A statue of Christopher Columbus that stands in San Jose’s City Hall will be relocated, following a vote late last night by the City Council. Like many other monuments to the Italian colonizer around the country, this one has been denounced by activists who argue that it honors a man responsible for countless atrocities against indigenous peoples. City officials voted 10-0 to relocate the statue from its prominent spot in the building’s lobby within six weeks. They have not yet determine where it will eventually go.
The decision marks the near-end of a six-month campaign led by the San Jose Brown Berets, a Xicano social justice group that had launched an online petition calling for the relocation of the statue, which is inscribed with the words, “DISCOVERER OF AMERICA.” Signed by over 2,000 people, it had compelled Councilman Raul Peralez to draft a formal proposal to have it moved to “a more appropriate location.”
“The statue depicting Christopher Columbus perpetuates the false claims that North America was discovered and founded by Columbus and not by the indigenous peoples who originally inhabited the land,” the petition reads. “This statue is obscene and offensive to the native community whose ancestry has suffered years of oppression, rape, and genocide at the hands of the figure that now stands at our city hall.”
Others have criticized the statue through more audacious gestures: in 2001, a Native American man smashed its face with a sledgehammer, broke off three of its limbs, cracked the map Columbus holds, and yelled, “Genocide! This man rode our backs! This man murdered us!” He was charged with a hate crime, and Columbus went away to be fixed. According to the Mercury News, repairs cost nearly $66,000, part of which covered the resculpting of the statue’s marble legs and feet in Italy. Columbus returned in 2003, but was attacked once more last September, by a woman who smeared it with red and black paint.
The statue was presented as a gift to the city in 1958, by the San Jose Civic Club and the Italo-American Societies of San Jose, and sculpted by Delfo Guidi in the Tuscan town of Pietrasanta. Many members of the Italian-American community have rallied to its defense in recent months, with the Italian American Heritage Foundation launching a counter-petition to the Brown Berets’ that endorsed its current placement. It described the statue as depicting “a brave explorer who found a new route to the Americas. Christopher Columbus used the technology and scientific advancements of his age to forge a new path and discover a world yet unknown to others.”
Last night’s vote also directed that council members work directly with representatives of the Italian-American community to find the statue a new home that is mutually acceptable. If no suitable location is found within the six-week deadline, the city manager will move the statue into storage.
Council members have already proposed a number of locations, from a departure gate at San Jose International Airport to inside the Bank of Italy exhibit building at History San José. The city has not asked the San José Museum of Art to house the artwork because it is not “a particularly good piece of sculpture,” as Councilor Lan Diep tweeted. “It was made by a student who never sculpted anything again. Was intended as an advertisement for a marble company.”
While efforts to remove public tributes to Columbus have emerged around the world — from Baltimore to Barcelona — official approval to ultimately remove or relocate such statues as a result of such objections is rare. Earlier this month, New York City voted to keep its contentious Columbus statue at Columbus Circle but add context to clarify his problematic past. San José’s ruling adds to the very small handful of decisions by governing bodies to take greater action. Last February, Pepperdine University decided to relocate its Columbus statue from its Malibu campus to its Florence campus, following a series of student protests. In 2013, officials in Buenos Aires removed a giant Columbus monument, which they replaced two years later with one depicting the Latin American freedom fighter Juana Azurduy. Public debate over the statue is flaring again, however, as the government is considering what to do with the Columbus statue, which has been lying, disassembled, in a field near the airport.