Scrutiny of Columbus leaves many with ‘agita’

Tony Signorile is the coordinator of the annual Bronx Columbus Day Parade. He is among local residents opposing proposals to remove statues of Christopher Columbus from the city.
Silvio Pacifico

Longtime Bronx Columbus Day Parade organizer Tony Signorile said when he arrived in America with his family in 1961, the statue of Christopher Columbus in Columbus Square was the second one he visited, after the Statue of Liberty.

“What I learned both here and in Italy, was he was a voyager – he sailed from Italy to Spain with no money, got money from the queen and he sailed the Atlantic,” he recalled.

But threats to take down statues of the famed explorer for his treatment of the natives he colonized could cast a shadow over the upcoming parade he prepares every year.

In New York, some city public officials have called for the Columbus statue in Manhattan’s Columbus Square to be reviewed for possible removal, among them City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito.

Mayor de Blasio, himself an Italian-American, has called for a 90-day examination of all statues in the city to determine which are offensive.

Signorile, a Morris Park resident, said anti-Columbus talk by the speaker and others is misguided.

“In those days everyone had slaves’ Signorile said. “The Romans had slaves, so are we going to take down monuments to the Roman Empire too?”

Columbus is credited with the discovery of the New World and successfully navigating across the Atlantic Ocean, paving the way for colonization of the Americas and for the spread of Christianity.

However in recent years controversy over the Genoa-born explorer’s less exemplary deeds have dimmed the public’s perception of the once-revered navigator, causing some to call for an end to the celebration of the holiday altogether.

According to historians and the explorer’s own records, Columbus enslaved the natives of areas he discovered and forced them to mine for gold under harsh conditions.

He also sent thousands of natives back to the old world as slaves, and Spanish soldiers under his command spread deadly diseases that killed hundreds of thousands of natives on the islands he colonized during his seven-year reign.

Columbus was eventually removed from power by King Ferdinand in 1500, due to accusations of mismanagement and brutality.

But the president of the NYS Order of the Sons of Italy, Robert Ferrito, said an historical figure from the 1400s simply cannot be judged by 21st Century standards.

The organization is fighting the proposals through its commission for social justice, and is lobbying to make Columbus Day a national holiday, which would require all states to celebrate the explorer.

“He was a man of his time,” Ferrito said. “We’re judging him by 2017’s standards, and I think it’s unfortunate people are trying to rewrite history.”

The grand marshal for this year’s Bronx Columbus Day Parade is outgoing Councilman James Vacca.

The councilman said he was opposed to the removal of monuments honoring the explorer and looked forward to taking part in Columbus Day festivities.

“After seeing the uproar regarding the potential removal of the statue, I doubt the city will actually remove it,” Vacca said. “The city should leave the statue as is.”

Reach Reporter Arthur Cusano at (718) 742–4584. E-mail him at acusano@cnglocal.com. Follow him on Twitter @arthurcusano.

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