L.A. Junks Columbus Day

Printed from: https://newbostonpost.com/2017/08/31/l-a-junks-columbus-day/

Goodbye Columbus Day, hello Indigenous Peoples’ Day.

The Los Angeles City Council voted 14-1 on Wednesday to rename the state and federal holiday on the second Monday in October. Los Angeles joins several other cities in the United States to make the switch, including Cambridge, Massachusetts, which renamed the holiday in 2016.

Several Italian-Americans and Italian nationals spoke against the change during a spirited public comment period at Los Angeles City Hall. But the measure, first introduced in the fall of 2015, was a done deal.

Columbus Day, which honors the European discoverer of the Americas in 1492, became a federal holiday in 1937. Christopher Columbus was a native of Genoa in Italy who sailed on behalf of Spain.

Supporters of Columbus Day see Columbus as a heroic explorer whose voyages opened the New World to migrations of Europeans that formed a vital portion of American culture. Opponents say that Columbus was a cruel man who practiced slavery and ushered in centuries of oppression and murder of native peoples.

In Los Angeles, pro-Columbus Day speakers on Wednesday argued that the city should also institute an Indigenous Peoples’ Day in honor of American Indians but shouldn’t take away Columbus Day.

Ann Potenza, president of Federated Italo-Americans of Southern California, said Columbus gets a bad rap.

“For two years I’ve been coming here in support of Indigenous Peoples’ Day. On behalf of the Italian community we want to celebrate with you. We just don’t want it to be at the expense of Columbus Day,” Potenza said. “There are controversies up and down about the pros and cons of Columbus. But there’s one hard fact that we have to look at, and it’s ugly, and I hate to bring it, but …

“Columbus is on trial because of slavery and genocide that is associated with him and everything that has happened in the Americas since he came 500 years ago,” Potenza said. “The reality is, is that if we look at that and we only base a holiday on what was happening 500 years ago, even thousands — slavery existed 11,000 years ago, even further. We don’t condone it. Since we had a Civil War we put that to rest in our country. But the fact is, even the Native Americans, the indigenous people, ancient civilizations have engaged in slavery. And genocide is because of the disease that came.”

Massimino Bastone, a Los Angeles resident, said migrations of peoples often involve bloodshed and displacement, but that Columbus shouldn’t be tarred with everything that happened after his discovery.

“I love the indigenous culture. I love the Native American culture, with all my heart. I respect it. But at the same time I think it’s absolutely unfair to get something out of our culture, and to blame just one man of something that he didn’t do,” he said. “He was an explorer, like many other people, and history, unfortunately, it’s like a big stream of blood, with people trying to overcome other people all the time. And blaming Christopher Columbus is absolutely unfair. We should celebrate indigenous culture, and at the same time to celebrate an Italian explorer who did something that is absolutely remarkable. Otherwise, we’re going to lose everything.”

But opponents said there is nothing good about Columbus or what he wrought.

Shannon Speed, a member of the Chickasaw Nation and director of the American Indian Studies Center at the University of California at Los Angeles, said it’s imperative to ditch Columbus Day.

“I come before you as a scholar of human rights and justice processes in order to say that today you hold in your hands the opportunity to carry out an act of restorative justice. Eliminating Columbus Day as a city holiday is an acknowledgment of both the historical falsehoods that have been ideologically propagated against indigenous peoples, and the ongoing harm that the celebration of this day represents for our peoples today,” Speed said.

She continued:

“The creation of Indigenous Peoples’ Day as a holiday in this city on the second Monday of October is an act of restorative justice in the sense that it restores a truth directly and facilitates a process of mutual forgiveness. More importantly, given this historic opportunity, failing to do so will create the opposite effect, engendering not truth telling and mutual healing, but rather feelings of resentment, anger, and betrayal by those who have repeatedly told this body what is needed to right this wrong.”

Steven Hackel, a history professor at the University of California at Riverside, said Columbus acted badly in the Caribbean and enabled other Europeans to act badly on what is now the Pacific Coast of the United States.

“It’s worth remembering that Christopher Columbus, his conscience was not troubled by the taking and selling of slaves. Today we come here to remember that the long, dark shadow of Christopher Columbus also reached to California. Before 1769 California had a native population of 350,000 people. After 60 or 70 years of colonization, 80,000 Indians had been baptized, and 60,000 in the missions had died — 25,000 of those were children under the age of 10,” Hackel said. “Yet remarkably, in the midst of this catastrophe, indigenous people of California and elsewhere built the city of Los Angeles. … Thus, since its origins, Los Angeles has been a city of indigenous people. Given the long history of suffering by native peoples in the Americas, today we make a choice:  to remember Columbus or the indigenous peoples who built Los Angeles.”

City Councilor Mitch O’Farrell, who spearheaded the anti-Columbus Day measure, said Columbus has to go.

“The historical record is unambiguous in terms of the atrocities that Christopher Columbus himself and his men enacted on the Taino native peoples on the island they called Hispaniola in 1492, and the three subsequent trips back to the West Indies, Central America, South America, setting in process a centuries-long genocide unmatched in breadth and scope anywhere in world history,” O’Farrell said.

He touted the nearly two-year committee process that brought the measure before the City Council.

“This process, I think, daylighted a historical wrong that we have an opportunity, a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, to right,” O’Farrell said.

City Councilor Mike Bonin, an Italian-American originally from Clinton, Massachusetts, said even though Columbus was Italian he doesn’t represent his family story. As a homosexual, Bonin likened changing the name of Columbus Day to the federal Supreme Court decision two years ago mandating same-sex marriage everywhere in the country.

“I’ve thought about my ancestors and their history. And to me, celebrating Columbus Day does not honor their story and their struggle and their history. It insults it, and it besmirches it,” Bonin said. “They came here to build something and not to destroy something. They came here to earn something, and not to steal something. They came here to make life better for their children, and not take away something from somebody else’s children. And they did that.”

Even the lone city councilor who voted against the measure, Joe Buscaino, an Italian-American, was willing to ditch Columbus from the name of the holiday. But he wanted to keep the October holiday as “a celebration of culture” that keeps a nod to Italians and create a new holiday for indigenous peoples on August 9, a date selected by the United Nations for that purpose.

He called on his fellow councilors to “support our history and diversity, and not replace one group with another.”

But that option wasn’t acceptable to anti-Columbus Day advocates, who said they’ve been celebrating Indigenous Peoples’ Day since the 1970s and wanted an outright replacement of Columbus Day. The August 9 amendment lost 4-11.