My parents brought me to America when I was 8 years old. Like all other Italian immigrants, they were incredibly proud to become American citizens. They learned English along with the history of this great country as they looked forward to the opportunities that lay ahead. Still, they never forgot where they came from and always made our Italian heritage the center of our hearts and home.
They couldn’t possibly have predicted the challenges that face us today as we try to hold onto a symbol that means so much to them and the entire Italian-American community.
Christopher Columbus means different things to different people. To Italian Americans, he represents our own voyage to this land of opportunity. He also symbolizes the immense contributions we have made to the fabric of our society.
Columbus carried a strong Catholic faith across the ocean, as did so many Italian immigrants who braved the journey to a new home in a strange land. That faith sustained him then, and it sustains us today.
I maintain that there needs to be a healthy debate about all of our country’s cherished historical figures, but let’s not abandon them in the process. Columbus has been celebrated in Chicago since the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition, and we’re not going to stop celebrating him today.
The challenges we’ve faced have been met head-on and, more importantly, behind the scenes. Since Mayor Lori Lightfoot took office, I and the members of the JCCIA Government Affairs Committee have engaged her and her staff in an ongoing dialogue, and she fully understands how important Columbus is to our community.
In July, however, the landscape changed dramatically when agitators tried to topple our beloved statue while hurling frozen water bottles at Chicago police officers, who stopped them at great risk to their safety.
We’re so grateful to the men and women of the Chicago Police Department, who bravely serve and protect us every day, but their safety is our greatest concern. While we opposed the removal of the statues, because of the circumstances, we understood. And it is important to note that the mayor has reassured us that the removal is only temporary.
That brings us to today.
As of this writing, the future of our statues and the safety and security of our city remains unknown. Discussions between the JCCIA and the city are ongoing. Shortly after the statues came down, the mayor’s office announced the formation of an advisory board to assess all the memorials and monuments in the city’s public art collection. The JCCIA has been included on that advisory board.
The JCCIA continues to challenge the Chicago Board of Education regarding its decision to eliminate Columbus Day as a holiday. We have yet to receive a response from our letter sent back in March. In mid-August, we submitted a Freedom of Information request to the board calling upon it to deliver all correspondence regarding Columbus Day from January 2019 to March 2020.
In July, the JCCIA held one of its most powerful meetings in recent memory, during which more than 70 local Italian-American leaders came together in our quest to keep Christopher Columbus the keystone of our history.
Due to coronavirus restrictions, our Columbus Day parade and similar events have been cancelled by the city, and related events are up in the air. Let’s all pray for the speedy development of an effective vaccine and the return of these venerable celebrations next October.
While our devotion to Columbus is deeply personal, our path to survival is political. We have strong relationships within city government, and we continue to strengthen those every day. And we are not stopping at City Hall. We are grateful to the eight state representatives who are part of our coalition as we continue to grow our statewide support.
“In our personal ambitions, we are individualists. But in our seeking for economic and political progress as a nation, we all go up, or else all go down, as one people.”
— Franklin D. Roosevelt