In a quick and unexpected move, the City of San Antonio removed a statue of Christopher Columbus this morning from the eponymous downtown park where it has stood since 1956.
The city intends to refurbish the monument and return it to the Christopher Columbus Italian Society. But it’s unlikely to return to its spot in public view facing West Martin Street.
Activists such as Antonio Diaz, a descendent of a local indigenous tribe, have called for the statue’s removal since 1998 because Columbus colonized and enslaved Native Americans during his voyages to North America from 1492 to 1502.
In recent years, District 1 Councilman Roberto Treviño has been working with Diaz and the Christopher Columbus Italian Society, who donated the statue to the city in the 1950s, on the statue’s removal, and on renaming the park “Piazza Italia,” in honor of the Italian immigrants who settled in San Antonio. And the society agreed.
It’s unclear how long the repairs to the statue will take. The City Council has yet to formally vote on its removal, a decision that will likely take place in August when the body returns from its summer break.
“We want to ensure that all cultures are respectfully represented and tell a story that celebrates the diversity and unity of San Antonio,” Treviño said in a statement to the Heron.
“This was a step in the right direction, a step closer to healing by listening and taking action,” Treviño continued.
Other than the symbolism of the removal, the process turned out to be uneventful. No protesters, neither for or against, were in attendance while the statue was being taken down. However, there was a significant local media presence, as well as San Antonio Park Police. Streets were closed and barriers installed in an abundance of caution.
Over the past several years, the statue had become a lightning rod for local activists on both sides of the issue. In a symbolic move by an anonymous protestor, the statue was recently defaced with red paint. No arrests have been made. During a protest last Saturday, there were some tense moments when protesters in support of the statue’s removal, and those against, became uncomfortably close. No violence occurred.
Treviño said of the statue’s removal and park renaming, “It is an opportunity to effectively represent the influence that the Italian community has had in our community. We want to ensure that all cultures are respectfully represented and tell a story that celebrates the diversity and unity of San Antonio.”
Although they admittedly see Columbus in a different light, the members of the Society are also sensitive to its controversial nature.
“They recognized that the statue was a symbol of a painful history for other cultures in our community and wanted to take a considerate stand of solidarity by requesting the return of the statue be made by the city,” Treviño said.
The Italian community and the society remain active to this day, frequently offering fundraising spaghetti dinners out of San Francesco di Paola Church, which is located at the park.
Christopher Columbus statue protest turns confrontational, but without violence
Page Graham is a freelance journalist and longtime resident of San Antonio. As a producer and director for Univision 41 in the 1980s, he learned about the multicultural roots of our city.