In 2020, statues of Christopher Columbus were removed from public view by Chicago in response to massive protests. The protesters, who were motivated by justifiable anger against lethal police force, focused their rage on statues of the man who changed the course of history and opened the door to world-wide innovation and exchange.
City Hall was shortsighted in removing the statues. Rather than burying history, City Hall should recognize the complex and continuing legacy of Columbus.
Over the long run, the arrival of Columbus and Europeans was catastrophic for Indigenous people, partly due to their lack of immunity to unfamiliar diseases. These facts do not excuse Columbus, who captured Indigenous people and transported them across the Atlantic to the Old World, where they were treated as curiosities. He was a product of his time. Nevertheless, Columbus continues to inform us about the power of discovery, exchange and identity.
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We have celebrated Columbus Day as a national holiday since the 1940s. We’ve seen Italian-Americans and other immigrant groups embrace Columbus as the first immigrant to the New World. To our neighbors in the Dominican Republic, Columbus remains a source of inspiration. To the people of Mexico, Columbus Day is celebrated now as the day of creation, Dia de la Raza, the day a new nation was born through the union of old and new world people into one.
During Columbus’ time and after, old and new world people exchanged goods and services that enriched both communities. Horses are not native to the United States. They were brought over from Europe by the Spaniards and embraced by indigenous people. Tomatoes are not native to Italy. They were transported from the Americas to Italy by Spanish explorers. And now we can enjoy the delights of a pizza margherita.
We cannot go back to a pre-Columbian time in this city and nation. But we can ensure that the nation begotten as a result of Columbus’ four voyages will live up to the promises enshrined in the Declaration of Independence, that life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness are the basic rights of all Americans.
Let’s give Columbus a second chance. Bring back the statues.
James D’Archangelis, Chicago
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