Today is Columbus Day, a federal holiday, which has long been a legal and school holiday in certain states, among them my home state of New York. It has been observed in one form or other in the United States since at least the 300th anniversary of Columbus’ expedition in 1792. Historically, it commemorates Christopher Columbus' landing at San Salvador on this day in 1492, an event experienced very differently by the colonizers and the colonized but an event of enormoous historic import.
In terms of who observes it and how it is observed, Columbus Day has two distinct but not completely unrelated meanings and constituencies. For me and probably for most observers of Columbus Day, it is primarily a celebration of Italian heritage and the Italian-American experience. New York City has the largest Italian-American Columbus Day parade, preceded (at least back in the early 2000s when I was there) by a Mass at the Cathedral in Italian. (On the Sunday before, there is also another parade for the Latino community, commemorating el Día de la Hispanidad.)
If Columbus is primarily a symbol of Italian heritage and the Italian-American experience, Columbus himself long has had a broad appeal among Catholic immigrant groups, for whom he functions as a complement to the country's otherwise predominantly Protestant and English founding story - a wholesome reminder that groups other than English Protestants were also involved in exploring and settling this continent - and accordingly have as clear a claim as they to be here.
In 1901, the infamous Edward Alsworth Ross, future President of the American Sociological Association, popularized the white-supremacist term "race suicide" and warned "That the Mediterranean people are morally below the races of Northern Europe is as certain as any historical fact." Likewise, after the notorious lynching of 11 Sicilians by a New Orleans mob, The New York Times wrote about "sneaking and cowardly Sicilians, the descendants of bandits and assassins." Such elite bigotry eventually led to the 1924 law which severely restricted immigration from southern and eastern Europe.
Of course, the claim that Columbus "discovered" American was always disputed by others who highlighted the activities of earlier explorers - e.g. Leif Erikson. The historical significance of Columbus lies not so much in his being the "first" European to land here, which he manifestly was not, but that his voyages made a difference in ways that those of previous explorers had not, and that his arrival began the period of sustained European colonization of this continent - the encuentro between the "Old" and the "New" worlds. Religiously, it also marked the beginning of a sustained effort by Christian Europeans to evangelize the indigenous peoples of this continent. That this continent is now what it is, a mixture of people from all parts of the world, is the long-term legacy of what happened on this day in 1492.
How all this happened - how the encuentro between peoples was also a collision with frightful consequences for many, a cause of great suffering among the indigenous peoples, and the occasion of many injustices perpetrated against them - all this has long been recognized. Indeed Columbus himself was faulted for some of his own behavior even in his own lifetime. It is a modern moral conceit to think that only our contemporaries can recognize the moral failings and sins which we as a society have benefited from.
The Dominican friar Bartolome de las Casas (1484-1566) was famously a passionate defender of the indigenous peoples, whose sufferings at the hands of Spanish conquistadores he documented as he traveled back and forth between America and the Spanish Court exposing and condemning the crimes he had witnessed against the native peoples.
Acknowledging that the colonization of this continent and the evangelization of its inhabitants were carried out by sinners does not negate the historical significance of the encounter between the "Old" and "New" worlds, which made possible the one world which we now inhabit. There is no "right side of history." there is only history, with its inevitable mix of good and bad. Whether our ancestors came 500 years ago or are recent immigrants, their immigration and therefore our very existence as their descendants are all consequences of the actions and accomplishments of those Spanish, Portuguese, French, and English explorers, settlers, and missionaries who followed the path opened up for them by Columbus. It atones for no ancient evil and does no present-day service to pretend otherwise..
(Photo: The Statue of Christopher Columbus at Columbus Circle, New York City)