Constable: Italian group won't give up Columbus

In fourteen hundred ninety-two, Columbus sailed the ocean blue. But now we have a new way of thinking, and Christopher's holiday quickly is sinking.

Up until a generation ago, Christopher Columbus was considered a national hero. Schoolchildren were taught that Columbus was the man who discovered America in his three ships, the Niña, the Pinta and the Santa Maria. All 50 states observed the federal holiday of Columbus Day.

“That is changing,” says Audrey S. Wall, managing editor of the 2016 Book of the States, published by The Council of State Governments. Just 23 states still recognize Columbus' holiday, making it slightly more established than the also-controversial Confederate Memorial Day, Lee-Jackson Day and César Chávez Day.

Members of the Italic Institute of America say they understand the critics of Columbus Day. Even as they produce pamphlets and papers to support the accomplishments of Columbus and a host of other Italian explorers from the 15th through 19th centuries, they admit the Columbus Day holiday ship has sailed.

“It's an old white man's holiday,” concedes Don Fiore, a Lombard real estate appraiser who serves on the Italic Institute's board of governors alongside Bill Dal Cerro, a teacher at Fenton High School in Bensenville. “I think it's inevitable it probably will go away.”

In the 24 years since the 500th anniversary of Columbus' arrival in the New World, educators and society have taken a much more critical look at the explorer and the atrocities that followed Europeans' arrival in what is now the United States.

“He has his flaws, but the main issue we have is that everybody judges him by 21st-century standards,” Dal Cerro says of Columbus, noting that murder, slavery, rape and stealing were part of nearly every culture in the 15th century.

“There's no race on the face of this earth that has a monopoly on virtue,” Fiore says.

Columbus was an explorer looking for a trade route, gold and a chance to spread Christianity, Dal Cerro says.

He didn't set out with a goal of “invading” the Bahamas and committing evils.

“I totally get why Native Americans will never consider Columbus a hero,” says the teacher, who adds that he's visited the National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, D.C., and found it beautiful.

“We don't want to make him a saint,” Fiore says. “But we don't make him a demon.”

Colorado was the first state to celebrate Columbus Day, but its capital city of Denver now calls the holiday Indigenous People's Day.

Many cities have changed the name of the holiday to honor Native Americans, including the suburb of Evanston, which, ironically, is named in honor of John Evans, who as governor of the Colorado territory was implicit in a massacre of Native Americans, including women and children.

It's difficult to go after Columbus for his 15th-century sins in a nation where we honor Founding Fathers and presidents who owned slaves.

“Andrew Jackson, as a matter of policy, annihilated Indians. Columbus didn't do this as a matter of policy,” Dal Cerro says.

Unlike Confederate leaders who fought a war against our nation, Columbus simply opened up North America to Europeans, he adds.

“Our nation's capital is in the District of Columbia. Every state has a Columbus reference,” Dal Cerro says. “It's going to cost a lot of money to take down all those statues.”

The first commemoration of Columbus Day came in 1892, when President Benjamin Harrison declared the holiday as a way to “express honor” to Columbus and to show “appreciation of the great achievements of the four completed centuries of American life.”

Coming in the wake of the 1891 lynchings of 11 Italians in New Orleans, the holiday quickly was embraced by Italian immigrants and other Americans.

When President Richard Nixon set Columbus Day on the second Monday of October, he noted that the mission “forever broadened man's hopes and horizons.”

He urged all Americans to “carry forward his spirit of exploration as part of our national heritage.”

That, Dal Cerro, argues is the true meaning of Columbus Day.

“The holiday,” he says, “is a commemoration of the idea of exploration.”

And like most grand trips, it comes with lots of baggage.

Bill Dal Cerro
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