SOUTHINGTON - Italian-American organizations and community leaders celebrated the unveiling of a monument to Christopher Columbus outside the Municipal Center Monday, an event applauded by a packed room of residents and criticized by a handful of protesters.
The monument, which had been planned for four years, honors the 525th anniversary of Christopher Columbus’s discovery of the Americas in 1492.
Local organizations, including the Sons of Italy, Sorelle D’Italia in America, Southington Unico, the Knights of Columbus and the Joe & Kay Calvanese Foundation, raised the money to design and build the monument, with the unanimous approval of the Town Council.
Representatives of all of the organizations and local and state leaders reflected on Columbus and led the audience in the singing of the National Anthem.
Alfonse D’Angelo, who presided over the ceremonies, urged the protesters to be “at least minimally polite and civil.”
While they carried signs accusing the Italian explorer of genocide, rape and enslavement and accusing Southington leaders of not “telling the truth” about Columbus, they remained silent.
D’Angelo was the first to speak of Columbus’ legacy.
“We cannot retroactively judge past historical figures by the standards of today,” he said. “All we can do is learn from history and not repeat it. Columbus opened up the Americas to immigration and the U.S.A. is the greatest immigrant nation in the history of the world. People came here from everywhere and each group made their contributions.”
Dick Fortunato, who spearheaded the monument’s creation on behalf of Joe Angelillo, who has since died, prepared a statement, which was read by his son, Vince.
Fortunato’s statement said the monument honors the town’s driving spirit and patriotic pride as well as Columbus. He spoke of how Columbus’ discovery led to the settlement of Connecticut’s “Apple Valley” in the 1700s and how Southington had grown into a compassionate and caring community.
“People found refuge in America from poverty and persecution,” said Fortunato.
Phil Mazoti, grand knight of the local Knights of Columbus, also spoke as did Bill Shatas, faithful navigator of 4th Degree Isabella Assembly 122 with the Southington Knights of Columbus.
Other speakers included Lauren Forgione, treasurer of the Joe & Kay Calvanese Foundation, Tony Cusano, president of Unico and Sons of Italy, and Town Councilor Cheryl Lounsbury, who read a proclamation on behalf of the council that congratulated the organizations that made the monument possible.
State Sen. Joe Markley said, “It is impossible to step back into history and experience it ourselves. We should look to the past for people who inspire us to lead, not yield. We should rejoice in what brings us together and we sever these bonds at our own peril. We should reject the arrogance of those who condemn people living in a different world. No one stands unblemished except, perhaps, the man who hangs on crosses in churches.”
Town Council Chairman Mike Riccio acknowledged that Columbus may have been guilty of what people today would see as injustices, but argued that he was a product of his time.
He also said that Columbus had a tenacious spirit. “It is that tenacity that we support,” he said.
Following the unveiling of the monument, one of the protesters, Stephanie DeMarco of New Britain, who held a sign reading “Who builds a monument to genocide?” talked about why she attended the ceremony.
“Given everything we know about Columbus it is a little absurd to build a monument to him in 2017,” she said. “I’m not saying we should erase history, but I don’t think we should be building this monument on public grounds.”
DeMarco said that she did not come as part of any organization but just read about the event online and was upset that “Southington was being proud of it.”
Walter Hushak, a World War II veteran and a member of Joe Angellilo’s Class of 1941, said that he “knows he (Angellilo) would have been proud” to see his dream realized and the large crowd that came in support.
“Today was a good history lesson for all of us,” he said. “I am glad that the protestors didn’t do or say anything objectionable other than what was on their signs.”
The Christopher Columbus Monument standing before the Municipal Center is under constant surveillance and town leaders have suggested that anyone who attempts to vandalize it would be sued to repair it. Christopher Columbus monuments in Middletown and New Haven were vandalized Saturday night with red paint and have since been cleaned.
Brian M. Johnson can be reached at 860-973-1806 or firstname.lastname@example.org.