CHICAGO — Amid scattered storms, a woman wearing a traditional poncho led a ceremony Monday at Pilsen’s Plaza Tenochtitlan to pay respect to the contributions of Indigenous people.
A mile away, at Arrigo Park in Little Italy, Italians and Italian Americans celebrated their heritage and advocated for the preservation of Columbus Day in Illinois. They also urged the city to return the Christopher Columbus statue removed from the park earlier this year.
Despite the contrast between the celebrations, people at both rallies agreed they intend to embrace each other’s culture and history. They also urged public officials to address the issues surrounding proposals to reframe and rename the federal holiday, keeping both sides at the table.
“There have been recent actions in an effort to replace Columbus Day with Indigenous Peoples Day. We welcome Indigenous people, we want you to have your day,” said Ron Onesti, the vice president of the Joint Civic Committee of Italians Americans.
“We just don’t believe that the day that celebrates your culture needs to come with a price tag and at the expense of our federal holiday,” Onesti added, as a crowd cheered while holding Italian flags and wearing the flag’s colors.
Inspired by Black Lives Matter demonstrations, hundreds rallied in July to demand the removal of the monuments of the Italian explorer, blaming him for the genocide of Indigenous people and denouncing him as a symbol of racism.
After protesters clashed with police, Mayor Lori Lightfoot ordered the temporary removal of two Columbus statues in Chicago, one at Arrigo Park and another in Grant Park.
Onesti said that he welcomed the “opportunity to discuss actions that happened 500 years ago.”
“But what we cannot accept is disrespect to our community. To be dictated on who or what should be our icons is unacceptable, as it would be to any other ethnic group,” he said during the program labeled “Proud and Positive,” which was followed by a car caravan in the Little Italy neighborhood.
Representatives of various Italian-based organizations and several City Council members attended the event and echoed Onesti’s perspective.
The president of the Italian American committee, Sergio Giangrande, said the Columbus Day Parade was not canceled due to civil unrest, but because the city canceled all parades in 2020. He also applauded the Chicago Police Department for its work and added that the organization is waiting for the mayor to order the statues returned to their place.
“For those people trying to erase history I say to you: History is here for us to learn. We need to know where we came from to know where we are going,” Giangrande said.
But redefining the federal holiday and recognizing Indigenous Peoples Day — as other states and cities across the country have done — “is not meant to erase history,” said Susana Angelica Ollin Kuikatl Bañuelos, an Aztec dancer from Chihuahua, Mexico, who led the Indigenous ceremony. We Got Us, an organization that supports the Black Lives Matter movement and is pushing the Black and Latino communities to vote in the upcoming elections, hosted the rally.
“Replacing Columbus Day with Indigenous Peoples Day is meant to finally recognize what really happened in history, and honor those who have been oppressed for centuries because people like Columbus attempted to get rid of our Indigenous heritage and culture,” said Ollin Kuikatl Bañuelos.
In some Latin American countries, Oct. 12 is observed as El Dia de La Raza, which translates to The Day of Race. It honors Indigenous communities but is also used to raise awareness of the abuse and exploitation of Indigenous communities conquered by European explorers like Columbus, explained Jose Lopez, a history professor at University of Illinois at Chicago and Columbia College.
Lopez is optimistic that Italian and Indigenous people’s heritage can both be celebrated, “but it wouldn’t be possible to reach an agreement under Columbus’ name,” he said.
“Preserving Columbus Day means the further perpetuation of modern colonization, which is structural racism and the ultimate form of white supremacy,” he said.
At Arrigo Park, Mo Bella, who is half Italian and half Native American, stopped by with a sign that read: “This is Stolen Land.”
The sign angered Carlo Vaniglia, who said he welcomed different opinions regarding Columbus, “but this is not the time or place.
“It’s a nonintelligent sign because if you live here then you’re on stolen land too, give it back,” he said.
Every Sunday for the last 19 weeks, Vaniglia said he and other Italians and Italian Americans have gathered where the Columbus statue used to be to share Columbus’ history and what it means to them.
“I’ve had Indigenous people come here and we’ve discussed this respectfully, the pros and cons, and that’s what we’re supposed to do, we’ve had great conversations,” he added.
Bella said she felt compelled to go because she cannot “let people celebrate without being unbothered, ignoring the truth and everything that is going on.”
“They need to recognize what Christopher Columbus did and what he represents as an explorer who perpetrated the mass murdering of Indigenous people and stole their land,” Bella said.
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