The adjectives “unprecedented” and “uncertain” were often used to describe the times in which we were living during the early days of the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic when it became obvious that this coronavirus strain was no ordinary flu. In an odd way, these descriptive words were almost calming, as we tried to explain what was happening in February and March when what we truly were up against became apparent.
Americans and the rest of the world were quickly left to struggle with this silent, but virulent killer. Today, millions across the globe have been infected; more than 125,000 have fell victim to the virus in the United States alone, with the numbers climbing daily; more than 40 million Americans are jobless and suffering immense economic hardship; and our politics have become even more divisive.
In late May, Americans began dealing with the aftershocks of the murder of George Floyd on a Minneapolis street, suffocating underneath the weight of a police officer who, rather than abiding by his oath to “serve and protect,” took a knee to Floyd’s neck for a dreadful eight minutes and 46 seconds while three of his comrades stood by. The outcry was sudden, explosive, massive, and remains ongoing. How could we expect less?
Suddenly, phrases such as “shelter in place” and “stay at home” were replaced with “I can’t breathe.” A burning question after all that we have been through the past several months is, “How much more can we take?” There is no easy answer to this question.
Not so long as we continue to grapple with cases on the rise in many states that reopened too soon; the awareness that COVID-19 is a public health crisis of incredible magnitude; and the realization that the civil unrest related, and the discourse needed, to finally address racial discord, bigotry, hate, and social injustice will be an extremely heavy lift. There has been a wake-up call in America that not only is the coronavirus killing people in Black and Brown communities at much higher rates than in White communities, but that death at the hands of the police is just as great of a national public healthcare crisis.
So, there is no easy answer to the burning question of how much more we can take. However, as you read further, we may have one idea how to come together and have a dialogue that could lead to meaningful conversations on race in America and will bring people together to find solutions, equitability, harmony, and lasting respect.
How to deal with a local, difficult situation?
We have a local issue that also has no easy solution. What to do with the statue of Christopher Columbus that has stood in a plaza at Victor Arrigo Park since 1966?
For centuries, Columbus was looked upon as a hero among Italians world-wide—that famous explorer who discovered the New World. More recently, a keener eye has taken a different view of Columbus, as one who caused irreparable harm to indigenous people in the lands he discovered and were later settled by Europeans. The call for social and racial justice in America after the recent killings of Black Americans Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Aubrey, and George Floyd also has aimed a spotlight on Columbus, and the statue at Arrigo Park has been the center of attention and vandalized on several occasions.
As of this writing, it sits under the wrap of a blue tarp and the watchful eye of Chicago Park District security. It’s an eerie site to behold—and reactions and nerve endings are raw in the Little Italy/UIC/Near West Side community—just as they are for millions of Americans struggling under the weight and pressure of a dually edged sword of a national pandemic and a demand for racial, social, and economic justice.
Gazette Chicago offers a page one story on the recent issues surrounding the Columbus statue at Arrigo Park, and experts including Mayor Lori Lightfoot, Joseph Esposito of LICNA, and others have weighed in with their thoughts on both Christopher Columbus and what to do with the statue. It’s unfortunate that a representative from Black Lives Matter, which has held protests at the foot of the statue and whom some attest was responsible for vandalizing the statue with spray paint, opted not to offer the organization’s position on the matter. We, at Gazette Chicago, would have welcomed their views.
To be clear, we don’t condone the damage to the statue—whether you are friend or foe, it does have historical significance as part of Chicago’s history; it first was displayed at the World Columbian Exposition in 1893 and it means a lot to Italian Americans locally and across Illinois. We call for a “moratorium” on any future damage to the statue and a sensible, respectful discussion on its future. It cost the Park District $4,500 to remove the paint from the statue the first time it was vandalized recently, and we don’t have a figure on the ongoing cost of security. Wouldn’t it be much better to use these dollars in a time of immeasurable crisis to offer our young people something to do this summer than to waste resources on clean-up and security? Especially in light of the escalating violence and gang activity that is its own plague on our youth?
Taking an unpopular, but necessary stand
We know this will be unpopular with many in the community, but we at Gazette Chicago call for the immediate removal of the statue of Christopher Columbus at Arrigo Park. Put it in a place of safe keeping until leaders in the Italian American community can find a more suitable place for it to be relocated. We have a suggestion: the Italian Cultural Center in Stone Park, IL. There, it hopefully can be protected, but it also can be where Italian American leaders in our community can extend an olive branch to others who may disagree on where Christopher Columbus should stand in our history past and present, but where we can have open, respectful, and pertinent dialogue that actually can be an example of how to explore and address race relations in this country.
Just so everyone understands, the editor and publisher of this newspaper has vivid memories of that bright sunny day in October 1966 when the statue of Christopher Columbus was unveiled and dedicated at Victor Arrigo Park. He was a second grader at Notre Dame de Chicago Academy, and was joined by his fellow classmates and with students and friends from Our Lady of Pompeii School. Both schools have long been closed. As he looked out at the stage, where at the time, WGN-TV news anchor Jack Taylor served as emcee, he saw a familiar face: his late mother, Della. His mom was one of the two local “Columbus Day queens” along with the late Frances Ritacco from the Pompeii School mother’s club. This impressionable second grader couldn’t have been more proud that day, both of his beloved mom and his Italian American heritage.
As you go through life, you either change with the times or let the times leave you behind. This editor and publisher won’t ever relinquish the memories of Columbus Day 1966 and the words that were spoken that day to honor his cultural heritage. And, he won’t ever stop being proud of being an Italian American with life-long roots and devotion to Chicago’s Little Italy. But, he will stand up when he sees a wrong that isn’t being made right—as he has been doing ever since he launched the Near West Gazette in 1983—the precursor to Gazette Chicago.
Honoring a citizen and a saint
We have one more suggestion and one that we hope will be meet with collective support from not only local Italian Americans, but people from all walks of life. In place of Christopher Columbus, let’s commission and erect a statue of Saint Frances Xavier Cabrini, America’s first Roman Catholic, citizen-saint. Do you know the story of Mother Cabrini? This editor and publisher sure does, as he had the honor and privilege of working for 14 years at the hospital she built and which bore her name for decades, right in the shadow of Arrigo Park. In fact, if Christopher Columbus where to be unwrapped from that tarp, hop off his pedestal, and look due east, he would see the former hospital building that served not only Italian Americans, but Black Americans, Hispanic Americans, Asian Americans, and people of all races, colors, and creeds from 1910 to its closure in 1996.
Mother Cabrini was born in Sant’Angelo Lodigiano, Italy (about 20 miles from Milan). She was the 13th child of her family. Just before her birth, a flock of white doves flew over her family’s home. She came to America in 1899 at a time when more than two million of her fellow Italians looked for a better way of life here. Immigrants one and all. Think of the wonderful contributions that these “new Americans” made to our country for the past 140 years, since Italians started coming to America in large numbers in the 1880s. Yet today, when people from Mexico and other parts of Central and Latin America seek the same opportunities, all they get is disdain and their children torn from their arms at our southern border.
Mother Cabrini saw the need of the Italian Americans coming to our shores and after establishing hospitals, schools, and orphanages in New York City, she made her way west to Chicago. Here, she first built Columbus Hospital in Lincoln Park in 1905. Quickly realizing that location wasn’t meeting the needs of Italian immigrants, she hastily came to the Near West Side and built Columbus Extension Hospital in 1910, which was named in her honor after her death in 1917. Legend has it that when the contractor she had hired was caught stealing from her, Mother Cabrini fired him on the spot. The sisters of her order, the Missionary Sisters of the Sacred Heart, joined with her, as did local citizens, not wanting to see the hospital’s opening delayed. These every day folk showed up en masse and for weeks helped to haul wheelbarrows full of bricks at no pay, to keep the construction on schedule.
The diminutive, but indomitable Saint Frances Xavier Cabrini. She walked the streets of our Little Italy community. She created a hospital that for generations held its doors open widely and provided health care for all, no matter their race, religion, gender, or economic status. The hospital’s motto was, “A tradition of excellence. A history of compassion.”
So, let’s honor this inspirational Italian American. Someone who rolled up her sleeves and made a difference. A truly saintly person. For more on the life of Mother Cabrini, go to the website of her namesake shrine in Lincoln Park at www.cabrininationalshrine.org/.
There is much work to be done. Much heavy lifting if we are going to make this a watershed moment in our nation’s history. We can do this, together. Brick by brick, just like Mother Cabrini, her novice sisters, and the people of Little Italy did together more than a century ago.