By Rick Romano
Increasing sentiment against honoring Christopher Columbus for his voyages to America has resulted in a historic move by the Chicago Board of Education to cease recognizing Columbus Day in the Chicago Public Schools. CPS will therefore no longer observe Columbus Day. Depending on one’s viewpoint, this action and how it took place is either a travesty or heroic.
A prominent local Italian American organization has marshalled a coalition of elected officials and organizations representing broader ethnic and community viewpoints to protest the Chicago Board of Education’s recent vote to replace Columbus Day with Indigenous Peoples’ Day and to work toward repealing it on legal grounds.
The Stone Park, IL-based Joint Civic Committee of Italian Americans (JCCIA) stated its coalition of “numerous Italian American organizations, Irish, Jewish, Polish, and African American ethnic group members among others, and various elected officials, demand that the Chicago Board of Education rescind its decision on Columbus Day, as it is in direct violation of the Illinois State Board of Education code and Chicago Board of Education rules.”
The coalition charges the Chicago Board of Education violated the public hearing rule by not placing the matter on its agenda for public discussion prior to voting on it. The coalition also noted “the decision to vote away Columbus Day as a school holiday is contrary to the Illinois State Board of Education and the applicable statute.”
Chicago Public Schools management did not answer several attempts by Gazette Chicago to provide a response regarding the coalition’s charges.
Opposing the change
JCCIA president Sergio Giangrande said, “This is a slap in the face of the more than 500,000 Italian Americans in Chicago and the 135 million Italians worldwide. There are many historical figures whose past actions have come under scrutiny in recent times. For Italian Americans, who endured horrific discrimination and continue to be the subject of stereotypical degradation in modern culture, Christopher Columbus is a symbol of a people that have helped shape the cultural landscape of this great nation.
“The historical legacy of any individual is and should be subject to debate,” Giangrande continued. “That debate should not give license to the wholesale removal of a symbol that was a beacon of hope for millions of maligned Italians who helped create the beauty of this country.”
Others echoed that sentiment.
“This was not properly on the agenda, so it was an ambush,” said 38th Ward Alderman Nick Sposato. “You can get two historians commenting on Columbus and get two different views about what he did or did not do.”
Chris Pacelli, owner of Al’s Beef at 1079 W. Taylor St., whose family ties to the community began in the 1800s, said Columbus inspires substantial Italian pride.
“Oh sure, they’ll always celebrate Columbus Day” in the neighborhood, he said. “We in the 21st century have no clue as to what Columbus thought. He’s known all over the world. Who else are we going to celebrate?”
Mayor Lori Lightfoot, in response to a question at a recent press briefing, also said she opposed the change.
“I’m not going to get involved in legal action,” she said. “I think there is a way to uplift and celebrate indigenous populations. This has to be about addition, not subtraction.”
Supporting the change
Those who support a citywide measure to replace Columbus Day with a same-day recognition of native Americans wonder why it is taking so long.
Anthony Tamaz-Pochel, an aide to 33rd Ward Ald. Rossana Rodriquez-Sanchez, who took office in May 2019, helped write a proposed ordinance to expand on the Board of Education’s action. The proposed ordinance now sits in committee.
“Yes, I saw that happened,” Tamaz-Pochel said of the Board of Education’s decision. “I think it was great. It’s a step in the right direction for indigenous communities. I’m disappointed that we couldn’t do it before this. If this is what it takes, then I guess that’s good.”
Rodriquez-Sanchez said, “I don’t understand that this is still a controversy. We are so behind everyone else, including the Board of Education. This was absolutely the correct decision. This honors history and addresses the problem that this is a white supremacist holiday. When we are looking for racial equity, it’s hard for me to hear that we can’t do it at the City.”
She sympathizes Italian Americans’ feelings but wants them to think about alternatives.
“I understand Italian Americans are really opposed to the change,” Rodriquez-Sanchez said. “I think it’s a big mistake because Columbus was responsible in part for genocide of many people. I think there are so many contributions made by other Italians and that could be honored. This does not honor the working class.”
Coexisting not an option
Education will be key, she said. She dismissed the notion that Columbus Day and Indigenous Peoples’ Day can co-exist on one day. Many state and local governments celebrate Indigenous People’s Day on the second Monday in October. In addition, some states celebrate Native American Day and American Indian Day. The federal government designates the day after Thanksgiving as Native American Heritage Day.
“There is no middle ground with one being the murderer of the other,” Rodriquez-Sanchez said. “We have a responsibility to make this part of our education, as part of the curriculum. It’s the same as approaching racism. We all have a responsibility to unlearn.”
For more information
For the Chicago Board of Education, log on to www.cpsboe.org or call (773) 553-1600. For detailed information about the Joint Civic Committee for Italian Americans and its coalition, visit www.jccia.com or call (708) 4560-9050. For Pacelli, call (312) 226-4017. To contact Alderman Rodriguez-Sanchez, log on to 33rdward.org or call (773) 840-7880. To contact Alderman Sposato, log on to aldermansposato.com or call (773) 283-3838.