War of the Word

Denver's Columbus Day Parade rhetoric spells out the same bumpy route.

To committeeman Frank Frenquelli, the attacks on Columbus Day represent the vanguard of a war on Western civilization itself. "They're trying to do a rewrite of history," he said. "In the colleges, Western civilization is being removed very slowly." He recalled a lecture he attended in Washington, D.C., delivered by Judge Robert Bork, during which the one-time U.S. Supreme Court nominee described a conga line at a California college where civil rights leader Jesse Jackson joined the dancers' chant of "Ho! Ho! Ho! Western Civ has got to go!"

"What's going on," Frenquelli said, "is that they're focusing on the Italians here in Denver because we're a weak community. They're not protesting in New York or Chicago, because they'd get dragged off to jail. All of this is really a big front. And the other nationalities -- the Irish, the Polish, many others -- may be next in line. The Italians are just being conveniently used first."

Vendegnia insisted that the opposition will never use him. "There's no way they'll ever get me to change the parade's name," he said. "Impossible." Is he principled, or merely stubborn on the issue? "Both," he answered. "And they know that."

Sons of Italy members try to keep the parade on 
Mark Manger
Sons of Italy members try to keep the parade on track.

No racism is implied by the Columbus Day parade, insisted committeewoman Patty LaBriola, adding that the furthest thing from the marchers' minds is any kind of ethnic intimidation. "We have nothing against [the protesters]," she said. "We just want to have our day."

And if that day happens to be her last on earth, Clayton declared with a touch of melodrama, then so be it. "There's no way a bunch of bullies are going to stop me," she announced. "I'm four feet, eleven and a half inches tall, and there's no big son of a gun that's going to scare me. Because I'm a firm believer that the day you're born, God put a day when you're going. So if I'm going to go in the Columbus Day parade, that's fine. I'll have a great Italian funeral."

Columbus himself appears to be in no immediate danger of extinction -- not in Denver, anyway. Witness Paul MacDonald, the beefy Army veteran and former small-town cop who's assembled a ten- to fifteen-member security force for this year's parade. He explained his take on the endurance of Chistopher Columbus quite bluntly. "History," MacDonald said, "is always written by the winner."

In a basement meeting hall at the Four Winds Survival Project, a Native American community center at West Fifth Avenue and Bannock Street, the tone was no less contentious, but the physical atmosphere was markedly different. On the wall overlooking a scarred wooden conference table, a grainy, black-and-white photo mural revealed a hundred or so Native American warriors with an American flag in their teeming midst. Clearly, they have captured the Stars and Stripes in battle, and there isn't a bluecoat in sight, dead or alive.

"Lakota?" one Colorado AIM activist asked. "Probably," another answered. "They look like Lakota."

To the people who were in this room, Christopher Columbus is a mass murderer in a black slouch hat, a figure who has tormented their people's cultural memory for 500 years, especially through the reputation he's enjoyed in white-run schools. No one invoked it, but what came to mind was Ambrose Bierce's acid-etched definition of a saint: "a dead sinner, edited and revised."

The Colorado AIM members and supporters who'd gathered for the interview had wary concerns of their own: They'd brought their own pair of microcassette recorders to tape the proceedings, and some of them took copious notes. Obviously, you can't be too careful when the press is on hand -- not when so many lies have been told over the course of so many centuries.

In the view of Glenn Spagnuolo, an AIM supporter and a member of PITCH, the Italian-American anti-Columbus Day group, the dark terror of Columbus is no matter for debate. Neither is the intent of Denver's Columbus Day parade. "This parade is distinctly designed to celebrate colonialism, to celebrate Columbus," he said. "It's the hundredth anniversary of the parade here in Colorado. This is the birthplace of the celebration of Columbus -- that's why we're [taking a stand] here. This parade is all about Columbus, all about the conquering of indigenous people. It's all about the subjugation of Indian people now."

Call the celebration something like "Italian-American Pride Day," "Transform Columbus Day," these activists say, and they would embrace the moment, too. "Speaking as an Italian-American, AIM and the indigenous people I align myself with would probably march in an Italian heritage parade," Spagnuolo said. "This isn't about Italian-Indian relations; this is about celebrating genocide."

Vendegnia and the parade committee argue that it's also about First Amendment rights, but AIM has always insisted that the parade constitutes "hate speech" and thus is not protected under the U.S. Constitution. That's another argument not likely to subside, particularly in light of failed parade-day agreements over the years. "AIM has always been the force that goes to the city and says, 'Let's resolve this,'" said AIM member Leslie Andrews. "We've gone to the Italians and said, 'Let's resolve this.'"

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