Chula Vista City Council on Columbus statue

Columbus took 36 days to cross the Atlantic. Chula Vista took 488 days to banish a 10-foot statue of him from Discovery Park.

But the Italian explorer didn’t have to navigate a worldwide pandemic and reckoning on racial justice issues.

After 3 hours of discussion including educators, Kumeyaay Indian officials, Knights of Columbus and Italian group reps — the Chula Vista City Council voted 4-1 Tuesday night to permanently remove the oft-vandalized statue from the park.

Mayor Mary Salas spoke of her Mexican heritage but also revealed a DNA test found Italian ancestry. (“Who knew?” she said.)

Grace Sesma of the Original Peoples Alliance speaks to the Chula Vista City Council.

She explained the delay in deciding the statue’s fate (dating to the first Human Relations Commission meeting on the subject in January 2020) by saying she wanted the council to hear from the public in-person.

So with masks the rule and a couple dozen speakers spread out in the vast council chambers, she pronounced the issue “much ado about everything.”

She recalled how the 1,200-pound bronze, after being regularly marred by red paint, was taken down in the “dead of night” last June amid BLM protests and put into storage.

“George Floyd was just symbolic of the genocide that has gone on in this country since it was formed,” Salas said. “Genocide against the indigenous … against the African-Americans, subjugation of the Japanese-Americans, the Chinese, you name it.”

Salas, a Democrat and former Assembly member, surprised few with her stance. And neither did Councilman John McCann, a member of the county Republican Central Committee, who cast the lone dissenting vote (to oppose the eventual renaming of Discovery Park).

But members of the Knights of Columbus and representatives of an Italian heritage group raised eyebrows by coming out steadfast against the statue.

In a radical change of tone from last year — when she said: “We are deeply saddened with removal of the statue” — Vice President Grace Sardina of the local Sons and Daughters of Italy chapter evoked Shakespeare’s Marc Antony.

“I came here to bury Columbus,” she said.

Columbus Day was meant to celebrate Italian Americans, not the 1492 sailor for Spain, she said.

“We didn’t choose Columbus as the (focus) of our celebration,” Sardina said. “He was chosen for us.”

She said Italians embraced Columbus as a “crutch” in a time of desperation when her people were being lynched — and America sought better ties with Italy.

“The crutch is no longer needed,” she said. “This one man does not symbolize or represent our people, and all that we have worked so hard to achieve.”

After saying it was time to “part ways with the explorer,” she said her group fully supported the statue’s removal.

“Its home is with the Italian community,” she said, and urged the statue be “gifted to the Sons and Daughters of Italy.” She also called for Columbus Day to be renamed Italian American Day as opposed to Indigenous Peoples Day.

Salas said: Why not both?

“I don’t think we have to choose one or the other,” the mayor said, noting the city didn’t recognize Columbus Day as a holiday in any case. Indigenous Peoples Day on Oct. 12 would be “very logical and appropriate to think about,” she said. But she liked making Italian American Day the second Monday of October.

A task force composed of representatives of the Human Relations Commission, and the parks and recreation and cultural arts panels — plus Kumeyaay Indians and others — will decide on the holiday issue as well as the park renaming.

But another battle looms over the statue.

The Sons and Daughters of Italy want it, but so does the Knights of Columbus, the Roman Catholic men’s group.

Grand Knight John Scheck of the Knights’ Coronado chapter told Plexiglas-separated council members: “We do have a donor who is interested in purchasing it, if necessary … as a museum piece.”

Salas, among others, frowned on letting a religious group have the statue. She favors a nonprofit.

Only two or three speakers expressed support for the statue.

Chula Vista’s Michael Gorski, husband of county Republican Party Chairwoman Paula Whitsell, questioned the Kumeyaay claim to the land.

The Kumeyaay “aren’t really indigenous,” he said. “They displaced somebody else, which has been happening the last 3 million years. One society displaces another. The stronger one prevails. Unfortunately, that’s how it is.”

He knocked a flyer (“Take Down Genocide Symbols Permanently”) displayed inside and outside City Hall, saying it was made by a “BML agitator.”

Gorski said the Tell the Truth coalition — or Kanap Kuahan in the native Kumeyaay — is celebrated by La Raza, “a Mexican Communist organization.”

El Cerrito resident Laisiasa Komai — a John Birch Society fan who goes by Eli — came dressed in suit and tie, bespeaking his profession in the hospitality industry.

He framed Columbus as the latest victim of cancel culture.

“For anybody who’s looking at the next thing to cancel, a little thing about Andrew Jackson,” Komai said, noting the seventh president in 1830 signed the Indian Removal Act, which led to the Trail of Tears expulsion.

“Andrew Jackson is still on the $20 bill, so there you go,” he said, adding that Jackson started the Democratic Party in 1825. (More likely it was Sen. Martin van Buren.)

“You’re looking for something to cancel next — maybe get Andrew Jackson off of our money,” he said, drawing unintended applause. “Here’s the thing. We’re playing semantics here. There’s many more pressing issues that we have to deal with than canceling things.”

Komai concluded: “Deal with issues in the here and now — not stuff that happened hundreds of years ago. … To take that on as your own suffering, that’s folly and not forward thinking.”

But that suffering infused remarks by Elena Izcalli Tlauixochitl Medina, a 17-year-old senior at High Tech High Chula Vista.

“This Columbus statue was built to resurrect what we thought was dead,” said Medina, headed to Pomona College in the fall. “And it haunts us. It has haunted me and every other indigenous and young person of color in this community.”

Wearing an outfit she called a representation of her indigeniety and cultural traditions, Medina said Columbus reminded her peers that white supremacy was not only condoned in Chula Vista, but also “glorified and honored.”

“Does this statue represent the values of our home?” she asked the council. “What story do you want young people to be left with when they pass this statue, when they walk through your parks, our city? Because this is what it left with me.”

After Salas, other council members added their thoughts.

Councilwoman Andrea Cardenas said the city has a “moral obligation to be better.” This issue wasn’t about erasing or rewriting history — “it’s about correcting it.”

Councilwoman Jill Galvez said: “It was heartwarming to hear this evolution in others as well as myself.”

Councilman Stephen Padilla connected the Columbus debate to “this conversation all over the country, about really doing some healing and reflecting in a way that’s uncomfortable. And if it’s not uncomfortable, we’re not growing, we’re not learning anything.”

He noted that Discovery Park was built in the fast-growth 1980s, when no vetting existed for public art at “turnkey parks.”

“That process didn’t exist,” he said. “People didn’t have a clue. But clearly we do today.”

McCann, dissenter in the 4-1 vote, argued that “when we say diversity, it means that we do accept everybody, and everybody’s opinion.”

He called himself “a mutt” with part Cherokee ancestry — but bemoaned being lashed with F-bombs over the statue issue.

“I’m not here either to defend or criticize Columbus — because both sides will say different things about him, and I think that somebody that was from 525 years ago is somebody we may not know everything about,” McCann said.

He said Discovery Park has been a “landmark” park for decades and didn’t understand the need to rename it.

“We have honored the Kumeyaay nation in Mountain Hawk Park and would be happy to consider a Kumeyaay name for future parks,” he said.

Outside council chambers, the muffled sound of a Kumeyaay drum circle could be heard. When the council vote was flashed on outside screens, there were cheers.