An interview with Chicago’s socialist, Italian American alderman about the destructive legacy of Christopher Columbus.
On Friday July 17th, a large Black and Indigenous Solidarity demonstration made a valiant but failed attempt to take down one of Chicago’s monuments to Christopher Columbus. The protest was met with intense violence from police. A number of Chicago’s socialist alderpeople–including Daniel La Spata–have spoken out against the police repression. Some members of the Italian American community have held press conferences about the protest attacking the demonstration and defending “their legacy”. La Spata, the alderperson of Chicago’s 1st Ward and Italian American himself, has been an ongoing critic of the cities celebrations of Columbus. This interview by Marco Rosaire Rossi was conducted right before Friday’s events. [editors]
Marco Rosaire Rossi: You are one of three self-identified Italian Americans on the Chicago City Council. Tell me about your experience with that.
Daniel La Spata: First, there have been a number of times when [Chicago Sun-Times journalist] Fran Spielman and others have reported on the two Italian American aldermen of the city council. I think I throw some of them off by being a member of the Latino Caucus as well. But yes, three of my four grandparents were immigrants from Italy. I had the opportunity growing up to know my mom’s grandfather who came from northern Italy. I never really knew my dad’s parents, who died before I was born, but I know they both immigrated from Sicily. My grandfather was actually born in 1879, which is crazy to think about. In one generation, my family goes back across two centuries. I am originally from New Jersey, where there’re a lot of Italian Americans.
Recently, there have been calls to take down several of Chicago’s Christopher Columbus statues and have the city recognize Indigenous People’s Day instead of Columbus Day. Historically, the Italian community has been defensive about reassessing Columbus’s legacy, but you have been supportive of these calls. Why do you think it is necessary to take these actions?
I understand what Columbus’s legacy brought to Italian Americans during the 1910s and the 1920s. They were searching for legitimacy. At the time, Italians were looking for a path to acceptance, which meant a path to whiteness. White privilege was as much of an issue then as it is now. Christopher Columbus, who could be seen as the “first American” created that path to legitimacy. So, this myth of Columbus had utility. Looking at where we are now, with a fuller understanding of who Columbus was and what his actions were, I feel like tying our cultural heritage to Columbus hurts a lot more than it helps.
Given Columbus’s destructive legacy, why do you think he has become such an important figure for so many Italian Americans?
For Italian Americans there has been such an attachment to Columbus, such a tight association, that people are simply reluctant to give that up. I think our generation has a much clearer sense of what Columbus means, but for our parents and grandparents—particularly if they see the criticisms coming from outside of the Italian American community—there is a lot more defensiveness. That defensiveness speaks to the way that white supremacy has permeated our sense of ourselves culturally. There are other aldermen who claim that if we no longer celebrated Columbus, Italian American culture would be made invisible. They say that this is about erasing cultural heritage. That strikes me as almost an impossibility. Italian American culture is so weaved into the culture of what it is to be American that you couldn’t erase it if you tried. So why do we need to hold on to what is literally the most toxic aspect of Italian American culture?
Lori Lightfoot has come out in defense of the city’s Columbus Day parade. She has claimed that it is a multicultural affair that shows respect to Italian Americans. Why do you think she is wrong?
I take issue with that because every community of color that I have a relationship with views the Columbus Day parade and Columbus as a symbol of white supremacy. I am much more willing to let Black and brown communities speak to me about what they consider to be an inclusive and welcoming space than to be told by champions of Columbus what inclusivity is supposed to look like. If another community says, “This parade is a celebration of an icon of white supremacy,” then that does not fit with what the mayor is saying about the parade. There is a real cognitive dissonance there. The real question is what is going to happen this October if and when we come to another Columbus Day? I am excited to see the movement for Indigenous People’s Day ramp up as we head into the fall.
Besides Columbus, Chicago has another controversial monument that many Italian Americans in the city defend. I am referring to the monument dedicated to the Italian fascist Italo Balbo and the street named after him. What is Balbo’s connection to the city, and why is he such a problematic figure?
The fact that we are still holding onto a street name and a statue of someone who never lived here and never was an American citizen but was a fascist who famously flew across the Atlantic Ocean sincerely boggles my mind. It doesn’t take long to look it up. We are a country that is only now reckoning the impact of twentieth-century fascism and the damage of colonialism. Balbo was one of the founders of fascism in Italy. He was someone who helped bring Mussolini to power. Balbo pushed forward Italy’s colonization of Africa. He stands for nothing of who we want to be in contemporary twenty-first-century America. He stands for none of our best values. Anyone—whether they are Italian, Black, white, Latinx—who understands the history should be incensed that we still have a street named after this person. It is as absurd as if German Americans were holding onto some kind of Himmler Boulevard in Chicago.
If the city takes down statues of Columbus and Balbo do you think it should replace them with other recognizable figures from the Italian American community?
I don’t have a strong feeling either way on that. I feel like Columbus is such an indelible part of our history, and I am fine with it going into a museum. For the Balbo monument, it is so archeologically significant that if you were willing to include a separate plaque that described the realities of who Balbo was, I would be comfortable with that. I also don’t want to make those decisions in a vacuum. I want to have a conversation with the activists who are leading this movement.
Do you have an idea of how those decisions should be made? If you don’t want those decisions made in a vacuum, then what would an inclusive process look like?
I would be interested in talking to Italian American heritage groups and those who are advocating for the visibility of the Chicago area’s Indigenous history. That seems like the most meaningful way to move forward. Now, is it the most equitable way to move forward? That is another question. But it is a starting point.
You play a unique role on the Chicago City Council in that the other two Italian identified aldermen, Anthony Napolitano and Nicholas Sposato, are both conservatives on the council. On your twitter account you referred to yourself as “the lone Italian for racial justice.” Why do you think Italian representation on the council tends to sway in such a conservative direction?
I can’t speak to the communities that Napolitano and Sposato came up in. I can only speak for myself. In that case, both my family and my faith drove me in this direction. My mother is someone who values service and compassion above all else. My faith has always taught me to work towards racial and economic justice. I look toward Italian heroes, icons like St. Francis of Assisi, who championed a sense of solidarity with the poor and radical sacrifices for justice. That was how I was raised. When I came to Logan Square and Humboldt Park after graduating from college, I was in communities that really helped me build a sense of shared struggle across class and race.
Throughout Chicago’s history Italians have had a complicated history. In many ways they were excluded from power and wealth in the city, but at the same time they took out their frustrations on other racial minorities, particularly African Americans. I am thinking specifically of the race riots around housing issues after World War II. Do you think there needs to be a reckoning within the Chicago Italian American community in how it instigated racial tensions with other marginalized groups in the city?
For sure. It goes to the resolution that we just passed [in the Chicago City Council] on reparations. I talked about this at council. I feel like it is on white Americans, and I would specifically call out Italian Americans, to be a part of that conversation. We need to recognize that we have all been complicit in the damages. It might not be us who are living here right now who did it, but we are part of a legacy. I think we can recognize how we were pitted against other marginalized people. That is what capitalism does. It pits marginalized communities and racial groups against each other as though we had to fight for limited slices of the pie. It prevents us all from achieving a more powerful sense of solidarity.
The area of the city that UIC [University of Illinois–Chicago] was built on used to be a vibrant working-class Italian neighborhood, that is before it was leveled by the mayor Richard J. Daley to make room the university. How do you think Italians in Chicago should deal with the fact that one of its most recognized institutions was created by destroying one of their communities?
We can reckon with that. We can talk about that and be honest about what that loss was. The question is: how do we commemorate that and how do we claim that history? We need to recognize that like every other immigrant group, Italians were viewed as being expendable. We don’t need to do that in a way that compares or tries to lessen the suffering of other racial minorities in the city. I have seen a lot of memes on this recently. Italians and Irish Americans trying to draw comparisons between the suffering that our parents and grandparents went through with the suffering that Black and Latinx communities experience today. It is a sort of All-Lives-Matter mentality. Not only is it not fair based on the actual data and the actual history of those groups, but it also destroys our ability to be viewed as both allies and coconspirators in the fight for racial justice. I think Italian Americans can recognize that history and that suffering without trying to use it to distract from the conversation that is happening right now.
Do you see parallels with what happened to the Italian neighborhoods in Chicago generations ago and what is happening with gentrification in Logan Square where your ward is today?
Yes. In both spaces there is a kind of cultural erasure happening. It is one of the reasons why we are pushing back on housing demolition. The first thing that happens to a gentrified area is that you remove the people. When you demolish housing and the built environment it is as though that community never existed in that space. That is one of the reasons pushing back against demolitions and preserving the housing stock—especially the useful and affordable housing stock—is one of the things that is a priority for me right now.
Throughout this interview we have discussed the need for marginalized groups to receive justice but at the same time not to exclude other groups in the process. You mentioned how capitalism pits groups against each other. How do you think we can move forward on these issues like gentrification, Black Lives Matter, immigration, without pitting one group against another?
It is tempting for me as a white progressive to say that it is really about identifying a joint critique of the economic system, that there is a shared oppression under a capitalist economy. There is a certain convenience to that, in that it is very unifying. But at the same time, if I do say that, it negates the fact that even under this shared system of oppression Black and Latinx people are experiencing specific and deeper injustices. That is the question that progressives are facing. How do we build a unifying narrative around what we are trying to achieve in terms of justice without negating the very real specific racial injustices that are happening right now?
Even when my family was growing up, we were genuinely low-income. The company my dad worked for went bankrupt. He ended up working as a night security guard into his sixties. My mother had to go back to work. We certainly struggled. I struggled a lot during my twenties. But I can’t say that suffering is equal to or the same as what Black Americans have faced for the last two hundred years. I can’t say that is equal to or the same as what Latinx folks have faced. That is the challenge. Being able to discern where there is solidarity and where we need to also highlight the distinct racial oppression that is happening in this country.
Daniel La Spata is a democratic socialist who was elected alderman in 2019 to Chicago’s 1st Ward.
Marco Rosaire Rossi is a PhD candidate in political science at the University of Illinois–Chicago.