philadelphia, San Jose and Columbus, Ohio, where, it’s safe to guess, they’ve got their hands full. In Minneapolis, there’s a petition to replace a statue of the explorer with one of hometown hero Prince and rename the holiday in his honor. (Maybe they can compromise and call it Prince Spaghetti Day.) There are earnest proposals to replace the holiday with anodyne, self-congratulatory titles like Immigrant Day, or Italian American Heritage Day, or to simply swap honorees—to dump the murderous swashbuckler and replace him with the Marxist thinker Antonio Gramsci, or the socialist thinker Carlo Tresca, or the doomed anarchist thinkers Nicola Sacco (shoemaker) and Bartolomeo Vanzetti (fishmonger).

    This politicization of Columbus Day is nothing new. He has always meant more than probably even he anticipated. You can chart the holiday’s evolution by browsing through the New York Times’ archived coverage, going back to when the event was deemed important enough for any paper to notice at all.

    In 1926, when Italian immigrants were still despised as dirty, dumb and dangerous, the Times quoted former assistant District Attorney Francis Corrao, speaking before the Italian Columbus Society of Brooklyn:

    This new world was discovered by Columbus to be the refuge of the oppressed and the hope of the multitudes who could not find freedom and comfort in their native lands…We rightly honor George Washington and Abraham Lincoln and other great and illustrious Americans, but when the Congress is asked by grateful and appreciative citizens to make the anniversary of the discovery of America a national holiday, we then find bigots who oppose lest an Italian be honored.

    It was not until 1937 that President Roosevelt decreed Columbus Day a national holiday. By then, the ethnic bigotry had begun to subside, replaced by a new reason to worry about Italians—the fact that their homeland was on the side of the Nazis and fascists in Europe. In 1938, a crowd of 35,000 people heard New York governor Herbert H. Lehman speak out against this fear:

    The courage, foresight and vision of Columbus are the common heritage of the American people. Columbus Day is a real American holiday. It should be celebrated by all people of the Americas. The courage and spirit of Christopher Columbus can well serve as an inspiration and an example to us of the present generation.

    And in 1940, FDR sent a message that saluted Americans of Italian origin as citizens whose loyalty was beyond question:

    The courage and the faith and the vision of the Genoese navigator glorify and enrich the drama of the early movement of European people to America. Columbus and his fellow voyagers were the harbingers of later mighty movements of people from Spain, from Columbus's native Italy and from every country in Europe. And out of the fusion of all these national strains was created the America to which the Old World contributed so magnificently.

    By 1955, New York governor W. Averell Harriman even employed Columbus in the progressive cause, to rail against the Immigration Act of 1924, which used quotas to stop Italians and eastern European Jews from getting in. The law (overturned in 1965) was “a national disgrace,” he said, and elaborated:

    Let us speculate on what might be the fate of a modern genius from Genoa who might want to come to America. He would put his name on a quota list that discriminates against Italians, and in ten years or so his name might come up. But then he would have to run the gantlet of other provisions of our present Immigration Act, fill out endless forms, undergo a long investigation and find sponsors here. Then, providing he had never joined anything or become controversial and had led a spotless life, he might possibly see our Statue of Liberty, if he had not long before given up the whole project as impracticable. And who would be the losers? We and this country would.

    Safe to say Columbus will never look so righteous again. In another hundred years we may not even remember who he was, or how we got here, or anything else inconvenient or unflattering.

    The poet Robert Viscusi foresaw all this 24 years ago, when he wrote “Oration Upon the Most Recent Death of Christopher Columbus,” in which appear these lines:


    the americans loved columbus in those days

    he was the right kind of italian

    not like these dirty dagoes and guineas and wops


    And these, referring to how the explorer’s halo had faded by the 500th anniversary of his trip:


    no one wanted columbus

    except the italians

    they sat in their kitchens and said

    he was ours when he was rich and lovely

    and he has to be ours tomorrow

    otherwise what are we anyway


    Here’s the thing that’s easy to forget: The immigrants who chipped in for these monuments, they didn’t particularly love Columbus either, even if they weren’t evolved enough to hate him. Chances are they barely knew who he was. These monuments were built as a tribute to some beaten-down, disrespected, funny-talking foreigners who came here with the dream of becoming real Americans someday, shiny and new. Columbus was just their stand-in. He has not aged well. But Columbus probably doesn’t care how we remember him today. Our ancestors, though—they may feel differently.

    This year the New York Columbus Day parade’s grand marshal will be the philanthropist and former Barnes & Noble chairman Leonard Riggio, who has decided to do something unprecedented in the history of the event and perhaps all such events: he has invited over 100 Italian American authors to march with him. Given the conflict over Columbus’s glorification, and the typical agonizing nature of writers, some will no doubt decline to take part. I confess I deliberated—for two, three seconds at least—before deciding what I’ll do.



    *Bill Tonelli is the editor of The Italian American Reader (William Morrow, 2003), an anthology.


  • Op-Eds

    The Other 0.1 Per Cent

               I’ve seen this claim made—verbatim, repeatedly—over the years, whenever Italian-American defamation is being denounced: the pseudo-statistic that 99.9 percent of us are law-abiding citizens with no involvement or tolerance for organized criminal activities. In other words, we’re 99.9 percent pure, just like Ivory Soap, and just as legit as any other nationality, and any suggestion to the contrary is the worst kind of bigotry.

                It comes to mind now only because a two-part, four-hour prime-time feel-good documentary, “The Italian Americans,” is airing on PBS, coming in the wake of similar public TV sops to Irish-, Jewish- and Latino-American pride. And you can be sure that at some point during those four hours, a claim very much like that touchy 99.9 percent boast, if not identical to it, will have been made.

                Well, let’s take a look. According to the 2010 Census, there are around 17,250,000 Italian Americans, and so if that 99.9 percent figure were accurate, we would be responsible for 17,250 mobsters—nothing to brag about even if you were inclined to be proud of such a thing.

                I can understand the need to deny the inconvenient truth back when Italian Americans were truly the victims of pernicious stereotype and prejudice. But to maintain the party line today just feels corny and stuck in the past. It seeks to falsify our roots, to deodorize us and render us tame and safe for children of all ages.


             Today, I believe it is time to say this: Once, we were all gangsters.

                OK, that’s a slight exaggeration. This is normally the place where the anti-defamation police would require me to state that 99.9 percent of Italian Americans are as law abiding and legit as anybody else.

                Except that’s not exactly true either.

                The truth is that in some fundamental way, we Italian Americans were all mafiosi, even those of us who never booked a number, loaned money at usurious rates, trafficked in stolen goods or committed the occasional businesslike murder. Because we didn’t automatically see anything wrong with those who did. We didn’t cast them out from decent society or banish them from Christmas eve dinner or shun them in the street. We didn’t turn up our noses. They were our next-door neighbors, our childhood friends, our cousins and uncles. They were us.

                We were all mafia in the original, historical sense of the word—meaning, mafia as attitude, as ethos, as world view, as subculture. The clannishness? The secrecy? The mistrust of authority? The smoldering rage at being poor and powerless and disrespected? It was as true for grandmas as it was for gangsters.

                There had been organized crime in America before us. Irish and Jewish gangsters came first. But they did the sensible thing and moved on up as soon as possible and left their dirty rackets behind. Dilettantes, in other words. Quitters. Not us. This thing of ours remained ours, for a variety of reasons having as much to do with the place we left behind as the one to which we came. And we non-criminals didn’t just suffer it in silence. We took part. At some point everybody had a hunch, and so everybody played a number. Or bet a game. Or, if you were strapped and nobody else would lend you money (this in the days before Visa had pre-approved everybody with a pulse), sought out the neighborhood loan shark.

                Swag? I still remember the family wedding where all males between 14 and 60 wore the same belted leisure suit (in varying colors), because my uncle had a connection to a shipment that came off a hijacked truck. (I got lucky, mine was black, meaning I had evaded mint green and burgundy.) Another time, our neighbor Sonny waved my father into his house, where the living room was crowded with metal racks filled with overcoats. My father didn’t really need one, but he bought anyway, because that’s what good neighbors do—the morality of Italian American neighborliness trumped whatever might be wrong about buying stolen goods. I still have that coat in my cellar, as a reminder. Of something.

                And all those $3-a-carton contraband cigarettes we enjoyed, the ones without a stamp on the bottom of the pack. My father and I and everybody else we knew went years without ever lighting a legally-taxed smoke. At Christmas time, those festive red and white cartons were under every tree.

                I tended bar at our neighborhood taproom, and every morning Monk the number writer would come by to begin his rounds. The daily illegal—“street”—number was revealed one digit at a time, computed and announced by some shadowy figure somewhere. At around 1 every afternoon, Monk would open the barroom door, lean in, and yell, “Billy, the first digit is three!” And then he would go on to his next stop, leaving me to spread the news to all who asked. (At some bars they’d just write the number on a blackboard.) Monk would stop by again twice more in the afternoon to announce the other two digits, and then to finally end his peripatetic workday and sit down for a beer and a shot of Canadian Mist. To steal Nick Tosches’ line, in our neighborhood there were many bookies but no books.

                My father’s family came from the Abruzzo region, where even today there’s no ingrained mafia presence, and so once they got here they remained more or less law-abiding (and poor). My mother’s mother’s family, however, came from Palermo, and perhaps not coincidentally we had several uncles and cousins involved in the organized crime conglomerate—small operators mostly, number writers and bookmakers and shylocks.

                But one of my mother’s cousins rose to a position of some prominence in South Philadelphia’s rackets back then, meaning he was a celebrity, our only one. He was handsome and charming and a famously sharp dresser with tons of suave and swagger, known by the nickname Pretty Boy. To my knowledge he never got involved in violence or executive gangster activity but was prized for his skills as an earner—he ran bookmaking and gambling operations, and used the income to finance other criminal enterprises. Or, so I have been able to piece together, because it’s not as though anybody ever talked about this stuff, especially to us kids. But we weren’t ashamed of him—we were proud. He was released from a short stay in federal prison just before another family wedding, and when he strolled into the hall, well—you would have thought Jerry Vale walked into the room.

                We were all crooked, and we were so crooked we didn’t know we were crooked. Had our cousin been a mugger, or a pervert, or a drug dealer, we would have taken a very dim view. But his brand of crime was just another facet of our way of life, part of what made us such a great community. That’s another reason Italians are so good at organized crime—we esteem sociability and loyalty, and are most at home in the group, the club, the team, the family, the gang. (It’s no coincidence that in Italian there’s no word for privacy—they had to steal the English one.) I feel sorry for my kids—they’ll never know what it’s like to play a street number or buy something that fell off a truck or sit on a neighborhood bar stool next to a very friendly very bad man, which also means they will never belong in the kind of insular, close-knit, nurturing, beautiful, suspicious, weird world that made me.

                 But it’s no use crying. There are no more Italian American boxers either, you might have noticed, and for the same reason there are no more gangsters. There are easier ways to make a buck.

                That was always one of the great fallacies of the mafia legend—that the thugs were just dying to infiltrate legitimate institutions and corrupt them. Just the opposite was true: The smart gangsters wanted to make their pile and then to go into something legal and leave the outlaw life behind. It’s hard, anxious work being a criminal. The money is uncertain. The benefits are nonexistent. The legal fees are through the roof. And don’t even talk about job security. Way back in the ‘70s, two books, both by sociologists (and so, completely ignored outside academia), closely examined actual organized crime families and discovered that they tended to take their illegal gains and plow them into their “front” businesses, until finally the fronts threatened to replace the rackets altogether.

                Even the most famous gangsters of our time ended up losers—Lucky Luciano died alone and in exile; John Gotti in a nightmarish subterranean prison cell; and just about anybody else you can name either dead of swift, unnatural causes or rotting in prison. Precious few died at liberty and of old age. Al Capone spoke of the envy he felt for his legitimate counterparts in corporate America—he wished he and his fellow racketeers could “look on our business as other men look on theirs, as something to work at and forget when we go home at night.”

                Which is more or less where we all are now, which I guess is fine, although it’s also kind of sad, I don’t care what those PBS Italians think.



    Bill Tonelli is editor of The Italian American Reader (William Morrow Books, 2003).