Italians close ranks as Columbus controversy grows
Article from Bill Ervolino, Staff Writer of North Jersey.com
Manny Alfano of Bloomfield is a man on a two-pronged mission.
Through his organization, Italian American One Voice Coalition, or IAOVC, he fights the stereotyping of Italian-Americans and attacks on Christopher Columbus, whose namesake holiday will be observed next month.
“We are judging a 15th century explorer by 21st century standards,” said Alfano, who will make his case at the IAOVC annual breakfast at The Gran Centurions in Clark.
Alfano and other Italian leaders in the Garden State are urging Italian-Americans to support their local Columbus Day parades this year on Sunday, Oct. 8, and to also take part in the Manhattan parade on Monday, Oct. 9, despite criticism from Native Americans, Latinos and even some Italian-Americans calling for an end to the Columbus holiday altogether and the removal of monuments to him.
Those demands have gained momentum in the month since a rally to protest the removal of a statue of Robert E. Lee drew hundreds of white supremacists to Charlottesville, Va. One counter-protester was killed in the ensuing violence. In the aftermath, Columbus has been drawn into a national debate over which historical figures are worthy of celebration in parks and other public settings.
A longtime spokesman for North Jersey’s Italian-American community and president of the Belleville chapter of UNICO, Alfano says too many Americans haven’t taken his causes seriously enough. “And that includes Italians,” he said. “We have our organizations like UNICO, which do wonderful things with their scholarships and fundraising efforts. But, in the past, when it has come to standing up against the defamation and discrimination (aimed at) Italians, the response has always been, ‘Lighten up.’
“We don’t have a strong organization like the ADL or the NAACP,” he added, referring to the Anti-Defamation League. “They’re set up to fight against discrimination, we’re not. So we’re an easy target. If Columbus was part of some other ethnic group, I don’t think this would be happening.”
Mayor Bill de Blasio of New York City made national headlines last month when he responded to complaints about the Columbus statues in his boroughs, including the one that gave Columbus Circle its name, by creating a commission to look into all of the “potentially controversial” monuments in the city. (De Blasio has not taken an official stand on the matter, but New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo has, stating that removal of the statues would be an act of “disrespect” to New York’s Italian-Americans.)
Last week, an op-ed column in Philadelphia magazine decried Columbus as “a racist, sexist xenophobe who raped, tortured, and enslaved countless indigenous people and helped spread mass genocide throughout the continent.” Columbus, it added, “never discovered North America or even stepped foot on it, and conceptualizing the world as round wasn’t his bright idea either.”
The word “murderer” was spray-painted on a statue of Columbus in Binghamton, N.Y., earlier this month. In August, a statue of the explorer in Columbus Memorial Park in Yonkers was beheaded. And in Minneapolis, a petition is being circulated to replace the Columbus statue at the State Capitol in nearby St. Paul with one of the late pop star Prince.
Alfano spoke to The Record shortly before it was reported that yet another statue of Columbus, in Manhattan’s Central Park, had been vandalized. The hands of the statue, which was commissioned by the New York Genealogical and Biographical Society 25 years ago to mark the 500th anniversary of the Italian explorer’s 1492 voyage, were spattered with blood-red paint. The vandal also scrawled graffiti on the statue’s pedestal, including the words “hate will not be tolerated” and the ominous hashtag “#somethingscoming.”
Alfano noted that Indigenous Peoples’ Day, also known in some parts of the country as Native American Day, is now observed instead of Columbus Day in dozens of cities across the country including Berkeley, Calif.; Los Angeles; Phoenix; Denver; Santa Fe, N.M.; and Ann Arbor, Mich.
Earlier this month, at the annual dinner of the Nutley Chapter of UNICO, held at the Momma Vittoria restaurant in Nutley, the chapter’s president, Sal Ferraro, joined Alfano in urging his members and their guests to support the upcoming Columbus Day observances.
Days later, Ferraro told The Record: “We have our parade on Sunday (Oct. 8), which usually draws between 3,000 and 5,000 people, and we generally march in the New York parade, too. A lot of the New Jersey chapters go in and we march together. But this year, we are hoping to see more people to turn out and we’re putting this in emails to our members.”
Ferraro, who was born in Italy, added: “Columbus sailed for the Queen of Spain, but he was an Italian and to me he is symbolic of the Italians who came to America and helped build this country. To Italian-Americans, he represents their journey, too. And these attacks on the parade and the statues. … I just don’t think it’s right.”
More than 30 New Jersey communities have a Columbus monument, including Garfield, Hackensack, Hoboken, North Arlington and Kearny. Jersey City has two statues, one in Journal Square and the other in Liberty State Park. Lodi also has two, in Christopher Columbus Park and on Memorial Drive, as does Nutley, both at the corner of Chestnut Street and Kennedy Drive.
The statue in Newark’s Washington Park was made in Rome and has been in place since 1927.
A statue of the explorer in Hamilton, in Mercer County, was defaced two years ago. Vandals painted the number 13 on the statue, which stands in front of the Italian American Heritage Center, the face was painted black and the letters “FU” were written in front of the statue’s pedestal.
Chief Dwaine Perry of the Ramapough Lenape Nation told The Record that he is not against the Columbus parades.
“I think there should be some form of celebration about him being able to cross the ocean at that time,” Perry said, “but I think we need to change the focus. He was a mercenary and the end results are what you get from a mercenary. I don’t think we want to celebrate him as much as the many accomplishments of his people.”
Maria Mazzioti Gillan, a professor of poetry at Binghamton University who has written extensively about the Italian-American experience, said she will be taking part in the New York parade this year, but remains conflicted about it.
“Before all the statue talk,” said Gillan, of Hawthorne, “I got a letter from the president of Barnes & Noble asking me to march with him in the parade in honor of Italian-American writers. I will be on the B&N float, so I am going to be in the parade for the first time in my life. And, to be frank, I’m feeling a little worried about it. I certainly don’t think Columbus was perfect, but I think of the day as a celebration of Italians.”
Gillan, who grew up in the Riverside section of Paterson in the 1940s, added: “For me, I see all those Italians, [who were once] spit on and denigrated, who could feel proud of their heritage and their hero. Columbus did terrible things, but in honor of my father and all the members of the Italian societies in Paterson in the 1920s and ‘30s, I’m not willing to let him go yet.”