The Los Angeles City Council voted Wednesday to eliminate Columbus Day from the city calendar, siding with activists who view the explorer as a symbol of genocide for native peoples in North America and elsewhere.
Over the objections of Italian American civic groups, the council made the second Monday in October a day in L.A. to commemorate “indigenous, aboriginal and native people.” It replaces a holiday that served as a touchstone for Italian Americans, marking the arrival of Christopher Columbus in the Caribbean.
Italian Americans voiced anguish over the proposal, telling council members it would erase a portion of their heritage. Some said they supported the creation of Indigenous Peoples Day as long as it held on a different date.
“On behalf of the Italian community, we want to celebrate with you,” said Ann Potenza, president of Federated Italo-Americans of Southern California, speaking in a room packed with Native American activists. “We just don’t want it to be at the expense of Columbus Day.”
That idea was unacceptable to Chrissie Castro, vice chairwoman of the Los Angeles City-County Native American Indian Commission. She argued that city lawmakers needed to “dismantle a state-sponsored celebration of genocide of indigenous peoples.”
“To make us celebrate on any other day would be a further injustice,” Castro said.
The day will remain a paid holiday for city employees, regardless of the name.
Wednesday’s debate had been driven by two men with different visions of how to replace Columbus Day, which was established as a federal holiday in 1937. Councilman Mitch O’Farrell, a member of the Wyandotte Nation tribe in Oklahoma, argued that the replacement of Columbus Day with Indigenous Peoples Day would provide “restorative justice.”
Councilman Joe Buscaino, a first-generation Italian American raised in San Pedro, had sought to replace Columbus Day with a different name, one that celebrates “all of the diverse cultures in the city.” Buscaino said many had forgotten the prejudice faced by Italian Americans in the United States — and asked his colleagues not to “cure one offense with another.”
“All of our individual cultures matter,” said Buscaino, who represents neighborhoods from Watts to San Pedro.
Buscaino and three colleagues — Gil Cedillo, David Ryu and Mitchell Englander — pushed an alternative plan to hold Indigenous Peoples Day on Aug. 9, a date selected by the United Nations for recognizing native peoples. The council rejected that proposal on an 11-4 vote.
Councilman Mike Bonin, the great-grandson of Italian immigrants, said he felt genuinely pained at having to disagree with Buscaino. But he argued that Columbus Day diminishes the accomplishments of his ancestors, who came to the U.S. to “build something and not to destroy something.”
“This gesture of replacing Columbus Day with Indigenous Peoples Day is a very small step in apologizing and in making amends,” said Bonin, who represents coastal neighborhoods from Westchester to Pacific Palisades.
The council’s vote comes at a time of heated discussion over the nation’s holidays and historic monuments.
Activists have been pushing for the removal of statues honoring military leaders who served the Confederacy. Two weeks ago, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio called for a 90-day review of “all symbols of hate” on city property.
Several U.S. cities — including Seattle, Albuquerque and Denver — have already replaced Columbus Day with Indigenous Peoples Day.
O’Farrell, who represents an Echo Park-to-Hollywood district, said his plan for Indigenous Peoples Day also establishes Oct. 12, the date of Columbus’ arrival in 1492, as Italian American Heritage Day at City Hall. It would not be a day off for paid employees.
Replacing Columbus Day, O’Farrell said, would right a “historical wrong.”
“We are not creating a racial conflict,” he said. “We are ending one.”
The council replaced Columbus Day with Indigenous Peoples Day on a 14-1 vote, with Buscaino opposed. The move followed a fractious hearing, with Italian Americans and Native Americans cheering and jeering at different moments.
One opponent of the holiday name change called it “a slap in the face” to Italian Americans. Another called it racially divisive.
John Giovanni Corda, a Beverly Hills resident who identified himself as Sardinian, told the audience to “shut your mouths” after they started heckling. He told the council that O’Farrell’s proposal was anti-Italian.
“Why don’t you stop picking on Christopher Columbus as though you’re picking on our people,” he said. “We never hurt you. We never wanted to hurt you.”
Backers of the name change spoke of newcomers to the Caribbean and North American enslaving, raping and killing Native Americans. They argued that the human cost has not been accurately described in schools and public life.
“We’ve been erased from education. We’ve been erased from the history books,” said Joseph Quintana, development director for United American Indian Involvement, which supports Native Americans in the Los Angeles area.