San Jose booted the Christopher Columbus statue, but not the holiday
San Jose councilmembers voted to boot the Christopher Columbus statue from City Hall in 2017, but the city still commemorates the holiday. Photo by Ramona Giwargis.

More cities across the country are scrapping Columbus Day and replacing it with Indigenous Peoples’ Day to commemorate native communities who inhabited the Americas long before European explorers like Christopher Columbus arrived.

But even as the trend is growing nationwide, progressively deemed cities such as San Jose are still heavily polarized on making the switch, reigniting a culture war debate on how America’s troubled history has been told over the centuries.

While the debate on Columbus and his remembrance rages on, the controversy came to a head in 2017 when two opposing groups fought over a controversial statue of the disputed explorer inside City Hall. Ultimately, the City Council voted to remove the statue, instead relocating it to the hall of the Italian American Heritage Foundation. The statue was originally donated to the city in 1958 by the San Jose Civic Club and the Italo-American Societies of San Jose.

Despite the decision to boot the statue out of San Jose City Hall, there doesn’t seem to be political will to drop Columbus Day in San Jose — at least not ahead of the 2020 elections. San Jose continues to observe it as a holiday, closing its City Hall and canceling a City Council meeting that week. Many other major cities, however, such as Washington, D.C., Seattle and San Francisco in recent years have nixed the controversial holiday.

Peter Ortiz, co-founder of the San Jose Brown Berets, spearheaded the 2017 effort alongside civil rights groups who said the statue represented a “problematic figure” who committed mass genocide of Native Americans. Now, he says he supports a holiday celebrating Italian-American culture, but does not think that Columbus’ name should be attached to it.

“I do see that the name could be moved to ‘Italian American Heritage Day’ or something along those lines that acknowledges the Italian-American contribution to the city of San Jose because they have made major contributions,” said Ortiz. “Many of our founding fathers were of Italian descent and I believe that the history should be recognized and respected. But I definitely see the need of changing the name.”

To many indigenous communities, Columbus represents violence and a brutal effort to exterminate the first inhabitants of the Americas, added Ortiz, calling Columbus’ arrival a “glorified genocide,” and the “Holocaust of the Native American community.” Observing a holiday in his name condones and celebrates that history, said Ortiz, as it conjures the oppression of hundreds of native communities at the hands of European conquistadores.

“Part of it is glorified genocide — the Holocaust of the native community and the eraser of our culture,” said Ortiz. “Saying that he founded an area which was already inhabited equates to white supremacy. That presence and treating us like as if we were like animals that were here and that we weren’t human — it goes back to the view that people of color are less than human beings.”

But many in the community criticized both the removal of the Columbus statue and the suggestion to drop the holiday’s name as political correctness run amok, adding that its removal did little to ease racially-attributed resentments but successfully aimed to erase history. Many Italian-Americans consider the discovery of the Americas a grand feat for an explorer like Columbus to accomplish and don’t support changing the name in San Jose.

“It would upset the Italian-Americans because they feel some pride that it was an Italian that discovered the Americas,” said Felix Dalldorf, president of San Jose’s Italian American Heritage Foundation. “But if you go to replace it, and wipe out the discovery of America, the discovery that the world is round, the incredible navigation changes that were required to make the journey across the Atlantic Ocean to find it, wipe out the history of the 1400s — I could see how that would upset some people.”

For decades, Italian immigrants and their descendants have also faced mass persecution, widespread discrimination and lynchings.

That’s why for Dalldorf, it’s important not to erase history or Columbus’ name from a holiday, and instead focus on how it can be remembered, without glorifying or condoning the negative narrative.

Still, many civil rights activists say there’s a way of celebrating one culture without shutting out the voice of another. The real issue at hand is the remembrance of the figure, not the fight between the two communities, added Ortiz.

“There’s really nothing to celebrate him for. There’s a way to acknowledge the community without recognizing that specific divisive figure,” said Ortiz.

Contact Nadia Lopez at nadia@sanjosespotlight.com or follow @n_llopez on Twitter.

 

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