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Op-Ed:Removal of the Columbus statues has left a hole in the heart of our Italian American community

The Christopher Columbus statue in Arrigo Park in Chicago's Little Italy neighborhood on Oct. 7, 2017. (Alyssa Pointer / Chicago Tribune)



JUL 24, 2020 AT 5:58 PM

Did Chicago sleep better Thursday night after the Christopher Columbus statues were taken down? One group of Chicagoans did not. In fact, one very close-knit community has been hurt — badly. The Italian American community, which, along with Chicago, had a symbol of its resilience removed. More correctly, dismantled and hauled away.

Upon coming to Chicago, Italian Americans clung to our communities and our Catholic faith; and yes, to the symbol of our immigrant achievements, particularly in Chicago. Christopher Columbus has represented all of that to us. He was a pioneer who helped lead our families here. And he became, in the time of the first Italian immigrants, a representation of the culture and things Italians have contributed to our great nation.

The Columbus statue in Arrigo Park in Little Italy is the center point of our heritage. It is steps away from an original Italian American church, built by immigrants, the Shrine of Our Lady of Pompeii. For decades, we have held festas and processions at this location. The statue is part of our community, our triumphs, our celebrations and our tragedies. Now, there is a hole in the center of the beating heart of Italian Americans across Chicago.

As a community we are now being told by others we have to find a new symbol. What, though, of our ancestors, whose blood, sweat and tears crafted the very streets we walk on and buildings we live in? What do we say to the generations of families who have fed our city? Once upon a time, they too would gather at the now dismantled statue.

There can and should be a healthy debate about many historical figures. That debate should be held with opposing sides together so that people can learn from history. Our national motto, “e pluribus unum,” (a gift of the ancient language of Rome, Italy) means out of many we are one. How do we value the many when we cast off an entire group?

Since 1952, the Joint Civic Committee of Italian Americans has been the centralized voice of our community — a voice that has fought many battles, has worked with many leaders, and has always been willing to listen, compromise and negotiate.

We have become a society that is crippled by the lack of ability to move forward in cooperatively discussing the lessons of the past. Italian Americans in the past have been victims of horrific acts of violence. That history makes us sympathetic to the cause of our brothers and sisters who are experiencing so much pain right now around the country. We too were shunned; we too were not treated well. We cannot lift up a group of people, who are so deserving of elevation, by stepping on the backs of those who share some of their historical pain.

Like so many other groups, Italian Americans know too well the impact of being marginalized. We also know the value in dedicating ourselves to working to create a better community around us while keeping our faith and traditions dear.

What has happened in the last 24 hours was a total usurpation of our cultural beliefs. We are told this is temporary. Mayor Lightfoot, we are holding you to your word.

Sergio Giangrande is president of the Joint Civic Committee of Italian Americans.

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