By: Marianna Gatto, ISDA Contributing Editor
Colorado is not the place that typically comes to mind when we think of Columbus Day celebrations in the United States. If New York makes the top of the list, Colorado would probably rank somewhere around #25, depending on who you ask. But guess which state was the first to recognize the Columbus Day holiday. The answer may surprise you. It wasn’t New York, Massachusetts, or even New Jersey. It was Colorado. Italians began settling in Colorado in the 1850s, and on April 1, 1907, Colorado became the first state in the nation to establish Columbus Day as a legal holiday, predating the federal government’s designation by 30 years.
By the early 1920s, roughly twenty percent of Colorado’s population claimed Italian ancestry. The impact of one Italo Coloradan in particular — Hector Chiariglione — extended far beyond the Centennial State. Although you are unlikely to have ever heard of Chiariglione, there’s a good chance that the Columbus monument or statue erected in your city or town generations ago traces its history in part to this Italian immigrant, a resident of the southern Colorado city of Pueblo. Today, as Columbus statues are being removed or toppled across the nation, the 115-year-old Columbus monument in Chiariglione’s hometown of Pueblo finds itself at the center of a particularly tense standoff surrounding Columbus’s legacy.
Columbus Becomes an “American” Hero and Early Celebrations of Columbus Day in the United States
The earliest recorded celebration of Columbus Day in the United States took place on October 12, 1792 — the 300th anniversary of Columbus’s landing — and was organized by the Society of St. Tammany. The group, famously headed by William “Boss” Tweed in the mid-1800s, was also known as the Columbian Order and came to epitomize nineteenth-century machine politics. Although the Society of St. Tammany is widely associated with the urban Irish immigrant experience, it was initially hostile to immigrants, emphasizing “100 percent Americanism.” In choosing Columbus as one of its patrons, the Society of St. Tammany reflected the spirit of the time.
The United States, then in its infancy, sought heroes who were free of any association with the British, the country’s former colonial ruler, and Columbus provided the perfect symbol for the young nation. As he was incorporated into the nation’s founding myth, Columbus was transformed into an “American” icon, a man who, like the colonists-turned-Americans, shunned the Old World in favor of the freedoms characteristic of the new. During this era, the word “Columbia” was used to refer to the United States, and decades before the emergence of Uncle Sam, Columbia, a goddess-like female figure, personified the American nation. Streets and rivers, universities, cities and townships — not to mention the nation’s capital — were christened Columbia and Columbus.
Italian Immigrants Embrace Columbus
Italians began immigrating to the United States in significant numbers during the late nineteenth century, and in 1866, the Italian community of New York organized what was likely the first commemoration of Columbus’s voyages orchestrated by Italian Americans themselves. In the years that followed, Italian Americans in various parts of the country continued to embrace this tradition. However, it was not until after the 1891 lynching of 11 Sicilian immigrants in New Orleans and President Benjamin Harrison’s attempt to improve relations with Italy in the wake of the tragedy-turned political crisis, the 1892 Columbian Federation of Italian American Societies’ national convention, and the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition, that monuments dedicated to the explorer started to appear in cities and towns nationwide.
Hector Chiariglione, the Forgotten “Father of Columbus Day” and the Italians of Pueblo, Colorado
The Knights of Columbus are rightfully credited for their indefatigable efforts to establish Columbus Day as a national holiday, but they were not alone. One of the most vocal proponents of creating a national holiday in honor of the explorer and of building Columbus monuments in the United States is a man who history has largely forgotten — Hector Chiariglione. At the dawn of the twentieth century, Chiariglione urged both the state of Colorado and the federal government to officially recognize Columbus, and decades later, he became the chief civilian sponsor of the bill that established Columbus Day as a national holiday. At the time of his death in 1940, newspapers from New York to Kansas, Washington State to Louisiana published tributes to the man they christened the “Father of Columbus Day.” Since then, however, his memory has largely faded.
Born in Piemonte, Italy, in 1856, Ettore “Hector” Chiariglione emigrated to the United States in 1880 and lived briefly in New York, where he worked as a jeweler. After profiting handsomely from a gold claim in Breckenridge, Colorado, Chiariglione headed west. By 1887, he had settled in Pueblo, Colorado, a city 115 miles south of Denver, which at that time was experiencing a boom fueled by the railroads and the steel industry. Known as “Steel City” and the “Pittsburgh of the West,” Pueblo was home to Meyer Guggenheim’s Philadelphia Smelting and Refining Company and the Rockefeller family’s Colorado Fuel and Iron Company, which was the largest steel mill west of the Mississippi River and the only integrated steel mill west of St. Louis. As the twentieth century neared, Pueblo had established itself as the nation’s top refiner of gold, silver, zinc, and lead, and the city’s rapid industrialization led many to believe it would soon outpace Denver in terms of population.
Southern Colorado’s major employers launched extensive campaigns to recruit a labor force, and Italian immigrants, primarily from Sicily and Abruzzo, came to the region en masse. Many of Pueblo’s Sicilian immigrants had previously lived in Louisiana, where they had worked in the sugar cane and cotton industries. The 1891 lynching of Sicilian immigrants in New Orleans, coupled with other acts of violence and animosity toward Italians in the South, served as a catalyst for the migration of Sicilians immigrants to Pueblo. Many more Italian and Sicilian immigrants who had worked on the railroads in New York and Philadelphia would also relocate to Colorado after learning about employment opportunities in Pueblo and the neighboring coal field regions of Cañon City and Trinidad. Towns such as Salida, Rockvale, Brookside, and Ludlow (the site of the infamous Ludlow Massacre) had large Italian populations.
Pueblo’s first “Little Italies” included the neighborhoods of the Bottoms and Goat Hill near downtown and the enclave of Bessemer, located adjacent to the steel mill. Like many Italian American enclaves in the Western United States, the neighborhoods were often heterogeneous or bordered other ethnic districts. Pueblo’s Little Italies were in close proximity to Bojon Town, a Slovenian neighborhood; the East Side, which was home to a sizable Jewish community; and Smelter, which had many Mexican American residents. More than 40 languages were spoken at the steel mill alone, and over two dozen foreign language newspapers were printed in Pueblo. The city claimed Irish, German, Japanese, African Americans, Greeks, Hungarians, Lithuanians, and Russians among its residents, a convergence of cultures that led Pueblo to become one of the most diverse cities in Colorado and the West. The legacy of this is evident in Pueblo’s cultural fabric, its families, and its cuisine.
While Southern Colorado offered substantial opportunity, it was not an entirely open society. Rampant discrimination in employment led many Italo Puebloans to change their surnames. In order to secure a job at the steel mill, members of the Martellaro changed their name to “Martell.” Italo Puebloans attempted to appear less “Italian” to avoid being refused admittance to public pools, theaters, and dance halls. The region was also a hotbed for groups such as the Ku Klux Klan, which had infiltrated local governments, and harassed, intimidated, and brutalized Italian and Mexican immigrants and other marginalized groups.
[The Italians of Colorado] “slave away until someday a cave-in, explosion or accident of some kind cuts their life short, leaving their wives widowed and their children fatherless. They did not even need a grave, having been buried in the tomb in which they spent their whole lives.”
–Mother Cabrini, following an early 1900s visit to Colorado
As Pueblo’s Italian American population grew, Hector Chiariglione emerged as a community leader. In 1897, Chiariglione established a weekly Italian language newspaper, L’Unione, from an office across from Pueblo’s stately Union Depot. His paper developed a national readership and he used L’Unione as a platform to promote awareness of issues he deemed critical to the Italian American community. He later co-authored a book, Libro d’Oro degli Italiani in America (The Golden Book of Italians in America), a “who’s who” of the nation’s early Italian American community. Chiariglione also served as an Italian consular agent for the region and founded the Cristoforo Colombo Lodge, an organization of Italo Puebloan businessmen. In 1897, Chiariglione advocated on behalf of five Italian immigrants who, on account of their limited English, had been wrongly accused of murder and imprisoned in Walsenburg, Colorado. Chiariglione was known far beyond his immediate community. U.S. President William McKinley offered Chiariglione an ambassadorship position to Italy; Chiariglione was asked to intervene in a labor dispute involving Italian workers in South Dakota and he was nominated for the lieutenant governorship of Colorado. Despite his political prospects, Chiariglione’s focus remained primarily on the Italian American community.
For over 20 years, Chiariglione served as the president of the Columbian Federation of Italian American Societies, an umbrella organization that claimed a membership of more than 100 different Italian American organizations. In 1892, Chiariglione and fellow Puebloan Columbo F. Delliquadri, also a prominent activist on behalf of Italian American causes, traveled to Chicago to attend the Columbian Federation of Italian American Societies’ national convention. Chiariglione and Delliquadri addressed the attendees, imploring them to communicate to their constituencies the importance of building Columbus monuments and initiating fundraising campaigns to construct such markers. During the age of American imperialism and an era marred by anti-Catholicism and xenophobia, Chiariglione and Delliquadri envisioned the monuments would foster solidarity among the diverse peoples of the United States. In the men’s cosmopolitan hometown of Pueblo, with its large Spanish– and Italian–speaking Catholic populations, this notion was especially compelling.
Pueblo Erects Its Own Monument in Honor of Columbus
On October 12, 1905, 13 years after Pueblo held its first Columbus Day celebration, a monument dedicated to Christopher Columbus was unveiled on Abriendo Avenue, one of Pueblo’s busiest thoroughfares. Situated opposite the stately Carnegie Library in the heart of the Mesa Junction business district, the location for what was the state’s first Columbus monument was selected because of its prominence. Standing nearly 19 feet tall, the monument’s engraved cement and granite base is the work of Pueblo artist, mason, and steelworker Michele Albo and bears the design of the eastern hemisphere on one elevation and the western hemisphere on the opposite elevation. A sunburst, emanating from cumulus clouds, appears to envelope the bifurcated globe, a motif that Albo likely selected to symbolize the knowledge gained through the Columbian Exchange.
“In Memory of Christopher Columbus, with the hope that the glorious date of October 12, 1492 may be remembered in the world,” reads the inscription in Italian and English, alongside the names of the monument’s 12-member executive committee, led by Chiariglione and Delliquadri. Moving upward, a rectangular pillar extends from the base and is surmounted by a large bronze bust of Columbus, dressed in fifteenth-century attire. New York–based Italian immigrant artist Pietro Piai was commissioned to create the sculpture. Erected under the auspices of the group for which Chiariglione served as president, the Columbian Federation of Italian American Societies, the monument was constructed for a cost of $10,000 (approximately $295,000 in today’s dollars), which the group financed after collecting donations from across the country.
Upward of 7,500 people attended the monument’s unveiling, a number that equated to approximately 25 percent of Pueblo’s total population at the time. The attendees reflected the diversity of Pueblo. Various regional Italian American organizations were present, including the Pietro Toselli Society of Walsenburg, the Italian Agricultural Protective Association of Pueblo, the Prince Victor Emanuel Society of Coal Creek, and the Fedeltà Italiana Society of Pueblo. They were joined by representatives of the governments of Mexico, Norway, Spain, Belgium, Switzerland, and Italy, as well as Pueblo’s Greek Association and its Benevolent Mexican Society.
Colorado Becomes the First State to Declare Columbus Day as a State Holiday
That same year, 1905, Chiariglione and fellow journalist, immigrant, and activist Angelo Noce formally petitioned the Colorado legislature to establish a state holiday in honor of Columbus. (The men, incidentally, were engaged in a rivalrous competition; both would contend to have conceived the idea of the Columbus holiday.) Colorado state senator Casimiro Barela, who was born in a part of Mexico that later became the state of New Mexico and was then Colorado’s only Latino senator, sponsored the bill. On April 1, 1907, Colorado became the first state in the nation to recognize Columbus Day. Chiariglione, Noce, and the Knights of Columbus continued to push for national recognition of the holiday. While the Knights of Columbus and Noce opted for the political route — lobbying the federal government and state legislatures — Chiariglione engaged Italian American communities.
During a time when campanilismo and linguistic differences discouraged group cohesion among Italian immigrants, Chiariglione promoted the notion of Columbus as a symbol of Italian greatness and a common ancestor of Italian immigrants, independent of the region from which they hailed. That is not to say that Chiariglione shied away from the political process. It was Chiariglione, in fact, who served as the principal citizen sponsor of the bill that established Columbus Day as a federal holiday in 1937 during the presidency of Franklin Delano Roosevelt. He had been communicating the importance of the holiday to the federal government since President Theodore Roosevelt’s administration.
Pueblo’s Columbus Monument Becomes the Subject of Controversy
With few exceptions, every year on Columbus Day since 1905, the monument on Abriendo Avenue has been the site of ceremonies commemorating Columbus. The monument bore witness to many of the events that would define Pueblo, including the devastating 1921 flood that nearly destroyed the city. In the wake of the disaster, Pueblo residents, immigrant and native-born, Jewish and Christian, Democrat and Republican, pulled together to rebuild the city after 10-foot-deep waters submerged much of the town.
For Italo Puebloans of the early 1900s — like their contemporaries elsewhere in the nation — the monument provided a vehicle through which they inserted themselves into discourses pertaining to the founding of the American nation and countered nativist rhetoric. If the nation owed its existence to the Genoa-born explorer, wasn’t their national origin, however stigmatized, in fact noble? If Columbus had proved himself a “great American” through his endeavors, couldn’t they too demonstrate themselves worthy of acceptance in American society through their labor and tenacity?
The story of Pueblo’s Italian community is largely one of upward mobility. The descendants of the city’s first generation of Italian settlers — and even many of the settlers themselves — achieved success in business and agriculture. Others went on to become some of the region’s most revered educators and civic leaders, philanthropists and developers. For many Puebloans of Italian descent, the monument came to symbolize the contributions that their ancestors had made to the United States, and it has long been a source of pride.
The first protests against the Columbus monument in Pueblo took place in the 1990s, and although they continued in the decades that followed, they were limited to Columbus Day. The monument, which was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 2011, was vandalized on several occasions, and Columbus Day ceremonies, organized by the Pueblo chapter of the Order of Sons of Italy (the group that also provides significant financial support to maintain the monument), were disrupted. It was not until 2020 however, following the civil unrest that spread across the nation in the wake of George Floyd’s death that Pueblo found itself embroiled in a particularly tense standoff over its monument to Columbus and the explorer’s legacy.
Since June 2020, protestors, counter-protestors, and activists — among them individuals who identify with Colorado’s indigenous communities, members of organizations such as For the People Colorado (a Maoist group), the Proud Boys (a far-right neo-fascist organization), the Sons of Silence (designated an outlaw motorcycle gang by the FBI), and others who embrace Antifa practices — have descended upon Pueblo’s Abriendo Avenue each Sunday. Although most of the demonstrators exercise their First Amendment rights peacefully, others more actively seek confrontations. Some carry weapons, including military style rifles, which is permitted in Colorado, an open carry state. On several occasions, the conflicts have turned violent, prompting arrests. Businesses in the otherwise serene neighborhood — many of which are still reeling from the effects of COVID-19 — along with the Pueblo city-county library, which is located opposite from the monument and is usually a popular place for students and families on the weekends, have elected to close. Recognizing that the oppositional nature of the demonstrations provides little opportunity to engage in meaningful and productive dialog, members of Pueblo’s Italian American community have been largely absent from the protests, as they have intentionally stayed home in the interest of public safety, as well as to avoid placing additional strain on the already taxed law enforcement resources.
After more than a month of protests, the Pueblo city council convened a meeting at which members of the public were invited to express their opinions on the 115-year-old monument. The city council, at the recommendation of Pueblo’s mayor, Nick Gradisar, subsequently voted to hire a mediator in hopes of settling the dispute. Representatives of the indigenous community and the Order of Sons of Italy Pueblo met with the mediator and various ideas were discussed, but the mediation eventually reached an impasse. When the talks appeared to be failing, members of the city council suggested the issue be placed on the November ballot, a proposal that the same body subsequently voted against.
The two sides have since reconvened. Members of the indigenous community and their legal representatives had previously insisted on the statue’s removal or relocation to a museum where it would be displayed alongside a recontextualized history. When it was revealed that the library across from the monument is part of a museum district, a new proposal emerged. Pueblo City Council President Dennis Flores suggested that the Columbus monument remain in its current location and that other statues representing Pueblo’s multicultural heritage be installed in the plaza in front of the library. A commission, consisting of representatives of the city’s diverse constituencies, would be created to oversee the process.
Recognizing the value that an outdoor museum and multicultural plaza would provide the community as opposed to simply removing the Columbus monument, many Puebloans are in favor of the plan. The proposed plaza would serve as a location where the community could come together, exchange ideas, and continue to practice the traditions and demonstrate the values for which Pueblo has been known for generations. If it is successful, Pueblo could also serve as an example for other communities that are reexamining, questioning, and negotiating contested histories in public spaces.
In 1924, Hector Chiariglione, the “Father of Columbus Day,” moved to Southern California where he remained until his death on April 22, 1940.
This is a developing story and will be updated.
Marianna Gatto is the executive director and cofounder of the Italian American Museum of Los Angeles (IAMLA), a historian and author with more than a decade of experience in public history, non-profit leadership, museums, and education.