© 2023 WSHU
NPR News & Classical Music
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
Available On Air Stations

Columbus Statues Brought Down Across The Country, But Bridgeport’s Stays Put

Wikimedia Commons Image
Wikimedia Commons

There's a statue of Christopher Columbus in Bridgeport, Connecticut. And, many of the city’s residents are from Puerto Rico, an island associated with Columbus’s violent crimes. But unlike many other places in Connecticut, the state’s largest city has no plans to do away with Columbus.

Bridgeport City Councilman Jorge Cruz represents a district that includes the city’s Seaside Park — where a statue of Christopher Columbus stands on a pedestal, gazing out at the waters of Long Island Sound.

Cruz says he tries to avoid it.

“When I see this statue at Seaside Park, it really p***es me off,” he says.

Cruz is Puerto Rican, like more than one in five people in Bridgeport. The city has one of the largest Puerto Rican populations in the mainland United States. And Puerto Rico’s fate was forever altered by Columbus. The Italian sailor reached the island on his second expedition in 1493. He named it San Juan Batista and set up a colonial occupation.

“He brought in the Spaniards,” Cruz says. “My ancestors, the Taino Indians, welcomed them with open arms. They basically enslaved my Taino ancestors, raped my Taino ancestors and killed them. Basically committed genocide.”

Bridgeport’s Columbus statue was funded by an Italian-American organization, like many Columbus statues nationwide. And Italian-Americans have historically had a lot of political power in the city. Cruz reached out to some Italian-American city leaders, including former State Representative Chris Caruso.

“It was very positive,” Caruso says. “We shared opinions. I think the full story of Columbus was discussed, and there was mutual agreement at the end that the statue would not come down.”

Caruso says he told Cruz Italian-Americans in Bridgeport overwhelmingly support the statue.

“Certainly, if the statue came down, the Italian community would be tremendously divided from the rest of the community. For years, we’ve worked to support one another. The float of the Columbus Day Parade is put into the Puerto Rican Day Parade, the Juneteenth Parade.”

City Councilwoman Maria Pereira was part of the discussion, too. She wanted to see the city use the controversy as a chance to teach.

“History has been taught to frame Columbus as a heroic figure who did amazing things, right?” Pereira says. “I was very excited when I found out one of his ships had the word Maria in it, as a child. That’s a reflection on our culture whitewashing history.”

Pereira suggested in the meeting the city should use the controversy to challenge that whitewashing.

“It’s a responsibility of our schools to now go in and teach history and teach the truth about Christopher Columbus,” she says. “That’s certainly more powerful than erecting or removing a statue.”

Bridgeport has made some moves toward addressing Columbus’s legacy. The school board is considering changing the name of Columbus Elementary School, whose students are mostly people of color.

But Columbus statues are coming down across Connecticut — in Hartford, Norwalk, New London. Two Italian-American groups even endorsed the removal of a Columbus statue from New Haven’s Wooster Square. So why no call for it in Bridgeport?

Councilman Cruz says he doesn’t know.

“It baffles my mind,” he says.

Neither Bridgeport Mayor Joe Ganim nor the City Council president responded to a request for comment. But Cruz says there’s no reason for conflict.

“Other cities did not reach out to the Italian community,” he says. “Instead, they started protesting, defacing their statues and knocking them down.”

And he doesn’t want to do that. So now — even though he can’t stand the sight of the statue —he’s leaning toward leaving Columbus alone.

“What am I gonna do with my pain?” Cruz says. “Am I going to continue to stay angry? Or am I going to use this opportunity to be a uniter instead of a divider? I want to be a uniter. As much it hurts me to say that I’m willing to leave Christopher Columbus alone for the sake of peace and unity, we’re working on that.”

Cruz is putting together a new proposal for the city council. Columbus would stay. And Seaside Park would add two new statues — one of Martin Luther King, Jr. And one to honor the Golden Hill Paugussett tribe — who lived on the land where Connecticut’s largest city now stands.

Davis Dunavin loves telling stories, whether on the radio or around the campfire. He started in Missouri and ended up in Connecticut, which, he'd like to point out, is the same geographic trajectory taken by Mark Twain.
Related Content