By Nathan Worcester
Italian Americans held a rally at the former site of the Christopher Columbus statue in Arrigo Park on the morning of Oct. 12 to celebrate after coronavirus (COVID-19) restrictions shut down the Columbus Day parade that traditionally occurs on that date, the anniversary of Christopher Columbus’s arrival in the Americas.
The chain link fence around the removed statue’s base sported images of famous Italian-Americans including physicist Enrico Fermi, musician Frank Zappa, and director Martin Scorsese. Nearby, a mannequin dressed as Christopher Columbus held American and Italian flags. On the other side of Loomis Street, a semi-trailer truck advertised its Teamster affiliation and bore the slogan, “Union Labor Built this Country.”
Speakers celebrate Italian heritage
The program began with music from Tony Ocean, Joe Martino, and other entertainers before moving on to remarks from emcee Ron Onesti, a vice president with the Joint Civic Committee of Italian Americans (JCCIA), and other leaders among Chicago’s Italian Americans and the wider Chicago community.
“I was a Columbus Day queen escort back in the day,” Onesti explained in his remarks to the crowd. “My wife to be was a Columbus Day queen contestant. We met at the contest. Our first date was the parade. We got married on Columbus Day…after the ceremony in church, we hopped on a trolley and got to the parade just in time to board a float specially made to resemble a wedding cake.
“Recently, history has been challenged—our history has been challenged,” Onesti continued. “We welcome the opportunity to discuss actions that have happened 500 years ago through today. But what we cannot accept is disrespect to our community. To be dictated to on who or what should be our icons is unacceptable, as it would be to any other ethnic group.”
“I thank the men and women of the Chicago Police Department who stood and fought to protect our statue,” said Sergio Giangrande, a JCCIA representative.
“Some of those officers were hurt during that attack,” said Giangrande concerning protests at the Columbus statue in Grant Park. Protests at Arrigo Park were peaceful.
“We want you to know that our prayers were always with you. The Italian community appreciates and honors what you do for us,” Giangrande added, garnering applause.
“I celebrate the diversity of this great ward that we have on the West Side of Chicago, and one of the focal points that I look forward to that I missed this year was the Taylor Street Festival,” said 28th Ward Alderman Jason Ervin. “As you all can see, I like to do some good eating here.
“While people may have different opinions, the way that it was done was not proper in my opinion,” added Ervin, referring to the City’s removing the Columbus statue. “We’re going to continue to work to find an equitable solution for all of us that we all can live with and celebrate the heritage, not just of the Italian culture, but of all the cultures that make this ward the great place that it is.”
“We are under attack, people, okay?” said 38th Ward Alderman Nicholas Sposato. “The lefty loons are coming after everything we stand for.”
“Buongiorno! Come stai?” began 27th Ward Alderman Walter Burnett, greeting the rally in Italian for “Good morning. How are you?” “I grew up around Italians. My father was a truck driver for the City for many years, and he hung around a lot of Italian guys—you know, Nick LoCoco, and he hung around the Carusos, all these people, and he would bring these nice cookies home every Christmas. And I always wondered why we were so cool. And then, you know, I grow up, and I get cool with Italians. And working in George Dunne’s organization, I hung around Frank Bruno and Ned Benigno.
“Like my mentor and good friend Jesse Bianco—Jesse White, that is—would always say, ‘The Italians would always give us love, and we give it back,’” Burnett concluded.
“Many people think I’m all Irish,” said 11th Ward Alderman Patrick Daley Thompson. “I am a quarter Italian.
“Columbus was a dreamer, a man of vision and courage, a man filled with a hope for a future and a mission to spread Christianity,” added Thompson. “We as Italians need to spread that meaning on this day, Columbus Day, and remember that.”
“I’m sure that the statues will be back. I’m sure the parade will be back next year and we’ll continue on as great proud Americans of Italian descent,” Thompson added.
“I’m not here to defend Columbus, you don’t need me to do that,” said Perri Irmer, president and CEO of the DuSable Museum of African American History. Irmer stressed that both African American and Italian history had “often been distorted.”
Onlookers and a protestor respond
“I think the statue has a really good history,” said Chris Wensley, a passerby on Loomis. Wensley explained the statue originally had been commissioned for the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition. “It would be nice if we could find a compromise—maybe have a placard that would represent the pros of what Columbus did and also the cons.”
“I was born and raised in this neighborhood, right down the street here on Loomis, and I’m proud to see all these people out here to celebrate Columbus Day,” said Vito Pesoli, a retired employee of the Chicago Department of Streets and Sanitation.
“People forget the reason why they gave us Columbus Day as a holiday—the world’s largest lynching happened in New Orleans, where they hung 11 Italians for no reason at all,” continued Pesoli, alluding to the March 14, 1891, mob killing of 11 Italian Americans allegedly involved in the assassination of New Orleans’s police chief, David Hennessy. “The president at that time [Benjamin Harrison], out of respect for the Italian people for wrongfully killing these people, gave us a day of holiday. And they gave us Columbus Day as our holiday.
“Columbus is our guy—that’s who we look up to,” Pesoli added.
Joe Dostal was carrying a Betsy Ross flag as he stood on Loomis a few dozen feet north of the rally and said, “It’s the nicest flag that I have.”
“I support patriotism,” Dostal said, noting that he personally comes from Irish and Venezuelan descent. “I think they need to free Columbus and put him back where he belongs in this park.”
As Dostal spoke, a lone protestor, Rabbi Michael Ben Yosef of the Tikkun Chai Inter-National in South Shore, was speaking with a group of Chicago Police Department (CPD) officers. A brief verbal altercation between Ben Yosef and an unidentified man on the other side of the street ended with a woman warning the unidentified man, “Come on, that’s what they want.”
“It’s not room for compromise on a murderer,” said Ben Yosef. “My job is to ensure the justice of those who’ve been suffered and murdered get the justice they deserve—whether they like it or not.
“Have you heard me on my bullhorn? No. Am I very peaceful right now?” Ben Yosef continued. “This is really the reason why I’m here, to make a statement. The statement is to say that we cannot condone a statue that symbolizes murder in our community.”
Closer to the stage, Rossana Macejak offered a more positive impression, saying, “I thought this was really nice.”
“Everyone’s done good, everyone should be honored,” said Macejak. “I hate that everyone’s hating everybody.”
“What happened six months ago?” asked Vito DiPiazza. “Did someone turn on a switch and we hate Christopher Columbus? Who’s next?”
“My dad’s from Taylor and Halsted, and my ma’s from Taylor and Miller,” said Mike Sisto, who was walking around the base of the statue with a close friend, his two sons, and his nephew identifying the Italian and Italian-American celebrities. “I’ve been in this park since I was a little kid, my whole life.”
Sisto explained that he and his family no longer live in the neighborhood because, “as the Italian Americans became successful, they wanted a better life for their families, so they unfortunately moved out to the suburbs to get their own home, their own piece of land, and grow their gardens and stuff. Here it’s a little hard because the buildings are close and tight.”
The protestors “are childish, and they’re not even worth dealing with,” said Sisto.
After the rally came a procession through the neighborhood. On the east side of Loomis, supporters waved Italian flags at the passing luxury SUVs, Italian sports cars, and City emergency vehicles. On the west side of Loomis, Rabbi Ben Yosef, still flanked by CPD officers, stepped forward into traffic and back into the bike lane while waving the Pan-African flag.