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Without parade, statues, many Italian Americans expecting subdued Columbus Day

The city’s Columbus Day parade, like other events, has become a victim of the coronavirus pandemic.

Paul Rinaldi
Paul Rinaldi, who owns Chiarugi Hardware on Taylor Street, is one of a number of local Italian Americans who plans to celebrate Columbus Day but is saddened by the city’s recent removal of the Italian explorer’s statues.
Anthony Vazquez/Sun-Times

The Italian flags and the red-white-and-green streamers fluttered along Taylor Street Thursday.

Some posted fliers that read: “Celebrate Italian Heritage Month!”

Others were careful not to display the back side of that flier because it contains the “C word.”

“I’m afraid to put it up because if someone is against Columbus Day, I don’t want them to smash the windows, come in and cause trouble,” said one shopkeeper, who didn’t want his name used but said he’s been in business in the neighborhood for 30 years.

It’s expected to be a more subdued Columbus Day this year, in part because the city has canceled the annual parade due to the coronavirus pandemic, but also because there’s almost no trace of the famed Italian explorer and navigator. In the summer, the Grant Park statue, splattered with graffiti, was the scene of clashes between police and protesters. In late July, Mayor Lori Lightfoot had the statue “temporarily” removed — along with two others — to consider how best to accommodate them.

A crane lowers the Christopher Columbus Statue to the ground in Grant Park, Friday, July 24, 2020.
A crane lowers the Christopher Columbus Statue to the ground in Grant Park, Friday, July 24, 2020.
Tyler LaRiviere/Sun-Times

This week, a reporter asked Lightfoot about the fate of those statues. She said her “monuments and memorials” committee is “continuing to do its work.”

“We’ll make a range of recommendations, not just on a single statue but on the ways in which we can do a better job in reflecting Chicago’s history and how we memorialize things like statues, monuments, murals and the like,” she said.

While revered by many Italian Americans, Columbus has also been criticized for his treatment of the indigenous people he encountered when he arrived in North America.

Statues of Columbus and other controversial historical figures have been under fire since the widespread protests following the death of George Floyd at the hands of a Minneapolis police officer.

A fence with the U.S. and Italian flags cover the area where a Christopher Columbus statue once stood at Arrigo Park in University Village / Little Italy, Thursday, Oct. 8, 2020.
A fence with the U.S. and Italian flags cover the area where a Christopher Columbus statue once stood at Arrigo Park in University Village / Little Italy, Thursday, Oct. 8, 2020.
Anthony Vazquez/Sun-Times

Gabriel Piemonte, head of the recently formed Italian American Heritage Society of Chicago, was among those of Italian ancestry calling for the removal of the statues. He said this week that’s he’s planning a Zoom meeting Monday, during which his organization will present the “inaugural Giuseppe Garibaldi Award for Political Courage” to Aldermen Rossana Rodriguez Sanchez (33rd), Jeanette Taylor (20th) and Daniel La Spata (1st).

“The award is motivated by the threats to the aldermen by hate groups in the wake of the Columbus statue controversies, in which people who were advocating for removal of the statues were met with insults and violence,” Piemonte said in a statement.

For many Italian Americans, particularly those of a certain age, feelings of frustration, anger and confusion linger — particularly when they stroll past Arrigo Park on Loomis Street, where the cherished Cristoforo Colombo figure once stood. All that remains is a bare concrete pedestal ringed by a cyclone fence.

At Chiarugi Hardware on Taylor Street, owners Paul and Carole Rinaldi ate a fried chicken lunch at the front of the store, surrounded by hammers, scrapers and saws hanging from the wall. Pinned up among the dozens of snapshots of grandchildren, there’s a faded photograph of Rinaldi, back when he still had a full head of hair, wearing a United States Army uniform.

Two-plus months after the statues were torn down, almost any conversation here about Columbus still summons stories not so much about the man, but about what his likeness represents: The struggle in a country that didn’t always welcome Italians and Italian American pride.

“From the time of Christopher Columbus to Guglielmo Marconi to Enrico Fermi, the Italian Americans played a big part in the defense and the building of this country, and why they are doing this to us, I don’t understand it,” Paul Rinaldi, now 73, said. “The Italian people have not harassed this country in any way.”

This year, instead of the big downtown parade, the Joint Civic Committee of Italian Americans has organized a smaller celebration — a procession of “classic Italian cars,” which will circle Arrigo Park and be followed by Mass at Casa Italia in Stone Park.

“We’re living in different times, but our faith and our commitment to our Italian heritage and celebrating Columbus Day stays strong,” said Lissa Druss, a spokeswoman for the JCCIA.