Columbus Day without Columbus?

A new day for a new world

Whom else should we celebrate besides Christopher Columbus?
Nancy Pelosi, Bill de Blasio, Maria Bartiromo and other prominent Italian Americans offer ideas.

Published on October 9, 2015

Every year, the same debate: Can we legitimately celebrate a holiday named for a conquistador? Can someone “discover” a continent, particularly one with millions of people already living there? Christopher Columbus’s imperial legacy — the same instinct that led Europeans to settle in what eventually became the United States — also resulted in widespread death by disease, ethnic cleansing and slavery.

Eight great Italian Americans:

Fiorello La Guardia by Bill de Blasio
Robert Gallo by Anthony S. Fauci
Tony Bennett by Maria Bartiromo
Frank Stella by Massimiliano Gioni
Marcella Hazan by Lidia Bastianich
Thomas D'Alesandro Jr. by Nancy Pelosi
Ella T. Grasso by Rosa L. DeLauro
John Basilone by Anthony C. Zinni

“How is this still a thing?” John Oliver wondered about the federal holiday designated in 1937. “Columbus Day is a holiday with a brand problem,” Brian Braiker concluded in Digiday. Many American cities have already stripped Columbus Day from municipal communications and observances and replaced it with Indigenous People’s Day.

But many defenders of Columbus — they cite his enterprise, his free-thinking belief in round-Earth science, the courage required to sail off with a team of dependents into the great blue unknown — prize this national recognition of Italian American heritage, and that mission seems beyond rebuke. In different ways, many of our holidays herald America’s constituent cultures: Cinco de Mayo, St. Patrick’s Day, Martin Luther King Jr. Day, Cesar Chavez Day (observed in California), Casimir Pulaski Day (observed in Illinois) and others. Americans of Italian descent, who treasure Columbus Day, have a legitimate claim to national celebration, too.

So if we need a day to hail this heritage, why let Columbus get in the way? There are so many Italian Americans a national heritage day could honor. We asked eight prominent ones whom they’d pick.

— Adam B. Kushner

Fiorello La Guardia

By Bill de Blasio


Fiorello La Guardia

By Bill de Blasio

More great Italian Americans:
Robert Gallo by Anthony S. Fauci
Tony Bennett by Maria Bartiromo
Frank Stella by Massimiliano Gioni
Marcella Hazan by Lidia Bastianich
Thomas D'Alesandro Jr. by Nancy Pelosi
Ella T. Grasso by Rosa L. DeLauro
John Basilone by Anthony C. Zinni

One of the first things I did after becoming mayor of New York was move the desk used by Fiorello La Guardia, America’s greatest mayor, into my office at City Hall. It’s too small for me to sit behind, since the man known as “the Little Flower” was just a smidge over five feet tall, but I wanted to be reminded every day of how extraordinary leadership can improve millions of lives.

To La Guardia, who became mayor during the Great Depression, there was no higher ideal than compassion for our fellow citizens. He came to office with an impressive résumé: Born to Italian immigrants, he worked his way through New York University School of Law as a translator at Ellis Island and later served as the first Italian American member of the U.S. House of Representatives.

But nothing could have fully prepared him for the challenges ahead. When La Guardia took office in 1934, one out of seven New York City families was dependent on government relief. Some 350,000 substandard tenement buildings threatened the lives of those who called them home. City government was riven with corruption from the reign of Tammany Hall.

But La Guardia, a revolutionary at heart, saw obstacles as opportunities to improve the lives of the people he served. Take the tenements. At a time when public housing was an untested idea, La Guardia established the nation’s first public housing authority. Seven years later, with a big assist from the New Deal, New York was home to 13 public housing developments with 17,000 safe and clean apartments. The great challenge of our time, as of his time, is economic inequality, and I am creating or preserving 200,000 affordable apartments for the same reason he did — so hardworking New Yorkers don’t go broke trying to keep a roof over their heads.

A reporter once asked La Guardia about his dreams. He envisioned the “City of Tomorrow, with marvelous parks and buildings, finer hospitals, safer and more beautiful streets, better schools, more playgrounds, more swimming pools.” As mayor of New York and a proud progressive, he was an inspiring example of the way Italian Americans could make their country a better place.

Bill de Blasio is the 109th mayor of New York City.

Robert Gallo

By Anthony S. Fauci


Robert Gallo

By Anthony S. Fauci

More great Italian Americans:
Fiorello La Guardia by Bill de Blasio
Tony Bennett by Maria Bartiromo
Frank Stella by Massimiliano Gioni
Marcella Hazan by Lidia Bastianich
Thomas D'Alesandro Jr. by Nancy Pelosi
Ella T. Grasso by Rosa L. DeLauro
John Basilone by Anthony C. Zinni

As we celebrate the contributions of important Italian Americans, we should recognize Robert Gallo, an explorer of the world of science who co-discovered HIV and proved that it causes AIDS.

I met Gallo at the National Institutes of Health in the early 1970s. His work in virology and mine in immunology sometimes overlapped. Then, as now, he was a fast talker and an even faster thinker. You could learn more about virology in a 15-minute conversation with him than in 100 hours of reading. He reminded me of some of the guys in my old neighborhood in Bensonhurst, Brooklyn — cocky, effusive, whip-smart, sometimes profane.

Gallo is a proud first-generation Italian American born to immigrant parents in Waterbury, Conn. He was inspired to go into medicine by his sister’s death from childhood leukemia, and he was trained as a physician before turning to his true passion, basic research.

In 1976, he and his colleagues discovered a substance that enabled scientists to grow and study key white blood cells, called T-cells. That, in turn, led to his identification of human T-lymphotropic virus type 1 — the first virus linked to certain human leukemias and lymphomas — and ultimately to his co-discovery of HIV. In 1983, French researchers first identified the virus, but Gallo proved definitively that it causes AIDS. Furthermore, he rapidly pioneered the development of the HIV blood test for identifying infected individuals and protecting the blood supply.

For his work, Gallo has twice been awarded the prestigious Lasker Award, the American equivalent of the Nobel Prize. He is one of the most creative biomedical research scientists and impressive intellects of my generation. I am proud to count him as a colleague and friend.

We have a long tradition of meeting for dinner at an Italian restaurant — Positano’s in Bethesda is among our favorites — where we share a bottle of pinot grigio and talk about science. He maintains the enthusiasm of a graduate student and can make our conversations feel like they did so many years ago when we were young scientists at NIH.

Anthony S. Fauci is director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases at the National Institutes of Health.

Tony Bennett

By Maria Bartiromo


Tony Bennett

By Maria Bartiromo

More great Italian Americans:
Fiorello La Guardia by Bill de Blasio
Robert Gallo by Anthony S. Fauci
Frank Stella by Massimiliano Gioni
Marcella Hazan by Lidia Bastianich
Thomas D'Alesandro Jr. by Nancy Pelosi
Ella T. Grasso by Rosa L. DeLauro
John Basilone by Anthony C. Zinni

When Tony Bennett released “Cheek to Cheek,” his recent duet album with Lady Gaga, it was a hit. At 88, Bennett became the oldest artist to top the Billboard chart. Who’d he steal that honor from? Himself, at 85, for “Duets II” (with assists from John Mayer, Aretha Franklin and Willie Nelson, among others).

Such accomplishments speak to the singer’s staying power and his contribution to American culture. Bennett is one of the world’s most popular performers, and he’s kept the American songbook alive for decades. “Jazz is so special,” he told the Wall Street Journal. “I’ve always wanted to let young people know about it.”

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That same devotion to melding old and new also makes Bennett a hero for Italian Americans.

In 1906, Bennett’s father emigrated from Italy to Manhattan. His parents didn’t make much money — Bennett’s father worked as a grocer; his mother earned pennies as a sweatshop seamstress. But Bennett didn’t let his poverty slow him down. Like Irving Berlin and Frank Sinatra before him, Bennett launched his career as a performing waiter. He was discovered by Bob Hope in 1949 and signed by Columbia Records soon after. He’s been making music ever since.

Bennett’s longevity and ability to reinvigorate his brand speak directly to the work ethic the Italian American community is known for. Last year, at one of his concerts, I was struck by how vibrant and strong he seemed, even in his 80s. I was also moved by the way he’s incorporated his family into his line of work — his son is his manager, and he often brings his daughter onstage to perform.

Sure, Bennett’s rags-to-riches story is quintessentially American. But his humility, hard work and devotion to his family? Those are what make him an Italian American worthy of our respect.

Maria Bartiromo is the anchor of “Mornings With Maria” on the Fox Business Network.

Frank Stella

By Massimiliano Gioni


Frank Stella

By Massimiliano Gioni

More great Italian Americans:
Fiorello La Guardia by Bill de Blasio
Robert Gallo by Anthony S. Fauci
Tony Bennett by Maria Bartiromo
Marcella Hazan by Lidia Bastianich
Thomas D'Alesandro Jr. by Nancy Pelosi
Ella T. Grasso by Rosa L. DeLauro
John Basilone by Anthony C. Zinni

I am not sure artist Frank Stella would ever think of himself as an Italian American: His grandparents emigrated from Italy at the beginning of the 20th century, and he grew up in a suburb of Boston, never learning to speak Italian himself.

And there is more than a memory of immigrants’ pragmatism in Stella’s most celebrated maxim, “What you see is what you see.” With the right accent, wouldn’t that sentence sound perfect not only as one of the principles of minimal art and an antidote to the over-romantic sentimentality of 1950s abstract expressionism, but, more prosaically, also as the kind of thing Tony Soprano would say at the bar or at his shrink’s office?

Stella’s mother was an art student, and perhaps it’s from her that he inherited an interest in art history. But it is from his Sicilian father that he learned about painting, not as a style or a matter of taste or artistic accomplishment, but rather as labor and sweat. Stella’s father was a doctor who put himself through med school by working various jobs, particularly painting and fixing houses. And Stella has said he remembers working with his father on houses, learning about paint and stains, about brushes and sanding. Stella himself worked as a house painter while trying to make some money early in his career.

When it came to his own painting, he has approached making art with the same care and precision as painting houses, laying his stripes of black enamel with the pride of a job well done. His works expunge any sentimentality in favor of both rigor and boredom — beauty as a state of trembling stillness.

Stella would title one of his early masterpieces “The Marriage of Reason and Squalor.” Unfortunately, sometimes I find myself thinking that is in some perverse way a perfect description of Italy at its craziest, as Paolo Sorrentino’s “The Great Beauty” captured it on film.

Massimiliano Gioni is artistic director of the New Museum of Contemporary Art in New York.

Marcella Hazan

By Lidia Bastianich


Marcella Hazan

By Lidia Bastianich

More great Italian Americans:
Fiorello La Guardia by Bill de Blasio
Robert Gallo by Anthony S. Fauci
Tony Bennett by Maria Bartiromo
Frank Stella by Massimiliano Gioni
Thomas D'Alesandro Jr. by Nancy Pelosi
Ella T. Grasso by Rosa L. DeLauro
John Basilone by Anthony C. Zinni

Marcella Hazan was one of America’s most knowledgeable and determined experts on Italian cooking. What made her its grand dame was her dedication, precision and hard work. She always stayed true to the traditional recipes of Italy’s different regions.

Born in Emilia-Romagna, she earned a doctorate in natural sciences and biology at the University of Ferrara. She married Victor Hazan, and the couple arrived in New York in 1955. Although Marcella’s mother and grandmother cooked, she never spent much time at the stove growing up. Once in America, though, she disliked many of the popular Italian American dishes and would not accept the offerings of many of the Italian eateries. And so began her cooking quest. She cooked for family and friends, and then, with Victor’s support, she set out to teach America the real regional foods of Italy from her home kitchen in Manhattan.

Hazan took to teaching cooking with the approach of a university professor: She studied, analyzed and cooked from Ada Boni’s comprehensive regional Italian cookbook and others. After taking a class on Chinese cooking, she was confident that she could use her own knowledge to teach Italian cuisine and began offering classes in her apartment. From there, she began writing down her recipes and eventually authoring cookbooks.

During my early years as a chef, I often referred to her cookbooks and continued to do so as I began writing my own. Her recipes and instructions are clear and simple; in fact, her recipes always work. Hazan wrote and taught about the Italian sensibility for products and technique, and she made sure the history and regionality of the recipe was clear. When I was in doubt about the authenticity of a particular recipe, I would check her books to reconfirm.

Hazan’s “The Classic Italian Cook Book,” published in 1973, was the first comprehensive regional Italian cookbook in America. She was a true pioneer, and her work opened doors for all of us who followed in showcasing the beauty and delights of the traditional regional cuisine of Italy.

Lidia Bastianich is the host of public television’s “Lidia’s Kitchen,” a cookbook author and owner of five restaurants.

Thomas D’Alesandro Jr.

By Nancy Pelosi


Thomas D’Alesandro Jr.

By Nancy Pelosi

More great Italian Americans:
Fiorello La Guardia by Bill de Blasio
Robert Gallo by Anthony S. Fauci
Tony Bennett by Maria Bartiromo
Frank Stella by Massimiliano Gioni
Marcella Hazan by Lidia Bastianich
Ella T. Grasso by Rosa L. DeLauro
John Basilone by Anthony C. Zinni

It is with deep admiration that I honor my father, Thomas D’Alesandro Jr., as we recognize the important contributions of Italian Americans to our country.

Born to a big immigrant family in ­turn-of-the-century Baltimore, my father would spend nearly four decades in public office. From the Maryland State House to Congress to City Hall to the Kennedy and Johnson administrations, he worked to build a better future for the downtrodden and disenfranchised. He and my mother made sure that our home in Baltimore’s Little Italy was open to the hungry and the homeless. My parents taught my siblings and me that we had a fundamental responsibility to help our fellow human beings. They practiced the Gospel of Matthew every day.

My father was elected to Congress in 1938 during an era of pervasive prejudice against Italian Americans. And he boasted that he was not only the first Italian American mayor of Baltimore but the city’s first Catholic mayor, too. Decades later, as I broke through my own marble ceiling to become the first female speaker of the House, my father’s legacy was a pillar of strength for me. With characteristic panache and pride in his heritage and faith, he boldly faced down prejudice, enabling many others to succeed.

All my time in Congress has been informed by my family’s respect for our heritage — and the appreciation it gave me for the pride others take in theirs. That has served me well in representing the beautiful, ethnically and racially diverse city of San Francisco and in fighting to empower the proud, hardworking families of every American community.

Nancy Pelosi is the Democratic leader in the U.S. House of Representatives and represents California’s 12th District.

Ella T. Grasso

By Rosa L. DeLauro


Ella T. Grasso

By Rosa L. DeLauro

More great Italian Americans:
Fiorello La Guardia by Bill de Blasio
Robert Gallo by Anthony S. Fauci
Tony Bennett by Maria Bartiromo
Frank Stella by Massimiliano Gioni
Marcella Hazan by Lidia Bastianich
Thomas D'Alesandro Jr. by Nancy Pelosi
John Basilone by Anthony C. Zinni

Ella Tambussi Grasso was not only Connecticut’s first female governor. She was also its first Italian American chief executive.

Her roots and her strong Italian family undergirded her career. Both of Grasso’s parents moved from Genoa to Windsor Locks, Conn., where her father became a baker and her mother worked in a mill. Neither had much education beyond elementary school, but they believed in lifelong learning. They saved and sacrificed to send their precocious daughter first to private schools and then to Mount Holyoke College, where she graduated magna cum laude in 1940.

Grasso inherited another Italian American trait: a commitment to her community. As Connecticut’s secretary of state from 1958 to 1970, she transformed her office into a “people’s lobby,” opening her doors for citizens to air grievances or seek advice. During her two terms in the U.S. House of Representatives in the 1970s, Grasso championed the minimum wage, Social Security and veterans’ education benefits, and established a toll-free number — nicknamed the “Ellaphone” — to allow constituents to contact her office more easily.

“Bloom where you are planted” was among her favorite sayings, and soon she returned to Connecticut to campaign for the governorship. Once again, she showed a classically Italian American work ethic. Facing a tough fiscal environment, she returned thousands of dollars to the state treasury out of her own salary. During the great blizzard of 1978, she worked around the clock to direct the emergency response and save lives. Later that year, she won reelection in a landslide.

In 1981, Grasso died of ovarian cancer, a vicious disease that I myself faced just a few years later. But she carried on working for the people of Connecticut until just a month before her death.

When I think of what is possible for Italians and for women, I always think of Ella Grasso. She led our state with an Italian American blend of passion, hard work and pragmatism. These are the kinds of traits that allowed Nancy Pelosi to become the first female, and indeed the first Italian American, speaker of the House. Grasso was a trailblazer for all of us.

Rosa L. DeLauro represents Connecticut’s 3rd Congressional District in the U.S. House of Representatives.

John Basilone

By Anthony C. Zinni


John Basilone

By Anthony C. Zinni

More great Italian Americans:
Fiorello La Guardia by Bill de Blasio
Robert Gallo by Anthony S. Fauci
Tony Bennett by Maria Bartiromo
Frank Stella by Massimiliano Gioni
Marcella Hazan by Lidia Bastianich
Thomas D'Alesandro Jr. by Nancy Pelosi
Ella Grasso by Rosa L. DeLauro

The first time I visited the island of Iwo Jima, I headed straight for the black-sand invasion beaches. I wanted to collect sand like every Marine who visits that iconic battlefield does, but I wanted to get my vial from the spot where John Basilone drew his last breath.

As a U.S. Marine and the child of an Italian immigrant, “Manila” John Basilone had always been a hero of mine. He was a tough kid from a large Italian family in Raritan, N.J., who joined the Army before World War II. He became an undefeated boxing champion and an expert machine gunner. When the war began, it found him in the Marines and in the first major American fight of the Pacific, the Battle of Guadalcanal, in 1942. He earned the Medal of Honor on a piece of high ground appropriately named Bloody Ridge. With only three men left from his two sections of machine gunners, he held off a continuous onslaught of Japanese attacks.

He was one of our first heroes of the war and was brought back to the States to help sell war bonds. The glitz and glory of touring with movie stars did not sit well with him. He asked to return to the Pacific and landed on D-Day on Iwo Jima. His life ended hours later, after he led his men off the beach to take down a Japanese position and guided a tank through a minefield. For those actions, he was awarded the military’s second-highest combat decoration, the Navy Cross.

John Basilone Day is celebrated in 12 states. He has a parade in his honor in Raritan each year, as well as a statue there. A Navy destroyer, a bridge and part of an interstate highway have been named for him. In a classic illustration in Collier’s magazine from 1944, he is draped in belts of ammo and holding a water-cooled .30-caliber machine gun.

To me, that image and his face have always been symbolic of the Italian American experience and what we have tried to do in serving our country to repay the opportunities given to our parents and grandparents who came here seeking the American dream.

Anthony C. Zinni is a retired Marine Corps general and a former U.S. peace envoy to the Middle East.

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