For much of the past decade, Columbus Day has been tense in Denver. Parading Italian-Americans have been confronted by Native American protesters and their allies, hundreds of people have been arrested, and animosity between the two groups has grown.
This year promises more of the same. The Columbus Day parade scheduled for Saturday, October 12, will be challenged by the Four Directions/All Nations march, and Denver police will be out in force in an attempt to keep the two groups apart.
One of Denver's most controversial Italian-Americans -- U.S. Representative Tom Tancredo -- plans to march in the parade, so long as his schedule in Washington allows it "and they don't change the name of the parade to something like 'Italian-American Pride Day,'" says Tancredo, who has been in the news for his frequent denunciations of illegal immigration. (One of the ironies of Congressman Tancredo's crusade against illegals is that Italians were often the undocumented workers of their day -- the derogatory term "wop" is an acronym for "without papers.")
The groups opposing Columbus Day view it as a celebration of a conquest that led to grief and mass murder for indigenous peoples in the Western Hemisphere. They insist they would have no problem with an Italian-American heritage parade, but they won't abide honoring Christopher Columbus.
"People continue to make this an Indian-Italian debate," says Nita Gonzales, one of the organizers of the Four Directions march. "We've never been anti-Italian; we've made it very clear the issue is this man and what he represented. He was a mercenary for Spain and the first transatlantic slave trader. What he did to the Indians was the equivalent of what Hitler did to the Jews."
The anti-Columbus Day coalition has even put out a national call on its Web site (transformcolumbusday.org) for protesters to converge on Denver and is expecting about 4,000 marchers. (In the past, other Web sites, including fuckcolumbus and SmashColumbusDay, have advocated a more extreme approach. Recent fliers distributed by the Coloradicals group urges people to mobilize for "total liberation.") In case of trouble, the coalition has held trainings for both legal observers and medics. The Columbus Day parade also anticipates several thousand participants.
The Columbus Day controversy even became fodder for a recent episode of The Sopranos, as befuddled mobsters tried to buy off Native Americans planning to protest the holiday. In San Francisco, organizers of the parade -- who claim that the event dates from 1869 -- agreed to rename it the Italian Heritage Parade, although other festivities still refer to Columbus Day. This year, actor Dennis Farina is the grand marshal of San Francisco's celebration.
For many Italian-Americans, at issue is their right to celebrate their heritage without harassment.
"It's our First Amendment right to march under any name we like," says George Vendegnia, one of the organizers of the Columbus Day parade. "Christopher Columbus was a great navigator. What they're really protesting is the Western world coming over here."
After confrontations between a small number of paraders and several thousand demonstrators in 1991 and a last-minute decision to cancel 1992's commemoration (which would have marked the 500th anniversary of Columbus's first voyage) for fear of violence, the parade disappeared for several years. In 1996, Vendegnia organized a lodge -- Sons of Italy/ New Generation -- to revive it. "The New Generation lodge was solely formed to unite Italians and bring back the parade," he says.
The parade returned to Denver in 2000, and so did the opposition. The Justice Department and the City of Denver tried to negotiate a compromise between the two sides that would have turned the parade into a march for "Italian pride," but the Sons of Italy insisted on keeping the traditional name.
More than 140 protesters were arrested for trying to block the march. Although charges were later dropped, the Denver Police Department opened several of its now-infamous "spy files" on protest organizers.
Last year, both sides backed off their confrontation in the wake of September 11, but they are now poised to renew the battle.
In 1907, Colorado became the first state to make Columbus Day a holiday. (Pueblo held the first Colorado celebration in 1905.) At the time, it was like the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday is today: belated recognition for a group that had experienced horrifying oppression.
"Italians were below the blacks and the Irish in the local pecking order," says Tom Noel, a professor of history at the University of Colorado at Denver. "They were at the bottom of the immigrant ladder, doing the most dangerous and least-paid work. If a mule's leg was injured, they'd fix it, but if an Italian was injured, they'd just fire him."
Most of the first Italian immigrants in Colorado were single men, and Noel says many Coloradans thought they were after the local women. A lot of the Italians were from southern Italy and had dark complexions, and their Catholicism, food and language all separated them from the northern European groups that predominated in Colorado. One Italian man was lynched by a mob during Denver's rowdy 1890s.
Noel says that by the early 1900s, there were enough Italians in the state that local politicians began to covet their votes. "I think the Republican power elite was reaching out to them," he says of the legislature's creation of the statewide Columbus Day holiday.
Of course, the suffering of Native Americans following the European conquest dwarfs the experiences of local Italians. In Samuel Eliot Morison's definitive biography of Columbus, "Admiral of the Ocean Sea," he makes it clear that Columbus didn't hesitate to exploit the native population in the most brutal fashion after he touched land in the Caribbean. Columbus often described the native Taino people on the isle of Hispaniola (now divided between Haiti and the Dominican Republic) as being the kindest and most peaceful people he had ever encountered. But that didn't stop him from capturing hundreds of them in 1495.
"Enslaving these people in their own islands was no new idea to Columbus," writes Morison. "His first thought in 1492 was to clothe them and set them to work. But now he resorted to the monstrous expedient of sending hundreds of the wretched creatures overseas, to the slave market of Seville.... Some 1,500 captives were driven down to [Columbus's camp] Isabela. Of these about five hundred, 'the best males and females,' were loaded on the four caravels. Columbus then announced that any Christian might help himself to as many as he pleased of the remainder."
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Most of the Taino slaves died on the voyage to Spain. But their compatriots at home didn't fare much better. As a result of the European conquest, the Tainos were exposed to smallpox and virtually wiped out.
Gonzales says Chicanos have good reason to oppose Columbus Day. "Most Chicanos have indigenous blood," she says. "It speaks to our ancestors as well."
Noel sympathizes with the Native American criticism of Columbus, but he says it's sad that a holiday intended to honor some of Colorado's most exploited residents has become so controversial.
"I think it's kind of tragic," says Noel. "The Italians struggled so hard. It would be like taking away the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday fifty years from now."