Vice President of Joint Civic Committee of Italian Americans,
Address at Italian Heritage Celebration-Arrigo Park 7-26-20
Hello everyone. I’m Ron Onesti. My story is much like most of yours here today. My grandparents, Gaetano and Sabina Onesti left Olivetta Citra near Naples, with little more than the clothes on their backs, a few Lira, threads and needles in their pockets, and no command of the English language. They came in search of a better life for their family. They made it through the gates of Ellis Island, and in 1911, found their way to 1405 West Taylor street.
After giving birth to my father and his five brothers and sisters, my grandfather moved his tailor shop to Western and Taylor, where I was born and baptized at St. Callistus in 1962, and have been visiting Our Lady of Pompei ever since.
Four years later in 1966, state representative Victor Arrigo rescued a great statue of Christopher Columbus. It was bult in 1892 and prominently displayed in the Italian pavilion of the 1893 Columbian Exposition World’s Fair in Chicago.
Representative Arrigo was a great proponent of the Italian American community. He thought, “What better place for the statue, and what better way to celebrate Italian culture than by putting it here,” what was known as Vernon Park at the time. Some called it peanut park, but these grounds you are standing on today became a public park in 1857, with the surrounding houses falling victim to the Chicago fire in 1871. After a re-build in 1885, it became a center for the rising Italian community that settled in this area through the 1940s. This is our history.
So much history. So many memories. So many weddings, graduations and other family photos with that massive statue in the background. And for decades, the Knights of Columbus had a pre-Columbus Day parade wreath laying ceremony, right on this very spot.
But now it’s gone. Taken in the darkness of night, while so many fought to keep it here, where it belonged.
It has fallen victim to violence and destruction. A political pawn easily moved in the chess game of social injustice we of all ethnic groups are facing today.
Are we mad? Yes. Are we insulted? Absolutely. Should this be taken as an insensitive slap in the face of all Italian Americans? Without a doubt. We were told this wasn’t going to happen. But it did. It was wrong. The statues were unceremoniously removed sending a dangerous message to the violent protesters who marched upon the mayor’s home. The wrong message.
But here we are. Right in the middle of a war. Some have chastised the Italian American community. Where have you guys been? What have you been doing? How could you let them take the statue?
What people must realize is that we are dealing with illogical, unreasonable, and extremely dangerous criminals. Even during prohibition, the thugs of the day lived by an unwritten law of not harming civilians and children.
But not now! Children are being killed, shot in the streets of Chicago, every weekend. We are surrounded by lawlessness, confusion, and eminent danger.
Look, we were all brought up the same way. Nobody takes what is ours. Nobody touches my family. Nobody messes with my friends. Nobody comes into my yard unless invited. It’s a hard pill for us to swallow that a precious heirloom and a coveted piece of our history was craned off and put on a flatbed truck right under our noses.
But let me ask you a question. If I came up to you and said it was your decision-either we put the statue in a safe haven for a while or 49 police officers would be hospitalized, what would your decision be?
If I also asked you, and it was your decision again, either you put the statue in secret storage for a while or it will be toppled, blown up and destroyed, what would your decision be?
So maybe the statue removed from the equation for now, during this horrible time we are living in, isn’t such a bad thing after all. It happened. And now, it’s our turn to act.
So frankly, at this point, it is not about what happened at 3am last Friday morning. It is about what’s next. What are we as a community going to do to perpetuate our Italian heritage here in Chicago? How are we going to make sure that the memories of our parents and grandparents don’t get lost in re-written history books?
I’ll tell you how. We are going to stay united. We are going to become the force to be reckoned with we all know we can be. We are going to do whatever it takes.
But we need to remain positive. We need to keep our cool. This must be a peaceful fight. We cannot drop down to the level of those who have no respect for our history. We need to handle this in an intelligent way, one we can be proud of. The first thing we do is get out the green white and red! I bought out a warehouse of Italian flags and masks to give away to you here today. Proudly display our colors. Take pictures and flood social media.
We all remember 9-11. After that fateful, unthinkable day, red white and blue was everywhere! In a respectful sense, this is our 9-11! Let’s show everyone we are out here, we are massive, and we are strong.
Then, we must get out the vote. Make sure we are all registered. As quickly as this has all happened, with a change of an elected official or two it can all change back for the better again. But we cannot sit back and just hope it happens.
Next, as the dust settles on this craziness, we demand to be invited to the mayor’s table to discuss ways of fostering our great heritage, the same one that had such a big part in building this city. We want to talk about parades, monuments, testimonials, displays of our ethnic presence, the same way so many other ethnic groups are respected. We will not be passed over or disregarded anymore!
And we want to know the fate of the Columbus statues.
This fight is not over. It is just beginning. Today is not a celebration. It is a call to action. But we must stay unified, committed and most of all safe. And it is wonderful to see that we are not alone as many other ethnic groups have shown its support of our plight and are willing to march by our side.
But today, we must also take a breath. We are in an intense battle. The most beautiful of buildings could be engulfed in flames. As much as his instinct tells him to do so, a firefighter won’t jump in the middle of the flames in an attempt to extinguish it. Sometimes, you have to let it burn and rebuild. And when we do, it will bigger, better and more beautiful than ever.
So, let’s show our pride and fly our colors, flood social media and show our elected officials we mean business. Support the many Italian American organizations and businesses we have in this area. We have so much to be proud of, so much positive within our community. Let’s place our focus on that.
But this could be our last chance, folks. It could also be the best opportunity we have had in years to address the social injustice we have faced, our parents have endured, and our grandparents suffered from. This is bigger than the statues. This is bigger than Columbus.
Now is our time. For me, this is my way of thanking Gaetano and Sabina, and to let them know their sacrifices were not made in vain.
God bless you and your families. May you stay safe and healthy always, and may the green white and red that flows through our veins give us the strength to emerge victorious in our fight to be heard.