Every year, the response to Columbus Day grows more contentious. Attitudes toward the holiday range from apathy to hate, and some now even argue that the holiday represents the evils of Western imperialism. Some states have canceled the celebration of Columbus altogether, and, according to one report, 130 cities no longer observe the holiday.
But while Columbus Day and monuments to the Italian explorer have fallen on hard times, celebrations of the day are still strong in some cities, particularly in those with citizens who have a strong connection to their Italian heritage.
One such city is Syracuse, New York, in large part thanks to the work of the local Columbus Monument Corporation. This year, they expect thousands of attendants at their Columbus Day festivities, which included a Saturday mass and the Monday wreath-laying at the historic Syracuse Columbus monument.
Officially dedicated in 1934, Syracuse’s Columbus monument was sculpted in Florence and constructed with stone from Italy, according to Anthony Ilacqua, a member of the corporation who spoke with The Daily Wire.
Ilacqua said that many people don’t understand the meaning of the monument or the connection many residents have to it. In reality, he said the monument was a large part of how Italian Americans who immigrated to the U.S. at the turn of the 20th century, like his grandfather, made cities like Syracuse home.
“It was an outgrowth of pride in their national heritage and their Italian identity and their love for this country. That’s really what it was about,” he explained.
Recently, Syracuse Mayor Ben Walsh (I-NY) announced that the statue would be removed. In response, the Monument Corporation has launched an effort to save the statue, which is located in the heart of downtown Syracuse, and was built and paid for by many residents’ ancestors.
“This decision is based on the fact that we can honor our Italian American community without focusing on a statue that has become the source of division over decades and overshadowed the original intent of the monument,” Walsh said in a statement to The Daily Wire. “This space should be both a tribute to Italian Americans and a place of healing at which we celebrate our shared accomplishments.”
But Ilacqua argues that the monument shouldn’t be seen as divisive.
“This monument is very much a part of our family heritage. It wasn’t put up by unknown people in the past. We know who built it. We know who sculpted it, who raised the money,” Ilacqua said. “We know who put it up. It’s very much our monument. We take pride in it and celebrate it every year.”
In 1992, on the 500th anniversary of Columbus landing in the New World, the monument organization raised private funds to restore the statue. Some who were around for the original dedication, like Ilacqua’s father, also made it to the restoration.
To this day, the monument still has a lot of meaning for Syracuse residents with Italian heritage.
When Italy won the European soccer championship this past summer, there was a spontaneous celebration around the monument and in the fountain at the base of the statue.
But the monument, which the Monument Corporation says is protected by the Landmark Preservation Board and Public Art Commission, might still be removed if Mayor Walsh has his way. Last month, Walsh, who is facing an election in November, said that he plans to move forward with the removal of the statue.
Walsh’s plan includes designating the grounds where the monument stands as Heritage Park.
“Syracuse is poised to create a space at Columbus Circle that honors our Italian American community and is welcoming and safe to all in our community,” he said. “On this holiday weekend, I offer my deepest respect to our Italian American neighbors and my sincere support to the many in our community for whom the statue creates pain and sorrow.”
“I’m firmly committed to proceeding on a path that is respectful to all and leads to healing in our community. Achieving this is consistent with our vision to make Syracuse a growing city that embraces diversity and creates opportunity for all,” he added.
Though the battle over the statue has been seen as political by some, the Monument Corporation says that its coalition transcends politics, and includes those from across the political spectrum.
Efforts to remove the monument will not be able to continue until a legal judgment is rendered regarding whether or not Walsh can legally remove the monument.
“The truth is that statue doesn’t harm anyone,” said Ilacqua, who believes Walsh is surrendering to the mob. “It’s not about hate. It’s not about racism. It’s not about genocide. It’s not about all the terrible … things that they attribute to him. It’s about the Italian American community.”
He notes that the monument says more about Syracuse’s Italian American community than it does about Columbus.
“It was put there out of love and pride,” Ilacqua noted, “I don’t see how [taking] it down does anything but erase history for no reason. It belongs there. We’re proud of it, and we believe it should stay there.”
Choosing to focus on art, history, and heritage, the Monument Corporation wants people to understand the historic context of when the statue was erected. Their website encourages people help save the statue by signing petitions and even sending messages to Mayor Walsh.
“The Italian immigrants that were there didn’t fly here. They came over on boats. That’s what happened at the turn of the century,” Ilacqua said. “They see Columbus, one of their countrymen from Genoa, who arrived in boats, explored the ocean, and came to a new world. How did they not identify that as heroic and brave?”
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