Christopher Columbus stumbled onto these shores en route to somewhere else, and as the Niña, Pinta and Santa Maria fade with the centuries, whether to celebrate him has become a stumbling block for many.
In New York City in particular, parading in the would-be circumnavigator’s honor can on its face seem a bit out of step with a metropolis of huddled masses arriving here to breathe free, and a beat behind a nation where a movement is afoot to revamp the federal holiday in the name of those he conquered.
But amid the tooting of Italian vintage cars and the flap of red, green and white tricolor flags on Fifth Avenue on Monday, it seemed that in New York, the party was no longer just for an explorer but for many other things: the faded hero’s Italian culture, the nation’s immigrant patchwork and simply the pomp of a parade on a perfect fall day.
“This sort of parade reminds you of the fact that all of us actually came from somewhere else,” said James Williams, 32, who stood on a side street off Fifth Avenue watching as the Xavier High School “Blue Knights” Cadet Band mustered its teenage troops and “God Bless America” boomed down the street with the clarity of a concert hall. Mr. Williams, who is originally from Haiti, saw in the marching bands and baton twirlers a pro-immigration message. “At some point in history, none of us was here,” he said. “I think it’s a very good sign and a good reminder.”
On the same block, carrying triccheballacche, tammorre and putipù, folkloric instruments they had brought with them from their native Capri, Italy, the 36 members of the Scialapopolo folk band who had flown over to celebrate the holiday were warming up. For their chaperone, the parade was an Italian extravaganza, no question about it.
“Do we call it something else? Then let’s call St. Patrick’s Day something else,” said Michael A. Blandina, chairman of the Ocean County Columbus Day Parade and Italian Festival, held previously in New Jersey, which had sponsored the folk troupe’s trip.
Columbus Day has been a federal holiday since 1934. Recently, cities like Seattle and Minneapolis have swapped out Columbus for events in honor of native peoples, following places like Berkeley, Calif., which since the early 1990s has celebrated Indigenous Peoples Day instead. Mr. Blandina is firmly against efforts to rebrand the parade as anything other than a mark of Columbus’s achievement. “It’s been that from 1492,” he said. “It’s just another effort to deteriorate Italian culture, and it’s wrong.”
Italian culture was thick on Fifth Avenue on Monday. The crowd leaned over creaking police barricades to snatch cupfuls of free gelato given out along the parade route. A motorcade of Italian sports cars eased down the avenue nose to tail: an Abarth from Bologna, a Maserati from Modena. A knot of tiny Fiats from Turin brought up the rear, each flying tricolor flags like windshield wipers.
At the same time, on Randalls Island, a different culture was on display at an indigenous people’s festival, attended by several hundred. Fry bread, beaded jewelry and tepees abounded, but mention of the man who was responsible for the day off work was off limits.
“We’re not going to talk about what’s-his-name,” Gyasi Ross, 39, a lawyer and member of the Blackfeet Nation from Washington State, told the crowd. “We understand that we are not defined by one person who stumbled here and so we don’t have to dedicate energy to that person. Instead we show our love and dedicate our energy to ourselves. Because we are worth loving and appreciating and celebrating.”
Those sentiments could even be found in the crowd taking in the Manhattan parade. “It’s offensive to the people who were here first,” said Kirk McDonagh, 26, who works in an office building along the parade route and stepped out to see it go by. “We showed up, we took over, and the Native American population has been suffering ever since.”
Grasping a tinkling scetavaiasse, a wooden stick covered with cymbals, Domenico Spinelli, 39, a podiatrist from Capri who had made the trip with the Italian folk band, was marching in celebration of something else entirely.
“For me it’s not important, 1492. For me, to speak with the American people is the true tesoro — treasure,” he said. “You can discover every day, America.”