Word is spreading that a major part of our problem in defending Columbus Day is that our academics have run for cover. Feeling the heat – even being called traitors – some of these academics are now lobbing out excuses from their cloisters.
One of those cloisters is the Calandra Institute at the City University of New York. According to Dean Anthony Julian Tamburri, his Institute is not taking sides in the Columbus Day controversy because it must be “neutral” by virtue of its “public funding.” This is a variation of the old Italian refrain “I gotta eat.” Calandra and its 22 paid employees enjoy their careers thanks to the extraordinary political and legal efforts of our community since 1979. (There is a 40-page account written by Liana Kirillova on-line.) You can be sure that any threat to defund his Institute would send Tamburri hat-in-hand to Italian American legislators, not Indigenous people, to keep his job.
As to Calandra’s “neutrality,” all you need do is go to YouTube and find Calandra’s Distinguished Professor Fred Gardaphe dumping the Great Navigator like so-much bilge water.
How an Italian American “think tank” can be Columbus-neutral boggles the mind. By claiming neutrality, the Dean may really be saying Columbus is indefensible and that he and his fellow intellectuals are actually helping the community by keeping their mouths shut. Again, his right hand man Gardaphe is on record telling Native Americans “we got stuck with Columbus.” So, that cat is outta the bag.
For starters, the Calandra crew has a First Amendment right to speak out on any subject, even their own Italian heritage. At the very least, Dean Tamburri and his staff could counter the anti-Columbus Day crowd by educating students and school districts about the U.S. Congress’s original intent in establishing Columbus Day – to honor human courage in confronting the unknown. They could then hit the books to separate the real Columbus from the Satan he is portrayed as. Calandra has done it publicly for Jersey Shore guidos, why not for someone infinitely more important?
My own experience with Calandra dates back the 1990s when we joined then-Director Joseph Scelsa in a City Hall demonstration protesting discrimination against Italian American teachers at CUNY. Months later, Scelsa asked for financial support to which we donated $1,000 as prizes to his Italian American students. We were soon to find out that a Calandra relationship is a one-way street. For the twenty years that the Italic Institute operated its multi-site Aurora Heritage Program for pre-teens, neither Scelsa nor Tamburri deigned to spotlight the program on Calandra’s local cable show Italics, despite numerous appeals. Some 4,000 pre-teens attended Aurora over the years – a worthy subject for Italics.
There is apparently an ideological wall that Calandra has erected since Tamburri took over, despite an overwhelmingly Italian American staff. We have struggled with a similar wall at Casa Italiana at Columbia University where Italian Americans are non-existent. It has much to do with an orientation to the left. Tamburri invites particular attention to this mindset with his strange sign-off: “alla riscossa.” Depending on the dictionary it could mean “to the rescue,” “to the revolt,” or “to vengeance.” My colleague Don Fiore stumbled onto the phrase in the Italian Communist anthem: “Avanti o popolo, alla riscossa” (Forward people, to the revolt!). Another version has the line Bandiera rossa alla riscossa (Red flag to the rescue). I emailed Tamburri for an explanation. Maybe we’ll learn something new.
But never say our Italic Institute is without a sense of humor. Whatever Calandra’s reason for neutrality, their real fear – I believe – is about losing their meal ticket. Tamburri might well change his sign-off to alla ricotta* so we can all appreciate Calandra’s true motive. –JLM
[*I thank colleague Rosario Iaconis for this wordplay.]