In Bay Area, Columbus Day Runs Aground : Holiday: American Indians plan to demonstrate at the festivities. But Italian-Americans view the events as a source of pride.


Five hundred years after Columbus first set foot in the Americas, Joseph Cervetto Jr., portraying the Genoese navigator in San Francisco’s Columbus Day celebration, will re-enact the landing on the city’s waterfront.

Like Columbus, Cervetto will be met upon his arrival today by American Indians. Unlike Columbus, he also will be met by members of the Bay Area Coalition for Reproductive Rights, the Lesbian Committee to Support Women Political Prisoners, the Anarchist-Communist Coalition, the General Union of Palestinian Students, Queers for Cuba, and other groups that have vowed to protest the event.

Cervetto takes his role in the holiday celebration calmly. But the man he is portraying, an expatriate adventurer who failed in his attempt to find a shortcut to the Indies--a man dead 486 years--is the focus of controversy as the Bay Area prepares for the Columbus Day quincentennial.


“I hope it’s not going to be a showdown,” said Marc Slavin, assistant to the mayor of Berkeley, which has declared the holiday Indigenous People’s Day. “I don’t think anybody’s drawing a line in the sand here.”

But they have clearly marked their turf.

American Indians vilify Columbus for setting in motion what they call the genocide of their people and the rape of two continents. Italian-Americans view him as a source of ethnic pride, a native son with the courage and vision to challenge the boundaries of his world.

A host of other groups, demonstrating alongside the American Indians, see the holiday as an opportunity for a debate on the consumerism, patriarchy and imperialism that, they say, European colonizers imposed on the Americas.

If only Columbus had known what he was getting into.

The Bay Area Resistance 500 Coalition, a network of American Indian and minority organizations, is sponsoring activities in Berkeley, Oakland and San Francisco throughout October. Among these are the International Tribunal of Indigenous Peoples and Oppressed Nations, and Unplug Mother Earth Day, during which participants are asked to forgo “dominant culture activities” such as driving, spending money or watching television.

Resistance members hope their actions will show that when Columbus helped found a new civilization in the Americas, he did not start from scratch.

“The purpose was to tell our side of the Columbus ‘discovery’ and to expose the lies and myths of the past 500 years,” said Barbara Renick, a member of the Northern Paiute-Shoshone people and coordinator of the Bay Area Indian Alliance. “We want to expose the colonial mentality and the subjugation and the loss of land and lives and the hypocrisy of this European invasion.”


In a preview of things to come, members of the resistance coalition crashed the mock coronation of Queen Isabella of Spain at San Francisco City Hall on Oct. 2. Chanting “Genocide! Killers! Murderers!” the demonstrators provoked an angry confrontation until an American Indian Movement spokeswoman was allowed to address the crowd.

This weekend, the coalition is mustering forces for demonstrations and civil disobedience at many events, including today’s annual re-enactment of Columbus’ landing and the Columbus Day Parade in North Beach.

The anticipated confrontation is only the latest difficulty San Francisco has faced in mounting this year’s festivities. Selected as the “jubilee city” of the nationwide Columbus quincentennial celebration, the city promised a spectacular show, including replicas of Columbus’ three caravels.

Funding from federal, corporate and other sources was expected to total $8 million, said John Legnitto, president of the Columbus Day Celebration Committee.

But the federal money never materialized, and the city has raised only about $400,000. Several key members of the planning committee resigned, rumors of political conflict with Mayor Frank Jordan circulated, and the visit of the tall ships was canceled. Instead of the jubilee, this year’s celebration is only a slightly grander version of the city’s traditional fete.

But none of this will deter Italian-Americans from celebrating the holiday with their customary gusto. “Columbus Day is like Italian Day for the Italian community,” Legnitto said.


And so--when people such as Judy Talaugon of the American Indian Movement say: “Columbus is Hitler to us. . . . You’re talking about a real annihilation of a people after his arrival”--Bay Area Italian-Americans take the criticism personally.

“I’m sure the Native American Indians have any number of things to complain about, but that argument is sort of historical revisionist nonsense,” said George Silvestri, regional vice president of the National Italian-American Foundation. “It’s an unfortunate, inaccurate cheap shot to focus it all on Columbus.”

“Judging anyone in the 15th Century by 20th Century standards just doesn’t stand up,” said Legnitto, for whom Columbus symbolizes the enterprising spirit that led his immigrant grandmother to seek a new life in America. “This man had courage and was able to move beyond his boundaries. . . . What really has to happen here is an understanding of what we’re commemorating.”

To that end, the San Francisco office of the National Italian-American Foundation announced last week that it will sponsor two new university scholarships--one for an Italian-American to study American Indian history and culture, and one for an American Indian to study the Renaissance. The scholarships will be funded in part by proceeds from the Columbus Day ball.

Also in the spirit of understanding, Berkeley leaders stress that renaming the holiday Indigenous People’s Day--a move that earned it a Platinum Pit Award for insensitivity from the National Ethnic Coalition of Organizations--was not meant to slight Italian-Americans.

“It has nothing to do with the ancestry of the man who happened to land on these shores 500 years ago,” said mayor’s aide Slavin. “We just felt we wanted to broaden the horizons of cultural celebration.”


Cervetto, who in his role as Columbus will be at the center of the controversy this weekend, is philosophical about the affair.

“If they feel they want to protest about it then they have the right to protest about it,” he said. “In this country we have the right to express our beliefs and to free speech. That’s what this country was built on.”