Once upon a time, Columbus Day was not a source of contention but of celebration. Italian-Americans led by Denverite Angelo Noce pushed for the holiday to honor their national heritage. Italians are generally so integrated today it is easy to forget that they were once near the bottom of Colorado’s pecking order.
They were relegated to working in Colorado’s most dangerous mines and living in the worst neighborhoods, such as the South Platte River bottoms. The plight of her countrymen appalled Mother Frances Xavier Cabrini, the first U.S. citizen to be canonized a saint. After a visit in the early 1900s, Mother Cabrini wrote: “During my journey, I saw these dear fellows of ours engaged on the construction of railways in the most intricate mountain gorges. . . . The hardest labor is reserved for the Italian worker. Few regard him with a sympathetic eye, care for him or remember that he has a heart and a soul: they merely look upon him as an ingenious machine for work.”
In Colorado’s mines, she found Italians “slave away until someday a cave-in, explosion or accident of some kind cuts their life short, leaving their wives widowed and their children fatherless. They did not even need a grave, having been buried in the tomb in which they spent their whole lives.”
Long ago, I interviewed the surviving daughter of Denver’s first Italian tavern-keeper, Siro Mangini. Adelina Manigini Joy was born above the still-existing saloon building at 2219 Larimer St. Mangini thought long and hard about what to call his refuge for a stereotyped minority. “He finally decided to call it Christopher Columbus Hall, thinking that he was one [person] Italian Americans would not throw rocks at,” his daughter recalled.
Mangini worked with his in-laws, Angelo and Maria Capelli, who opened in 1873 what is now My Brothers Bar at 15th and Platte streets. They collaborated with another countryman, Angelo Noce, to improve Colorado’s Italian community.
Noce and Mangini relished the dream of honoring their fellow Genoan, Cristoforo Colombo. Agnelo Noce had immigrated to the U.S. with his family in the early 1850s and arrived in Denver around 1872. A printer by trade, Noce founded the first Italian newspaper in Colorado, La Stella.
In 1907, Noce persuaded Colorado’s sole Hispanic state senator, Casimio Barela, to sponsor a bill proclaiming Oct. 12 Columbus Day. Colorado became the first state to observe Columbus Day as an official holiday, and in 1909, Denver held its first Columbus Day parade.
The parade fell out of favor during the 1920s Ku Klux Klan era.
After launching Colorado’s festivities, Noce led a nationwide campaign to establish Columbus Day. By the time of his death in 1922, 35 states had declared it an official holiday. Sadly, the well-deserved recognition due Colorado’s Italians has been endangered by the evolving reputation of their national hero. Columbus’ mistreatment of native peoples has stained his reputation.
If you're interested in learning more about Italian Coloradans, check out our popular book Italy in Colorado: Family Histories from Denver and Beyond by Alisa DiGiacomo. Contact firstname.lastname@example.org for more information.