BOSTON (AP) – Generations of Italian Americans embraced Christopher Columbus with little regard for the dark side of his legacy. But as the nation struggles with racial injustice, that ship may have sailed.
Now, some Italian Americans in Massachusetts are publicly casting the explorer as a symbol of white supremacy that caused centuries of European oppression and the decimation of indigenous peoples.
It’s time, they say, to permanently dump a Columbus statue near Boston’s historic North End neighborhood, recently destroyed and temporarily removed from its pedestal by the city.
“There has always been a feeling that Italian Americans all think the same about Columbus,” said Heather Leavell, 46, of Bedford, one of the founders of the group of Italian Americans for Indigenous People’s Day.
“Our country is prioritizing the comfort of Italian Americans and how we will experience this rather than center the voices of Native Americans,” she said in an interview.
The group was formed about a year ago to help push for the adoption of a Massachusetts Statehouse bill that would rename Columbus Day to Indigenous People’s Day. Leavell said the group has received support from across the country, including others of Italian descent.
“Our parents have told us stories of the level of discrimination they faced and fears that what they worked so hard for could be lost, but this is not unique to Italians being discriminated against,” said Leavell, whose mother is of Italian descent. . “We unfortunately bonded with a white supremacist in our efforts to be recognized in this country.”
The most recent attack on the statue came last week when it was discovered with the head removed. The statue was saved, and Democratic Mayor Marty Walsh said the city is reassessing its significance.
Once declared the discoverer of America in 1492, Columbus’s legacy has gained more attention in recent decades.
Columbus’ sailing expeditions are now seen by many as opening the door to the European conquest of Native American peoples and the establishment of the transatlantic slave trade.
By then, older generations of Italian Americans – many of them in the traditional Italian-American North End neighborhood – had adopted Columbus as a cultural hero. In 1979, the statue was built as part of Christopher Columbus Park on the city’s waterfront next to the North End.
Ultimately, the image drew the ire of critics, who viewed it as a commemoration of the European genocide of indigenous peoples. In recent years, it has become the target of vandalism. In 2006, the head of the statue was knocked off.
For some, including Francis Mazzaglia of the Italian American Alliance group, the destruction at the Columbus statue amounts to a hate crime against Italian Americans.
The former professor of business and criminology said it would be unfair to put down the slave trade and the diseases caused by European explorers who have afflicted native peoples all at Columbus’ feet, or depict it as genocide.
“The people who are against Christopher Columbus and his statue are sincere in what they say,” said Mazzaglia, 80. “But you can be sincere and wrong at the same time.
Mazzaglia said that if the city removes the statue, he wants to find a place for it on private property, perhaps in the North End.
“Destroying a symbol so important to Italian-American people is not okay,” he said.
Not all Italian Americans agree.
Corrie Popp, a 46-year-old high school English teacher and resident of Waltham, said many younger Italian Americans are willing to dump Columbus.
“Most Italian Americans are generous people,” said Popp, whose mother is of Italian descent. “But Columbus can no longer represent us as Italian Americans.”
There have been suggestions from other historical Italian-American figures who could take the place of Columbus, including Italian immigrants and recognized anarchists Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti, who were executed in Boston amid a fierce anti-immigrant sentiment after one of the most notorious criminal cases of the 20th century.
Popp said she understands how difficult it can be for older Italian Americans to abandon figures like Columbus, but said the hurt feelings of some Italian Americans cannot be placed on the need to recognize the legacy of indigenous peoples.
“It’s a bigger question than just the North End,” she said.
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