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Defiant, proud Italian Americans celebrate Columbus Day

Several hundred people gathered in Arrigo Park Monday to remember the Italian explorer.

Beth Ann Iosco-Tarallo, 59, of Melrose Park, waves an Italian flag during the Columbus Day: Italian American Heritage Celebration at Arrigo Park in the Little Italy neighborhood, Monday morning, Oct. 12, 2020.
Beth Ann Iosco-Tarallo, 59, of Melrose Park, waves an Italian flag during the Columbus Day celebration at Arrigo Park in the Little Italy neighborhood Monday.
Ashlee Rezin Garcia/Sun-Times

They sang Italian love songs, warmth oozing from the loud speakers like a just-baked pan of mostaccioli.

They wore red-white-and-green face masks. And though their hero has been “temporarily” banished, they were defiant.

“We are keeping it positive, but that does not mean we are giving in,” said Ron Onesti, vice president of the Joint Civic Committee of Italian Americans, standing in Arrigo Park Monday morning. “You may take our statue, but you will neither destroy our faith nor harm our spirit.”

A short while later, chants of “Put it back!” broke out among a gathering of several hundred clustered around a bare pedestal where a statue of Christopher Columbus once stood.

In the summer, Mayor Lori Lightfoot ordered the temporary removal of that statue, as well as two others, including one in Grant Park — the site of major clashes between protesters and police. Protesters say, among other things, that Columbus is a symbol of white supremacy and that statues representing him should be removed.

“Mayor Lightfoot, we feel the time is now,” said Sergio Giangrande, president of the JCCIA. “Please be a woman of your word and return the statues to their places.”

At the Arrigo Park celebration, a mannequin adorned in 15th century garb served as a stand-in for the statue.

Organizers said Lightfoot had been invited to the celebration, but she was not among the dozen or so politicians who showed up, including Ald. Nick Sposato (38th).

“This is definitely a positive event ... but we are under attack, people. The lefty loons are coming after everything we stand for,” Sposato said to hoots of approval.

A lone protester meandered through the crowd at one point, holding aloft a cardboard sign that read: “This is stolen land.”

The protester was greeted with shouts of “Learn your history!”

Several prominent African Americans spoke too, including Perri Irmer, president and CEO of the DuSable Museum of African American History.

“We’ve got a lot in common, right? Because our history has often been distorted, often been left out,” Irmer said.

She said she was there Monday to “defend history.”

“We want our children to hear about everybody’s history because everybody is part and parcel of this American history, and none can be separated from the main,” she said. “Otherwise, the story is not told in full, right?”

Then Paul Loparco, 82, of Oak Forest, hobbled to the stage. He talked about his mother being born in America a week after her parents arrived from Italy. He said he didn’t learn Italian at home because his family feared prejudice. And he talked about how his father received his American citizenship only after being discharged at the end of World War I.

“Let us not forget the man who saw a way here and led the way for millions of Europeans, including many Italians to the new land. His voyages opened sea lanes that are still used 500 years later. We celebrate the man, Christopher Columbus, who, if it were not for his voyages ... we would most likely not be standing here today for this celebration.”

On the other side of the Columbus equation is Gabriel Piemonte, founder and president of the Italian American Heritage Society of Chicago, who on Monday awarded three city council members for their “political courage” in standing firm in their belief that Columbus was not someone who deserved to be honored.

Ald. Rossana Rodriguez Sanchez (33rd), Ald. Daniel La Spata (1st) and Ald. Jeanette Taylor (20th) — all members of the Democratic Socialists of America — were recipients of the society’s first Garibaldi Awards.

“They stood up even when they had constituents in their own communities that they knew would be angry,” Piemonte said during a virtual award ceremony.

Rodriguez Sanchez said she was humbled by the award and reiterated her belief that Columbus represents white supremacy, “which makes a lot of people feel uncomfortable, but that discomfort is necessary to move forward” and “create a society that is racially just.”

La Spata said he was glad to be part of a generation of Italian Americans who look at Columbus through a critical lens and recognize “the impact of Columbus now is one of oppression and racial injustice.”

Contributing: Mitch Dudek