SCOTCH PLAINS, NJ -- In a 5-0 vote, the Scotch Plains Township Council agreed to keep the Christopher Columbus monument in its place outside the Municipal Building on Park Avenue.
Prior to the meeting, a large group of Italian American community leaders marched from the Italian American Club to the Municipal Building to show their support for the Columbus statue. Speakers at the rally at the club's parking lot included Scotch Plains Mayor Al Smith, Deputy Mayor Josh Losardo, who put the topic on the Township Council's agenda Tuesday evening, and Paul Raphael, the president of the local chapter of UNICO, the Italian American service organization.
"We are here to represent the voices of both past and present residents to ensure that we can continue to preserve and protect our Columbus monument," Raphael said. "It started as a dream in 1997 and became a reality in 1998, when we came together as a community for the dedication. To many, it represents the work ethic, drive, and spirit of adventure that led many Italian immigrants to abandon the familiar and embark on a journey for a better future."
Raphael also quoted town elder Romano Del Roio, who said: "This journey led many of us to the beautiful and magnificent town called Scotch Plains. The Columbus monument is a symbol of that journey, a symbol of hope, opportunity, hard work, and a better life."
The UNICO Scotch Plains chapter president invited healthy discussions to understand different points of view, but not to use those discussions to destroy something so meaningful to many.
After the speeches, a procession went down Mountain Ave. to Park Ave. and concluded at the Municipal Building where supporters gathered around the Columbus monument in support. There were also speeches.
Comedian Mike Marino, who was born and raised in Scotch Plains told TAPintoSPF that he attended the rally to support Italian Americans because his parents came to America from Italy and because he has belonged to the Italian American Club since he was a child. He views support for the statue as a way of showing respect to elders, who don't quite understand why the statue has become a source of controversy.
"They canceled the Columbus statue and the Columbus Day Parade in Los Angeles. Don't let it happen in this little town," said Marino, wearing his trademark "Make America Italian Again" t-shirt. "Later, they'll wonder what happened to the parade? What happened to the Italian food? What happened to the Italian people?"
"I'm part of the Montazzoli community," said Linda Suriano, who carried an Italian flag. "The statue it means everything to my family and to members of the community who came to this country. We are very proud people."
"The marble came from the same Carrara quarry in Tuscant where Michaelangelo got the marble for his sculptures," said Anthony Bengivenga, a member of UNICO's Board of Directors. "Others should put up a monument that they desire, but not take away from the Italian Americans."
A retired NYPD officer named Steve said he came from Hazlet to support the march. "I'm proud to see you here. This country is on the line. These little rallies are so important. If you are well enough, go to other towns."
Mountainside resident Miguel Perez Santalla came to express his fear that history would be erased as it had been in his native Cuba.
Kon Zagonas, a retired army colonel and former grand marshal of the Scotch Plains Memorial Day Parade, who held the megaphone for other speakers, also spoke himself.
"When I think of Italians, I think of love. La Familia," he said. "Division and hate will bring it down."
Actor Garry (Gennaro) Pastore spoke about the prejudice he has faced in the entertainment industry.
"I had a hard time getting work. They made me change my name. Italians faced prejudice," Pastore, a star of HBO's "The Deuce" and several award-winning independent films, said. "My industry is liberal. I'm conservative. We are not going to put up with this BS anymore. This statue stays!. If it's gonna come down it's over my dead body."
"You're not taking away anything from us. No more," he added. "Italian American proud! That statue stays."
Guido Passucci, who is proud of his family's five generations in Scotch Plains, said: "These people think erasing history is good. If we are erasing history, we will have no future. Not everyone likes past history."
"We stand for the flag of the United States of America. It's okay to have an opinion. Those times (Columbus' times) were different times. We should come together. Don't ruin the future. Division is no good for anyone."
Joe Sarno, who is running for Freeholder on the Republican ticket, said he does not believe the statue will go anywhere.
"What a proud moment for people to come together 22 years ago, and we are brought together tonight," said Sarno, who created a Change.org petition online in support of the Columbus monument. "Through love, we will celebrate the contributions of Italian Americans and get the word out there that there is support for Columbus and the sculpture."
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