Rep. Lauren Boebert speaks at a Columbus Day ceremony in Pueblo on Oct. 11, 2021. (Sara Wilson/Colorado Newsline)
Rep. Lauren Boebert spoke on Monday morning in the shadow of Colorado’s last remaining monument to Christopher Columbus, a sandstone bust that sits in the median of a busy commercial street in Pueblo. The bust has been a political flashpoint as Indigenous activists and the Italian Americans who support the monument are at a stalemate over its future.
While Colorado no longer recognizes Columbus Day, replacing it last year with Frances Xavier Cabrini Day, the Pueblo chapter of the Order Sons and Daughters of Italy in America still held its annual celebration in what they said was a ceremony to honor the cultural and economic contributions Italian immigrants made to the southern Colorado city.
Speakers, including Boebert, lauded Columbus’ “discovery” of America that led to European colonization and Westernization of the land already occupied by Indigenous people.
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“He was a pioneer, willing to risk the necessary to chase his dreams, which are now our dreams that we get to live out. We would not be here today without that voyage,” Boebert said to the crowd of spectators. The Republican represents Pueblo in Colorado’s 3rd Congressional District.
The event had a controlled entry, so the dozens of protestors who showed up were stationed a few hundred feet away from the stage, behind barricades and a line of both police officers and hired private security.
“Columbus’ voyage was a major step towards establishing America and changing the course of the world,” Boebert said. “American exceptionalism is real, and I am darn proud to stand for Old Glory.”
Boebert wavered from Columbus within minutes to hit on her usual stump speech talking points: the immigration “crisis” at the border, anti-Biden rhetoric and COVID-19 restrictions. Boebert has not held an in-person town hall in Pueblo since taking office but has appeared at a few private events, such as a fundraising dinner for the local Republican Party.
President Joe Biden proclaimed Monday Indigenous Peoples’ Day, the first time a president officially adopted the day to commemorate Indigenous histories and cultures. Some cities, such as Boulder, Aspen, Denver and Durango, also officially recognize Indigenous Peoples’ Day. Columbus Day remains a federal holiday.
Patty Corsentino was audibly upset about the congresswoman’s remarks and said the event felt more somber than in past years. Corsentino, whose family helped construct the monument and who wants it to remain in place, said that bringing Boebert in detracts from the reason to remember Columbus.
“I’m disappointed because this shouldn’t be politicized,” she said. “It’s about the culture and the history.” Corsentino said she comes from a family of Democrats and did not vote for Boebert.
History of opposition in the city
Italian immigrants built Pueblo’s Columbus monument in 1905. Many of them moved to town to work for the city’s then-bustling steel plant. It sits across from the main branch of the city’s library, flanked by flags and a brick wall commemorating significant Italian Americans from Pueblo, including local officials.
Activists have called for the monument’s removal for decades, but last year’s nationwide protests for social justice reignited the local effort. Opponents of the monument protested at the site consistently all summer, calling the bust a reminder of the nation’s violent dislocation and enslavement of Indigenous people.
But as other Columbus statues in the country came down either by force or city action, Pueblo’s bust remained standing. Government entities lobbed responsibility in a game of political hot potato.
This statue is embarrassing. It’s a shameful thing.
– Emily Gradisar, a protester at Monday’s ceremony
The city hired an outside mediator in August 2020 to find a resolution, but those talks reached an impasse.
“The other side is camped on believing a misrepresentation of historical events,” Jerry Carleo from OSDIA said Monday. “There’s not an issue for us. The issue is of poisoned minds on the other side.”
Also last year, Pueblo’s city council voted against putting a measure on the ballot that would have let voters decide the monument’s fate. The issue wasn’t even considered this year as ballots were finalized for the consolidated election.
And when the city finally proposed a plan last year to create a plaza with additional statues of Black and Indigenous leaders, the library district’s board of trustees voted it down.
The result is a still-simmering conflict with no resolution in sight and no governmental body willing to take responsibility. It means that the first Columbus monument west of the Mississippi River is now one of the few left in the region.
Protests began again earlier this year, and activists from the groups Take it Down Pueblo and Los Brown Berets speak at nearly every city council meeting.
Emily Gradisar, a protester at Monday’s ceremony and the niece of Mayor Nick Gradisar, said the inaction is frustrating.
“This statue is embarrassing. It’s a shameful thing,” she said. “Just because we paid a lot of time and money being stupid about this statue doesn’t mean we need to continue.” Pueblo’s police department has spent over $190,000 in overtime for the officers present at the protests.
“That monument is a travesty,” she said.
While opposition to the Columbus monument is percolating in Pueblo once again, there is no formal plan for further mediation talks or action. The November city council elections have the potential to replace five of the seven seats, which could produce the political will to force a decision on whether the bust should stay or go.
Editor’s note: This story was updated at 8:48 a.m., Oct. 12, 2021, to clarify the region in which only a few Columbus monuments still stand.
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