“In 1492, Columbus sailed the ocean blue.”
Every year, school children across the United States will learn this poem; each October, federal employees will get a day off to honor a man who never stepped foot in North America but is widely associated with its alleged discovery.
Over the past few years, however, Columbus Day has become a holiday wrought with contention. Efforts to repeal Columbus Day in favor of Indigenous Peoples Day have spread across several major cities. Now, Congressman Joe Salazar, a Democrat in the Colorado House of Representatives, intends to take it a step further.
In the new legislative session, which launched this week, Representative Salazar will introduce a bill repealing the holiday statewide, and the backlash from the Italian-American community has been swift and widespread.
According to proponents of the holiday, Columbus Day is tied to a period of anti-Italian sentiment in the United States. During the first major waves of Italian immigration in the 1880s, these new Americans found themselves subjected to discrimination that at one point led to a mass mob lynching 11 Sicilians. Celebrating the Genoan – Columbus – credited with “discovering” America was a way to unite Americans around the commonality of patriotism.
The story begins in Denver, Colorado.
An Italian named Agnelo Noce immigrated to the United States in the 1850s and arrived in Denver around 1872. Noce, who founded the first Italian newspaper in Colorado, strongly advocated on behalf of the immigrant Italian community.
By 1907, Noce had successfully lobbied Colorado’s only Chicano state senator, Casimiro Barela, to sponsor a bill designating October 12 as Columbus Day. Barela, a long-time proponent against discrimination and bigotry against indigenous peoples, viewed Columbus as a source of pride. Barela credited Columbus with the “discovery of a new world where today so many enjoy peace and joy,” he said.
With the passage of Barela’s bill, Colorado became the first state in the union to celebrate Columbus Day. At the federal level, President Benjamin Harrison had issued the first proclamation recognizing Columbus Day in 1892 – although it honored Columbus, the focus was primarily on “four completed centuries of American life.”
Significant lobbying by the Knights of Columbus resulted in President Franklin Delano Roosevelt again issuing a proclamation marking Columbus Day in 1934. President Nixon would later establish the modern federal holiday in 1971.
Meanwhile, federal Indian policy progressed through the eras of removal, termination, and forced assimilation. America’s original peoples saw their homelands diminished, parceled off, and underwent attempted cultural destruction. The 1950s federal push to relocate Natives to urban centers named Denver as one of the metropolitan areas to receive an influx of Native Americans.
With the addition of newly relocated Natives to the local indigenous populations, Denver quickly rose as a city with one of the most robust urban Indian demographics in the United States. As a result, a number of prominent Native American organizations began in Colorado.
“Colorado is a center in the American Indian Community – NARF [Native American Rights Fund] and AISES [American Indian Science & Engineering Society] started here,” Salazar told ICTMN.
Salazar himself is no stranger to the controversy surrounding Columbus Day. In 2015, he was openly supportive of Denver’s proclamation celebrating Indigenous Peoples’ Day. The pushback against his effort has been highly personal and often aimed at his own Spanish background.
Salvatore J. Turchio, Chairperson of the Italian Cultural & Heritage Committee in Denver, is one of several Italian-Americans who admonished Representative Salazar for his proposed bill.
“By repudiating Columbus and his place in history, I presume you are prepared to repudiate your own ancestors,” Turchio wrote in an email. “Some of them obviously found their way to the new world because of Columbus’ encounter with it. If they had not, then you would not be here as [an] elected official … perhaps you would have never been born.”
Representative Salazar was open about his heritage when he spoke with ICTMN. “Both of my grandmothers were Apache women, and both of my grandfathers were Spanish,” he said. “When I sit down with the indigenous community, I know that Spanish people were directly responsible for the genocide of tens of millions of people. Columbus didn’t find America on his own, he got a [monetary] lift by the Spanish government.”
Motorcyclists ride along the parade route during the Columbus Day Parade in Denver, Colorado. Photo courtesy Carol Berry.
The Congressman struggles to understand why the Italian-American community is so tightly tied to Columbus as their champion. “Why would we honor someone who engaged in that level of mass genocide?” he asked. “Why don’t we uplift an Italian who was a true explorer without that brutality, like Galileo or DaVinci?”
Defenders of Columbus Day often claim Columbus was a “man of his time,” and judging his use of slavery, torture, and exploitation through a modern lens is unfair.
Salazar dismissed that notion outright. “Governor Bobadilla put Columbus in chains and sent him back to Spain for the horrific acts he committed against indigenous peoples. He was repugnant to humanity. He got away with it because the Queen of Spain ended up pardoning him due to all the wealth he was bringing in,” Salazar said.
Italian-Americans opposed to the repeal of Columbus Day are not without sympathy to the concept of honoring indigenous peoples. Silvano D. Orsi, an executive board member of the Order Sons of Italy, wrote Salazar saying he should “consider adding an indigenous people’s day to the calendar apart from the Columbus day weekend rather than defaming [and] insulting the Italian-American population.”
But choosing another day misses the point of a repeal, according to Salazar. “Replacing the celebration of Columbus [with Indigenous Peoples Day] honors those who were terrorized and brutalized and [denies] attempts to gloss over the inhuman genocidal acts of Columbus and the Spaniards,” he said. “I’m more than happy to take a look at another day to celebrate a figure from the Italian-American community.”
Although Denver was successful in issuing a proclamation celebrating Indigenous Peoples Day last fall, Salazar is less hopeful that his measure will pass in the Republican-held Colorado Senate.
“Often times, we introduce bills to educate people first – I’m hoping this creates an honest, forthright conversation about Columbus,” he said.
Last year, The Denver Post named Salazar a “legislative loser,” in part because of his sponsorship of a bill that would have eliminated Native American mascots statewide. The Chicano-Native American Congressman doesn’t mind this title. “If that’s what it takes to be the loser in the eyes of The Denver Post, so be it, because we’re seeing changes as a result of the conversation,” he said.
Salazar went on to describe a local school district’s actions after the mascot bill failed in the Senate. Students with the ‘Strasburg Indians’ mascot sat down with a very vocally-opposed school board member, John Sampson. “He’s the vice chair of the county Republican party,” Salazar explained, “but these students sat him down, then the school brought in tribes to learn about the issue. Sampson changed his mind.”
Though Colorado has a substantial Native American population, like most other states, it remains an overwhelming minority. But that hasn’t stopped the growing chorus of major cities from making the change to Indigenous Peoples Day, and it doesn’t deter Representative Salazar.
“I’ve been telling the American Indian community for the past year that the time is now. When communities of color get together and fight together instead of one another, we are powerful,” he said. “I’m bringing these [mascot and Columbus repeal] bills because it’s the right thing to do, but also to let these communities know they have a voice.”
And if the bill fails?
“I’m not introducing it to pull back. I will take the hits,” he said. “We can do this.”