Columbus Controversy Eludes Mexicans and Italians in the Bronx

“We speak English, Italian and Spanish in our church and, thanks to new immigrants, the parish grew 60 percent and continues to grow,” said Rev. Jonathan Morris of the traditionally-Italian Our Lady of Mount Carmel Church in the Belmont area. (Photo via El Diario)

While this year’s Columbus Day was commemorated in New York in the midst of the controversy over a proposal to demolish the statues of Christopher Columbus, the Italian-American and Mexican communities in the Bronx’s Italian quarter have tightened their bond, far away from the public condemnation of the admiral, who many consider “a figure representing oppression.”

The legacy of the Italian explorer after his journeys to the Americas has been compared to that of the Confederate Army fighting in the Civil War in favor of maintaining slavery in the southern states, an assessment that has offended the Italian-American community in the city, particularly in the Bronx.

The discontent has been such that the organizers of the Columbus Day Parade in that county decided not to invite Mayor Bill de Blasio this year, even though the leader’s office has clarified that there are no specific plans to take down the statues of Columbus erected across the city. Many of these effigies were vandalized when the controversy arose over the summer.

However, “our Little Italy is an example of peaceful coexistence between two communities of different origin,” said Rev. Jonathan Morris, from the traditionally-Italian Our Lady of Mount Carmel Church in the Belmont area.

The priest said that, when he arrived in the neighborhood more than two years ago, he found “two wonderful communities that did not understand each other.”

“They did not interact, they knew little about one another. But, when they met, they realized that they had a lot in common,” said the clergyman.

The religious leader said that, to bring these two communities together in Mount Carmel Church, he started by reminding the Italian-American parishioners about the hardship the first Italian immigrants suffered when they arrived in the U.S., which are the same ones the Mexican and Latino communities are now enduring.

United by the “Passion”

Mexican churchgoers, for their part, recognized the legacy of the founders of the Italian neighborhood when they learned about its history and how the first immigrants sold bricks door to door to build their church.

“The sentiment of immigrants feeling like they are being invaded by others has no way to flourish in a neighborhood where there is peace and harmony,” said Rev. Morris. “We speak English, Italian and Spanish in our church and, thanks to new immigrants, the parish grew 60 percent and continues to grow.”

Still, immigration is not the only “Calvary” uniting Italian-Americans and Mexicans. A live performance portraying the “Passion of the Christ” every year on Holy Week serves the same purpose.

“Hispanic and Mexican artists and actors are very talented and creative. Their work is beautiful. I wholeheartedly appreciate what they do for our church. They did not know it, but we do similar performances in Italy. We have more in common than is usually thought,” said Adrienna Rinaldi, a 72-year-old resident.

Mexican artist Pedro Flores, who organizes the Stations of the Cross and has been a resident since 1998, said that, at first, the Italian community would only watch the event, but they soon began to get involved.

“We hold the procession of the Stations of the Cross along Arthur Avenue because it is an iconic street. There are Mexican and Latino workers in the kitchens of Italian restaurants, but there are also Mexican businesses. It is a way of recognizing the contributions of both communities,” said Flores. “Italians welcomed our food and culture. They value it and respect it.”

“We feel welcome in the Italian neighborhood”

Frankie Saavedra, who designs Mexican wrestling masks, has lived in the area for almost 20 years. In the 1990s, he saw the first Mexican restaurants open in the Italian quarter, and has witnessed the way his community has flourished there since then.

“I arrived when I was 13, and I have never felt excluded or discriminated against. On the contrary, I feel welcome. There is a good relationship between Italians and Mexicans. There is no racial tension, even when Trump’s anti-immigrant rhetoric began to emerge,” said Saavedra, the father of a little girl. “I have worked at Italian businesses, and I have always been treated with equality. It is a good place to raise my daughter.”

Guillermo Márquez, co-owner of M&G Restaurant, said that many of his customers are Italian.

“Many businesses that are now Mexican used to belong to Italians. We have proven that we are not just workers but also successful entrepreneurs,” he said. “In the 15 years I have been in business, I have never been the target of discrimination or racial slurs. I feel at home and like I can prosper.”

Rodolfo Báez, owner of the M.A.R Fruit bodega, agreed with Márquez.

“I think there can be more places like this in the whole country, where all immigrants can live free of conflict and hate, regardless of the past or their differences. Here, we look to the future. There is much we can achieve with the help of other immigrants,” expressed Báez.

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