By KYLE J. KILKENNY
On the evening of Thursday, Oct. 5, 2017, four lucky Fordham students and two faculty members were invited to Mayor Bill de Blasio’s residence, Gracie Mansion, to commemorate Italian Heritage Month. This event marks the last of its kind for Mr. de Blasio’s first term and comes in the last weeks of his campaign for re-election which will conclude in early November. While Mr. de Blasio has gained publicity for protecting the rights of historically disadvantaged communities as they are threatened by the current White House administration, the intention of this event was simply to celebrate Italian-American New Yorkers’ shared culture, language and accomplishments.
Led by Dr. Alessia Valfredini, a “professoressa” in Fordham’s Italian Department, the modest Fordham delegation consisted of students of the Italian Language and Literature major from the university’s Bronx, Manhattan and Westchester campuses. During cocktail hour, we introduced ourselves and bonded over the stories of our Italian ancestors, the language courses we have taken and how good the pizza at the reception was (spoiler alert: it was heavenly).
After socializing with fellow guests, the Fordham delegation made its way towards the stage, where Italian-American members of Mr. de Blasio’s administration took their place. We were greeted by Chirlane McCray, the First Lady of the City of New York. After speaking some Italian and joking about her “adopted” Italian heritage, Ms. McCray made a shameless plug for her mental health hotline initiative, “NYC Well.” This 24/7 service is available to all New Yorkers who may need free and confidential over-the-phone counseling and is available in multiple languages, including Italian.
Following a rousing introduction from Ms. McCray, the Mayor proudly took the stage and greeted everyone in Italian—a language in which he is fluent. While it is easy for these events to quickly become quasi-campaign appearances, Mr. de Blasio seemed very present for the celebration of a culture he so vehemently seeks to preserve.
The Mayor spoke of how his Italian-American upbringing shaped him into the man he is today, going so far as to name his children “Chiara” and “Dante.” While he skirted around the issues which have plagued him in the last weeks of his campaign (i.e. his unclear position on whether the monuments to Christopher Columbus should remain erect), Mr. de Blasio pleaded with his guests to share the Italian language and the stories of Italian immigrants and their sacrifices with younger generations.
While the only mention of Columbus was from the Italian Ambassador to the U.S., who was the Mayor’s special guest speaker, the tension in the room was palpable. Many New Yorkers view their Italian heritage with fervent pride, but remain polarized regarding their feelings toward Christopher Columbus, both as a historic figure and a symbol of their culture. However, it is important to recognize that Italian Heritage Month is a time to acknowledge the achievements of Italian American New Yorkers, rather than have them overshadowed by a single individual.
Regardless of the controversy, I thank Mr. de Blasio for acknowledging Fordham University and our commitment to preserve and teach Italian language and culture. Perhaps one day we can share our Jesuit wisdom with him on how to reconcile our proud Italian heritage with America’s dangerous history of colonization.