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Norwich Italians celebrate family at statue rededication

Norwich — The second-, third- and fourth-generation descendants of Italian immigrants who gathered Saturday on Chelsea Parade for the rededication of the Italian Heritage Monument weren't talking about the voyage of Christopher Columbus, or the man himself.

They were reminiscing about ancestors who arrived by ship beginning in the 1890s, often not knowing English, and settled in a city close enough to the sea to remind them of the Italian villages or cities they left behind. Italians had emigrated to Norwich from Bologna, in the north, to Sicily, in the south, and many places in between.

The Italian Americans said their parents or grandparents learned English, often from their children who studied it in school, and eventually only spoke Italian when they didn't want the kids to know what they were talking about.

Many worked as laborers and masons, while others were skilled in art, education, science, medicine and farming.

Of course, they also brought their love of food. 

Leaders of the city's Italian heritage groups acted quickly this past summer as statues of Columbus were defaced or toppled in other parts of the state and country by protesters who associate him with slavery and genocide.

Columbus' name and image were removed from the statue, which was erected using private funds in 1992 on the 500th anniversary of Columbus' voyage.

The newly unveiled engraving, which had been covered by a tarp, and then an Italian flag, depicts the Italian and American flags and a dedication to the Italian immigrants who settled in Norwich. The project cost between $7,000 and $9,000 and is being paid for by private donations.

It had never really been about Columbus, said many of the 60 or so people gathered on the green. It's about family, as indicated by the engraving that says, "Onorate i vostri gentori" or "remember your parents."

"Today we rededicate the monument to our loved ones," said Art Montorsi, president of the men's Italian American Club. "It was never meant to honor an explorer, politician or scientist."

It also was not meant to offend anyone of any color, Montorsi said.

The original 400 names of Italian immigrants, which their ancestors paid $300 to have included on the statue in 1992, remain, and were read aloud Saturday. The 60 or so people who gathered on the green listened to patriotic music from both countries and waited to hear their ancestors' name and city of origin.

Three generations of the Jacaruso family were at the green to celebrate the rededication. Frank Jacaruso, president of the Italian Heritage and Cultural Committee, had spearheaded the renovation and served as emcee. The name of his mother, Adeline Jacaruso, is on the monument. Jacaruso's two children, Jon and Maria, attended with their children.

"We explained to them on the way down that it's about honoring the sacrifices people made to make our lives better," Jon Jacaruso said.

Paul Chinigo, an attorney, spoke of growing up in a triple-decker apartment house occupied by his parents, grandparents and other family members, of being the first in his family to attend college.

Nancy DiPietro spoke of the block of homes on Pond Street that her parents were able to buy for their five daughters, of visiting her aunts every Sunday after church and of the competition to see who could make the best red sauce and meatballs.

They said their ancestors were treated badly at times, denied job opportunities and called a variety of derogative names, but were also welcomed by others and eventually learned the language and became part of the fabric of the city.

The unveiling of the reconfigured statue was delayed because an Italian company that provided the marble was closed due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Monsignor Anthony Rosaforte of St. Patrick's Cathedral blessed the statue with holy water after offering thanks to the Italian ancestors who came to Norwich for a better life.

"You've given us the ability to blend in to the U.S., but also to retain our joy in our heritage," Rosaforte said. "We are proud to be Americans. We are proud of our Italian ancestry. May God bless Italy. May God Bless America. And may God bless each and every one of you."

A couple of critics of the removal of Columbus from the statute watched the unveiling, then spoke as the gathering dispersed.

Lori Hopkins Cavanagh, who said her mother emigrated from Senigallia, said Columbus was a hero and that his image was removed from the statue out of fear that members of the Black Lives Matter movement would destroy it.

"This is really bigoted and nasty," Cavanagh said. "Columbus never brought one slave from Africa."

The only Black man in the small crowd also opposed the renovation.

"I don't see it as a positive," said Getch Dires, who said he came to the U.S. from Ethiopia 17 years ago and considers himself a historian. "The true history is being removed and replaced by a revised history."

But for many, the move was seen as a gesture of unity in a city inhabited by people of many diverse backgrounds.

"I think it's fantastic," said Richard Longo, whose wife, Diane, stood nearby, nodding. "It brings people together and shows unity among all races."

k.florin@theday.com

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