Peace pact over Columbus parade dissolves

Saturday, September 30th 2000, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

DENVER – A peace accord that recast Denver's Columbus Day parade as a politically correct "March for Italian Pride" has been shattered, with Italian-Americans vowing they won't let anyone dictate how they will celebrate their heritage.

A team of 11 negotiators, assembled by the Justice Department, announced last week that the Italian-Americans had agreed to honor their heritage with a parade Oct. 7 that would make no mention of Christopher Columbus.

In return, local American Indians had pledged not to disrupt the event, even though it was scheduled two days before the holiday named for the Italian-Spanish navigator they consider an imperialist slave trader.

Now, Denver officials fear the war of words could lead to violence at the parade. Mayoral aide Jim Martinez, one of the negotiators, hopes residents just stay home.

"You can't have a war if you don't have two sides to fight," he said.

The controversy is as hot a topic in Denver as the beloved Broncos, with radio talk shows and newspaper editorials fueling the debate. And, since the accord was announced Sept. 19, parade organizers have grown increasingly vocal. Late this week, their dissatisfaction boiled over.

"It's a Columbus Day parade," said C.M. Mangiaracina, who secured the parade permit. "All the nonsense about the enforced wording, we're done with playing that game. We're calling it a Columbus Day parade, and if they want to protest and get violent and get arrested, well, that's where we are."

Colorado was the nation's first state to observe Columbus Day, but no Columbus Day parade has been held in Denver since 1992.

That year, the parade was halted moments after it began, over fears of violent protests by American Indians.

Estimates on the number of people who might participate in the parade range from 400 to 1,000. Mr. Martinez said that about 5 percent of 1.8 million Denver-area residents counted in the 1990 census claimed Italian heritage.

The Sons of Italy in America Lodge No. 2075, the largest in the state, claims 600 members.

Mr. Mangiaracina, who runs a nonprofit youth program, was defiant in recent remarks: "We're going to have a picnic afterwards, and Hispanics and Native Americans are not invited to anything. They can sit on the sidelines and slander us and scream at us, and that's their First Amendment right, I suppose."

Hispanic activists were among those who have protested a Columbus-themed event.

Even before the accord broke down, some American Indians were bristling at the idea of any parade being held close to Oct. 9, the official Columbus Day holiday. Now, they are vowing to protest the event.

"I will be encouraging the Denver Indian community to turn out and demonstrate against any efforts to glorify Christopher Columbus," said Vernon Bellecourt, an Anishinabe Ojibwa and national representative for the grand governing council of the American Indian Movement in Minneapolis.

"We've always walked the path of peace in our efforts," he said, "and we would urge our people to exercise restraint, but at the same time to be very visible."

The Justice Department's Community Relations Service, which mediates disputes stemming from differences in race, color or national origin, is not giving up fence-mending efforts.

"We haven't thrown in the towel," said Jonathan Chace, its associate director. "I know there's a lot of hard work ahead of us, and we're continuing to work with everyone on it, and will, right up to the date of whatever event might be held."

Charlie Brennan is a free-lance writer based on Boulder, Colo.