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Indigenous Peoples Day? Italians say stick with Columbus

NEW YORK — Is it time to say arrivederci to Christopher Columbus?

A movement to abolish Columbus Day and replace it with Indigenous Peoples Day has gained momentum in some parts of the U.S., with Los Angeles in August becoming the biggest city yet to decide to stop honoring the Italian explorer and instead recognize victims of colonialism.

But the gesture to recognize indigenous people rather than the man who opened the Americas to European domination also has prompted howls of outrage from some Italian-Americans, who say eliminating their festival of ethnic pride is culturally insensitive, too.

“It’s a celebration of Italian American immigrants and, by the way, it’s a celebration of all immigrants,” State Senator Jeffery Klein told PIX11.

Klein, along with thousands of others, marched in the Columbus Day Parade in the Bronx.

"I think it’s important to take a step back and recognize what these statues mean to so many people and not put on this political correct panel," Klein said, referring to a committee started by Mayor Bill de Blasio, a Democrat to evaluate whether monuments to certain historical figures should be removed.

Despite the protests, many want the statues to stay.

"We feel very strongly that Christopher Columbus represents something very important to the Italian-Americans across the country," said Angelo Vivolo, president of the Columbus Citizens Foundation. "We want to have our voices heard."​

It's not about taking anything away from Italian-Americans, said Cliff Matias, cultural director of the Redhawk Native American Arts Council, which is hosting a Re-Thinking Columbus Day event Sunday and Monday in New York.

"The conversation is Columbus," he said. "If they're going to celebrate Columbus, we need to celebrate the fact that we survived Columbus."

The debate over Columbus' historical legacy is an old one, but it became emotionally charged after a similar debate in the South over monuments to Confederate generals flared into deadly violence in August at a rally in Charlottesville, Virginia.

In New York, where 35,000 people are expected to march in Monday's Columbus Day parade, vandals last month doused the hands of a Christopher Columbus statue in blood-red paint and scrawled the words "hate will not be tolerated." Activists calling for the city to change the parade's name also are expected to hold a demonstration.

On Sunday, three demonstrators briefly interrupted a wreath-laying ceremony at the Columbus statue in Columbus Circle. The protesters, two dressed in fake chains and one wearing a hooded white sheet, spoke out before being escorted away. Police said one person was arrested.

Many Italians who migrated to the U.S. initially had a rough time. In 1891, 11 Italians were lynched in New Orleans by a mob that held them responsible for the death of a police official.

At the end of the 1800s, Italians began to link themselves more with Columbus. Italian-American businessman and newspaper owner Generoso Pope was among those who worked to get Columbus Day recognized as a federal holiday in 1937.

"It was one of the things that would allow them to become Americans symbolically," said Fred Gardaphe, a professor of Italian-American studies at Queens College.

Indigenous Peoples Day began to gel as an idea before the 500th anniversary of Columbus' first voyage to the Americas.

States and municipalities aren't legally bound to recognize federal holidays, though most do. Columbus Day is already one of the most inconsistently celebrated. Places that choose to replace it with Indigenous Peoples Day may give their own workers or schoolchildren a day off, teach in schools about Native Americans instead of Columbus, issue proclamations or mark it in other ways.

There is no question that Columbus' arrival in the New World under the sponsorship of Spain was bad for the indigenous people of Hispaniola, the island he colonized that is now split between Haiti and the Dominican Republic.

Many of the native people of the island were forced into servitude. Multitudes died of disease. Spain repopulated the workforce with African slaves.

Columbus is celebrated in Latin America, too. A massive monument to the explorer, the Columbus Lighthouse, opened in 1992 in Santo Domingo, in the Dominican Republic. Puerto Rico commemorates Discovery Day on Nov. 19, marking the day Columbus landed there.

Ralph Arellanes, chairman of the activist group Hispano Round Table of New Mexico, said that as a Hispanic he supports Columbus Day.

"It was the marriage of two peoples creating a new people, in a new land," he said.

Though Columbus "wasn't a saint," he said, he believes Anglo-Americans like President Andrew Jackson should be held more responsible than the Spanish for the hardships Native Americans faced.

Arellanes also said he doesn't understand why Italians claim Columbus for themselves when Columbus was sailing for Spain.

PIX11's Kelli O'Hara contributed to this report.