Columbus Day endangered in Chicago and elsewhere
October 4, 2019

Photo Courtesy We the Italians
The Columbus Day parade has been a long annual tradition in downtown Chicago.

By Rick Romano

More than 500 years after Christopher Columbus sailed the Atlantic Ocean in 1492, the long-celebrated Chicago holiday in his honor could be headed to dry dock.

Efforts to eliminate Columbus Day and replace it with Indigenous Peoples’ Day are in the works. Those favoring this change cite historians who have uncovered egregious acts of violence against native populations in the wake of Columbus’s coming to North America. Those opposing it note Columbus may represent a complicated history but feel his explorations deserve continued recognition.

Ordinance intent, language

Ald. Rossana Rodriquez-Sanchez (33rd Ward), a native of Puerto Rico, introduced an ordinance to rename the holiday in June with assistance from Anthony Tamaz-Pochel, her neighborhood services coordinator, who is of Native and African American heritage. Co-sponsor is Alderman Carlos Ramirez-Rosa (35th Ward).

The City Council referred the ordinance to the Budget and Government Operations Committee, then to the Health and Human Relations Committee. Rodriquez-Sanchez said she expects the ordinance to win committee approval easily and go before the City Council within a couple of months. If approved, she said the ordinance would go into effect in 2020.

She called the ordinance “long overdue,” claiming historical facts point to Columbus’s negative side.

“We are living in a moment of history in honoring the fact that our country was founded on genocide of indigenous people,” she said. “Christopher Columbus is an incredibly controversial figure. What you have is a colonizer who was inherently violent. He has been recognized as being brave for crossing the sea, but that is not enough.”

She pointed to taking the action in today’s political climate, adding, “Especially now that we have the Trump administration.”

The ordinance’s language includes historical and political context. References include the “near decimation of Tribal communities” by European migration to Chicago, the City’s responsibility to oppose “ongoing systematic racism toward Indigenous Peoples residing in the United States,” and the importance of recognizing the “discrimination and violence inflicted upon Indigenous Peoples of the Western Hemisphere.” The ordinance adds celebrating Columbus perpetuates a history “grounded in white supremacy.”

In addition, the ordinance notes the populations of modern day Puerto Rico, Jamaica, Trinidad, Republic of Haiti, the Dominican Republic, the Bahamas, Cuba, Venezuela, and Central America “have never recuperated from the invasion, extraction, and exploitation caused by Christopher Columbus’s four trips across the Atlantic from Spain that laid the blueprint for forced removal, assimilation, genocide, and slavery throughout American history.”

If the measure passes, Chicago would join at least seven states and almost 60 communities—including Evanston and Oak Park—across the nation that have either stopped observing Columbus Day in favor of Native American recognition or have added separate Native American observances.

President George H.W. Bush, in conjunction the American Indian Heritage Foundation, established Native American Heritage Month—November—in 1990. In 2008, President George W. Bush signed into law Native American Heritage Day—November 29—introduced by Democratic California Congressman Joe Baca.

Ald. Rodriquez-Sanchez said neither observance has been well publicized or promoted.

Varying views

Those on both sides of the issue weighed in on eliminating Columbus Day and whether a middle ground exists.

Heather Miller, executive director of the American Indian Center, said her organization supports the ordinance and its specific intent to replace and not add to the Columbus recognition. She said her organization rejected a 2017 effort to recognize Native Americans separately on the first Monday in September.

“What we know is that Columbus is a signal of slavery and genocide,” Miller said. “We want to rename the holiday in order to provide a sense of pride and make sure our voices are heard.”

Miller said it would be difficult to blend Columbus and Native American recognition to provide historical context as a teachable moment.

“It certainly brings up an interesting perspective,” she said. “It’s very hard for me to blend this idea of genocide and white supremacy. How do you put this into context that makes sense?”

Miller noted her organization is working with Chicago Public Schools board members and curriculum writers to present Columbus through a prism of Native American sensibility.

Columbus Day supporters also are presenting their case.

Sergio Giangrande, president of the Joint Civic Committee of Italian Americans based in Stone Park, IL, and Chicago-based Robert Allegrini, board officer of the National Italian American Foundation, said local organizations are educating elected officials about the importance of keeping the Columbus recognition.

“You know, there is a lot of misinformation about all of this,” Allegrini said. “Columbus did not come to the New World with the intention of conquering. That is a misnomer. This has come up before so it’s not a new issue. I have faith in the City Council that they will keep Columbus Day, That is just my own read of the City Council.”

Giangrande said the annual Columbus Day festivities, including the parade, remain popular with little disruption.

“You might see a handful of people on a corner” protesting, he said. “I know some aldermen have signed off on this ordinance. It’s hard for us to even think about that.”

State Rep. John D’Amico (15th District) said he has not heard a lot about the most recent move to eliminate Columbus Day, though he opposes the measure.

“It’s been tried at the state level at least once and it failed, “D’Amico said. “I am very proud of our Columbus Day in the city and of our heritage, so I hope it [the ordinance] is stopped.”

Janice Mancuso, New York-based founder of the Italian American Heritage Project, said she rejects the notion some have offered to replace honoring Columbus with another Italian.

“Christopher Columbus changed the world, and he should get his honor,” Mancuso said. “The Spaniards did not like him. He was a great navigator but not a great governor.”

Mancuso, Giangrande, and Allegrini noted they believed others involved in those explorations committed the vast majority of crimes against indigenous populations. They said it is unrealistic to apply 2019 cultural standards to the era of exploration in the 1400s and stated Columbus has been a deep source of pride for Italian immigrants for more than a century.

Seeds of current proposal

Tamaz-Pochel, who helped Ald. Rodriquez-Sanchez write the proposed ordinance to replace Columbus Day, said he has been motivated since high school, where with the help of family and educators he began questioning the traditional Columbus history.

He said he understands how Columbus Day supporters would feel “if the holiday was stripped” from them. Like some others who want to replace Columbus Day, he said celebrations should honor other Italian American figures.

“This would be a step in the right direction of truth,” Tamaz-Pochel said. “Our first step is figuring how we can celebrate Native American heritage and then figure out how we can celebrate two cultures.”

Log on to www.aicchicago.org for the American Indian Center. To contact D’Amico, call (773) 736-0218. Log on to italamerheritage.com for the Italian American Heritage Project. For the JCCIA, log on to www.jccia.com. For the NIAF, log on to www.niaf.org. For Rodriguez-Sanchez, call (773) 840-7880 or email info@33rdward.org.