Cheering crowds lined up behind metal barricades along Fifth Avenue Monday for New York’s 78th annual Columbus Day Parade – the world’s largest celebration of Italian-American culture and heritage.
Over 100 groups participated in this year’s parade, including over 20 marching bands, 18 floats and dozens of performance groups, according to the Columbus Citizen Foundation, a nonprofit group that organizes the parade every year.
At various street corners along 47th to 72nd street, there were people selling Italian flags to bypassers. Jenna Espisito, a singer known for her dedication to the “Great Italian American Songbook,” rode on a float while belting out tunes that could be heard blocks away. On another float, a woman was giving out free Italian flags and candy. There were crowds of people waiting in line for 20 minutes at a time just to cross the street.
Chris Vaccaro, a board trustee of the Italian American Baseball Foundation, joined the parade with his wife and small children in a wagon covered in Italian flags, the American flag and streamers of red, green and white - the colors of the Italian flag.
He said this is a day to remember Italian-American history and to pass that heritage along to the next generation. But most importantly, the parade is about making memories, according to Vaccaro.
“It’s really about wearing these colors and it’s really about sharing stories, taking pictures…and great conversations. The great family-like atmosphere…that’s what it’s about for us,” he said.
The holiday began as a celebration of Christopher Columbus’s discovery of America. Last year, President Joe Biden signed the first presidential proclamation declaring the holiday Indigenous Peoples Day, a day that focuses on the contributions and resilience of Indigenous peoples and remembers the nation’s failed promises to them.
Nataly Prudente is from Conversano, a town in southeast Italy and a first-generation American. She stood with her husband next to a car decked out in the Italian flag colors on the intersection of 46th street and fifth avenue. This was her third year participating in the Columbus Day Parade.
“My father went through alot as an immigrant to come here, so it’s always important to remember and be celebrated for where you come from,” she said.
The president and founder of the Italian American Museum, Joseph Scelsa, also attended the parade and said that the Italian explorer Christopher Columbus was “an American symbol that [his grandparents] could identify with and that they can be proud of.”
Columbus Day was designated as a national holiday in 1934 and became a federal holiday in 1971 on the second Monday of every October. In recent years though, it has drawn controversy from people who say the holiday celebrates exploration that led to the mistreatment of indigenous people.
State lawmakers have introduced a bill that would change the public holiday of Columbus Day to Indigenous People’s Day. The bill summary states “Indigenous People's Day reimagines Columbus Day and changes a celebration of colonialism into an opportunity to reveal historical truths about the genocide and oppression of indigenous people in the Americas, to organize against current injustices and to celebrate indigenous resistance.”
Vaccaro said he thinks it’s important to respect everyone's beliefs and anyone that calls it Indigenous People’s Day. Even if a holiday is not embraced by everyone, it is important to respect other opinions, he said.
Prudente said this holiday does not necessarily need to be called “Columbus Day” but could be called “Italian-American Heritage Day” instead.
Scelsa said he thinks Columbus Day and Indigenous Peoples Day should be celebrated on different days. “Why cancel out one group for another? It makes no sense,” he said. “This is a holiday - we should bring people together, not tear people apart.”