Norwich – The descendants of second, third and fourth generation Italian immigrants who gathered on Saturday at the Chelsea Parade for the rededication of the Italian Heritage Monument do not talk about Christopher Columbus’ journey, or the man himself.
They remember ancestors who arrived by ship starting in the 1890s, often spoke no English, and settled in cities close enough to the sea to remind them of the Italian villages or towns they left behind. Italians have emigrated to Norwich from Bologna, in the north, to Sicily, in the south, and many places in between.
Italian Americans say their parents or grandparents learned English, often from their children who learned it at school, and ended up only speaking Italian when they didn’t want their children to know what they were talking about.
Many worked as laborers and masons, while others were skilled in arts, education, science, medicine and agriculture.
Of course, they also carry their love for food.
Leaders of the city’s Italian heritage group acted swiftly last summer when a statue of Columbus was vandalized or toppled in other parts of the state and country by protesters linking it to slavery and genocide.
The name and image of Columbus were removed from the statue, which was erected with private funds in 1992 on the 500th anniversary of Columbus’s voyage.
The newly unveiled carving, which had been covered with a tarp, and later the Italian flag, depicts the Italian and American flags and their dedication to the Italian immigrants who settled in Norwich. The project costs between $ 7,000 and $ 9,000 and is paid for by private donations.
It was never really about Columbus, said many of the 60 or so people gathered on the green. It’s about family, as indicated by the engraving that says, “Onorate i vostri gentori” or “remember your parents.”
“Today we are re-dedicating the monument to our loved ones,” said Art Montorsi, president of the Italian men’s Club of America. “It was never meant to honor explorers, politicians or scientists.”
It’s also not meant to offend anyone of any skin tone, says Montorsi.
The 400 real names of Italian immigrants, whose ancestors were paid $ 300 for inclusion in the statue in 1992, remain, and are read out on Saturdays. About 60 people or so gathered on the green listening to patriotic music from both countries and waiting to hear the names of their ancestors and hometowns.
Three generations of the Jacaruso family are on the green to celebrate rededication. Frank Jacaruso, president of the Italian Heritage and Cultural Committee, has spearheaded renovations and hosted the event. His mother’s name, Adeline Jacaruso, is on the monument. Jacaruso’s two children, Jon and Maria, were present with their children.
“We explained to them from the start that it’s about honoring the sacrifices people make to make our lives better,” said Jon Jacaruso.
Paul Chinigo, a lawyer, spoke of growing up in a three-story apartment house occupied by his parents, grandparents and other family members, being the first person in his family to attend college.
Nancy DiPietro talks about the block of houses on Pond Street her parents can buy for their five daughters, about visiting her aunt every Sunday after church and about a competition to see who can make the best red sauce and meatballs.
They say their ancestors were sometimes mistreated, denied job opportunities and called various derogatory names, but were also welcomed by others and eventually learned the language and became part of the city’s structure.
The revelation of the reconfigured statue was postponed as the Italian company providing the marble was closed due to the coronavirus pandemic.
Monsignor Anthony Rosaforte of Sts Cathedral Patrick blessed the statue with holy water after offering thanks to the Italian ancestors who came to Norwich for a better life.
“You have given us the ability to blend in with the US, but also to maintain our excitement in our heritage,” said Rosaforte. “We are proud to be Americans. We are proud of our Italian ancestors. May God bless Italy. May God Bless America. And may God bless each of you.”
Several critics of Columbus’s removal from statute witnessed the opening, then spoke when the meeting broke up.
Lori Hopkins Cavanagh, who says that his mother emigrated from Senigallia, said that Columbus was a hero and had his image removed from the statue for fear that members of the Black Lives Matter movement would destroy him.
“This is fanatical and vile,” said Cavanagh. “Columbus never brought a slave from Africa.”
The only blacks in the small crowd were also against renovations.
“I don’t see it as a positive thing,” said Getch Dires, who said he came to the US from Ethiopia 17 years ago and considers himself a historian. “The real history is being erased and replaced with a revised history.”
But for many, the move was seen as a sign of unity in a city inhabited by people of all backgrounds.
“I think it’s wonderful,” said Richard Longo, whose wife, Diane, was standing nearby, nodding. “It brings people together and shows unity among all races.”