Public outcry may have convinced San Jose to oust a Christopher Columbus statue from City Hall, but on Monday the building will go dark in honor of the Italian explorer.
Columbus Day has inspired controversy ever since President Franklin D. Roosevelt made it a federal holiday in 1937, calling it a celebration of “the promise which Columbus’ discovery gave the world.” But a growing number of cities have chosen to dedicate the day to the native inhabitants of land Columbus claimed to discover.
In 1991, on the 500th anniversary of Columbus’ arrival in the Americas, Berkeley became the first U.S. city to designate the date as Indigenous Peoples’ Day. Several jurisdictions have since followed suit, including Seattle, Denver, Albuquerque and, just this week, Los Angeles County.
San Jose, however, continues to observe the holiday as defined by FDR eight decades ago. Here, the debate over Columbus has centered on his marble likeness in City Hall.
As monuments honoring slave-owning Confederate leaders came toppling down in other parts of the nation, activists in San Jose launched a petition to remove the Columbus figure from public view.
Last month, the city acknowledged that it’s best to relocate the statue, which the Italian-American community donated to the public in 1958, and to hold a town hall in November to talk about alternate sites. The decision by a City Council subcommittee came after an hour of public testimony that cast Columbus as a symbol of genocide and colonialism.
San Jose Mayor Sam Liccardo, who is part Italian, ultimately acknowledged during the meeting that it would be best to move the statue elsewhere. But only after taking it upon himself to speak on behalf of the Italian-American community, as no one showed up to defend the statue.
“We have schools named after presidents who owned slaves,” Liccardo said at the Rules and Open Government Committee meeting, according to the Mercury News. “Life and history are both complex. We just need to acknowledge that people we may honor for doing great things have also committed great atrocities or great sins.”
A day later, 25-year-old Gina Darlene Gonzalez allegedly smeared black and red paint over the sculpture.
It wasn’t the first time someone has expressed disapproval of the statue by defacing it. In 2001, a man smashed Columbus’ face with a sledgehammer, matching each blow with shouts of “Murderer!” and “Genocide!”
“Maybe the city is finally getting the message,” says Julie Rodriguez, a 28-year-old activist of Ohlone, Mexican and Italian descent. “City Hall is not an appropriate place for a statue of someone who symbolizes oppression.”