Monuments to Christopher Columbus are being removed throughout the country, but Pueblo’s still stands in the Mesa Junction, remaining a site for indigeonous protests.
Local activist Vicente Martinez Ortega was 10 years old when he began protesting Columbus Day celebrations and the monument with his parents Jose Esteban Ortega and Rita Martinez in 1992. For Martinez Ortega and other activists, Columbus represents violence and systemic racism inflicted upon Native Americans during colonization.
“(Columbus Day) has evolved into one of the most contentious police days of the year for the Pueblo PD because they would be dealing with 200 protestors and about 100 celebrants,” Martinez Ortega said.
Celebrants gathering at the monument on Columbus Day have included descendants of Italian immigrants from Pueblo, who view the day and the monument as a celebration of their ancestors.
Current Dante Alighieri Society of Pueblo president Michael Salardino said he spoke to the PULP to provide historic context and not to make an argument for or against Columbus monuments.
Columbus monuments were built across the United States in the late 19th and early 20th centuries during an influx of Italian immigration, Salardino said. Many Italian immigrants fled lives of poverty in Italy in search of work in U.S. agriculture, mines, smelters, and steel mills. Columbus was chosen by immigrants partly out of feelings of a shared experience.
“Coming some place unknown and some place where they didn’t have any idea where they were going, they didn’t know how they were going to get there,” Salardino said. “They didn’t know if they were going to live and so they went ‘wait a minute, that’s what Columbus did’… Our ancestors chose Columbus… that’s the reason this gets so emotional.”
The building of Pueblo’s Christopher Columbus monument can be traced back to the 1892 Columbian Federation of Italian-American Societies’ national convention in Chicago, according to an architectural history of South Pueblo prepared by Historitecture, LLC. Two Puebloans, Hector Chiariglione and Columbo F. Delliquadri attended the convention.
Chiarglione was president of the Columbian Federation, overseeing Italian-American societies throughout the United States. Anticipating the upcoming World’s Columbian Exposition, Delliquadri addressed the convention, encouraging attendees to fundraise for Columbus monuments across the U.S.
“The pro-Columbus sentiment in the United States at the time was rooted in much of the Catholic community…,” according to Historitecture. “In contrast, the anti-immigrant, and therefore anti-Italian sentiment… shone through the workforce, where employers across the country exploited immigrant groups for their willingness to take less pay…”
From 1892 to the beginning of the 20th century, monuments to Columbus began to be built throughout the Americas. Monuments in the United States sought to represent Italian and other Catholic immigrants’ contributions to America’s heritage, according to Historitecture. Pueblo’s Columbus monument was unveiled on October 12, 1905.
“To overcome the anti-Catholic and anti-immigrant antagonisms, Delliquadri envisioned monuments of American solidarity meant to unify all citizens of the United States, though the main focus of the monuments was an individual of Italian descent sailing for Spain,”
according to Historitecture.
While Delliquadri may have intended a message of unity, Martinez Ortega said Columbus monuments ultimately led to the Americanization and “whitewashing” of Italian culture.
“Even though we have a strong Italian presence in Pueblo, it’s still white,” Martinez Ortega said. “They still get the benefits of white privilege. To idolize Columbus… it’s almost like you sign up without knowing. You get the privilege of this but all of your culture is washed away to hamburgers and hot dogs, American Italian culture.”
At the most recent Columbus monument protest on Sunday, July 5, Martinez Ortega said indigeonous groups were not confronted by members of Italian American groups, but by members of Niwot’s Sons of Silence motorcycle club and the Proud Boys, a self proclaimed “Western Chauvinist” group.
“The Proud Boys came in and maced one of the people, one of our security who got there early and they also put a gun to their stomach,” Martinez Ortega said. “This was before noon. Before our program was even starting… We would just have to deal with one of these antagonists that we are not used to.”
At the protest both sides shouted insults towards each other and some tried to instigate fights requiring the police to hold protestors back.
Two protestors were arrested.
Though Martinez Ortega wants the Columbus Monument removed from its plaza, he does not want it destroyed.
“Taking down the Christopher Columbus statue in that plaza would be dismantling some of that systemic racism and putting it in a museum. I am not trying to destroy it. Put it up in a museum and say, ‘look how dumb we used to be.”
Salardino also offered a possible solution, leaving the monument’s fate to a vote by Pueblo’s populace.
“One of the best ideas I had heard was to put it to a vote of the people. Settle it one way or the other,” Salardino said. “If they say take down the Columbus monument, then all the Italian groups should do that… Everyone is looking at it from a different historical perspective and I wish there could be common ground. I would love to see common ground.”