A Headless Statue
On June 9th, the Christopher Columbus statue in Boston's Christopher Columbus park was beheaded. Some celebrated the destruction of a statue idolizing colonization while others, mainly the Italian community in Boston's North End, were irate at the damage.
WHY DO ITALIANS LOVE HIM?
Italians are the second largest ancestry group in Boston, after the Irish. They were discriminated against, like every generation of American immigrants is discriminated against. They worked hard, held protests, organized labor unions, and lifted themselves out of poverty, overcrowding, a language barrier, and discrimination. These are the Italians I am proud of.
In 1492 Columbus sailed the ocean blue...
The white-washed version of history depicts Christopher Columbus as the Italian explorer who "discovered America". His "success" in the new world was inspiring to those seeking success here. In 1979 this statue was erected in Christopher Columbus Waterfront Park with the support of many local Italian organizations. The statue was carved out of a block of marble from Carrara, Italy, (the same marble quarry that Michelangelo's statue of David was carved from) by Andrew Mazzola, a first generation Italian-American.
HERO OR VILLIAN?
As 3rd generation Italian-American myself, I don't understand the obsession with Columbus. Yes, he was born in Italy, but he sailed for Spain, got lost and thought the Caribbean was India. He never made it to North America and he was so vicious, that Spain actually arrested him and stripped him of his governorship. To me, he represents the worst of our heritage - he's responsible for genocide, slavery, rape, and mutilation. He was more of an opportunist than an explorer. If Columbus was alive today, I don't think anyone would be proud of him.
Passions Run High
On June 10th, a press conference was held at the statue by local indigenous groups. The speakers represented the United American Indians of New England, North American Indian Center of Boston, IndigenousPeoplesDayMA, and the New Democracy Coalition, but you could hardly hear them over the disruptive shouting of one angry North Ender.
As I stood there, photographing and filming, I couldn't decide if I was helping or exacerbating the tension. The news cameras were all focused on the argument playing out behind the presenter. The woman leading the press conference was understandably angry, she felt that once again the voices of the indigenous were being drown out. Meanwhile the cameras were following the story of the irate Italian yelling in the faces of anyone between him and a microphone. It was quite the spectacle, as you can see you for yourself.
The case for A different Statue
Some of the speakers were representative of other local organizations, such as Italian Americans for Indigenous Peoples Day. They tried to distance themselves from the irate screaming and reflect on how Italians have faced discrimination in the U.S. and why it's so important to stand against discrimination of other marginalized communities now.
I realize how difficult it will be to convince the Italian-American community that tearing down Columbus isn't an attack on our Italian history. There are so many other Italians we can be more proud of. I've complied a list of people who represent my heritage in a way I would be proud to talk about.
3 Better Italians
- Leonardo DaVinci - painter, scientist, and inventor; one of the world's greatest minds.
- Galileo Galilei - astronomer, scientist and philosopher; discovered that the earth revolves around the sun, "the father of modern science".
- Maria Montessori - an educator and physician whose teaching method is used in schools globally.
3 Better Italian-Americans
- Frank Sinatra - one of the best selling music artists of all time.
- Mayor Thomas Menino - Boston's first and only Italian-American mayor, and Boston's longest serving mayor.
- Dr. Anthony Fauci - physician and immunologist - America's leading infectious disease expert.
Or how about any North End success story? There are successful small business owners, and integral figures to the community that could be celebrated in this beautiful park.
Then Things went sideways
As the press conference continued, things just got wilder. It started to feel like a reality tv show - cameras in people's faces, news crews filming, with tensions and tempers flaring. The guy who had been photobombing the press conference began shouting out his Instagram handle, someone else shows up claiming to be the chief of the indigenous community and asks to meet the Italians to discuss the options for a different statue. Each moment was more surprising than the last.
The North End wasn't always the Italian neighborhood. Before 1619, the Massachusett tribe lived in the Boston area. When the Puritans arrived, these English settlers built a city, starting with the North End. After the English arrived, the slave trade brought in Africans, many of these Black Americans lived in the North End. Then came the Irish immigrants fleeing the potato famine, followed by the Jewish immigrants fleeing persecution, all settling in the North End. The Italians were next to immigrate, and have continued to dominate the North End since the 1890's.
Boston has always been home to both refuge and discrimination, and the criticism of this statue is not new. In fact, this is the third time the Christopher Columbus Statue has been targeted. In 2006 the head was also removed, and in 2015 it had been splashed with red paint and spray painted "Black Lives Matter". In the past the city has repaired and replaced the statue. This time, Mayor Marty Walsh said that he will "take time to assess the historical meaning of the statue". The Italian community is pressuring the mayor to return the Christopher Columbus statue to celebrate the story of Italian immigrants. I hope we can find a new Italian, or American, to rally around instead.