With one swoop of her pen Acting Mayor Kim Janey erased a holiday that local Italians in the North End and throughout Boston have been celebrating for generations.
By executive order last week, Janey established Monday, October 11, and every second Monday of October as “Indigenous Peoples Day” in Boston.
However, while some applaud the move and agree there should be a day honoring Indigenous People, some said taking a holiday away from one culture and giving it to another only divides the city further. Given that it was done by executive order has only fueled frustration with Janey’s move because many of Boston’s Italian American community were caught by surprise ahead of the holiday.
“Indigenous Peoples Day celebrates the rich cultural legacies of our Indigenous communities while also declaring Boston is ready to work with our neighbors to create a more just future,” said Janey. “With Boston’s long history comes an opportunity and obligation to acknowledge the difficult parts of our past and dedicate ourselves to fostering a more equitable City. Observing Indigenous Peoples Day is about replacing the colonial myths passed down from generation to generation with the true history of the land upon which our nation was founded.”
President Benjamin Harrison declared Columbus Day a one-time celebration in 1892 after 11 Italian Americans were killed by a mob in New Orleans in what became the largest single mass lynchings in American history.
Since the early 1900s, many Italian-Americans in Boston and across the country observe Columbus Day as a celebration of their heritage and not of Columbus himself.
Now, Boston Italians, which make up roughly 10 percent of the city’s population, wish there was more transparency and discussion on the issue ahead of Janey’s executive order.
Chair of the North End Columbus Day Committee Louis Strazzullo was quoted as saying Janey overstepped her authority as Acting Mayor and added, “to sign an executive order that is not deemed an emergency.” Strazzullo added, “to take from one culture and heritage and culture and give to another…they’re saying ‘well, now we don’t care anymore about what the Italian Americans did, and we’re going to give it to someone else.”
Strazzullo said the North End Columbus Day Committee has long supported an “Indigenous Peoples Day” but believe it should be a separate holiday and not one historically dedicated to Italian Americans’ contributions to the country.
While comparing the trials and tribulations of one ethnic group to another and the experience of each group in American history is never easy, some local Italains feel it is important to note that their ancestors did not have an easy go at it when arriving in the US enmass in the early 20th century.
Numerous studies and reports show Italians were stereotyped as criminals and discriminated against by the police, the courts, schoolteachers, college admissions officers, and Boston’s Irish political bosses who had the power to distribute jobs and favors.
In 1964, when Francis X. Bellotti ran against Endicott Peabody in the primary race for governor, South Boston residents pelted Bellotti with beer cans and shouted ethnic slurs at that year’s Columbus Day Parade.
As late as 2003, when Robert Travaglini, who represented the North End, became Senate President Boston Herald columnist Howie Carr opined that it was like “handing the keys to the State House to Tony Soprano” suggesting he was some sort of mob thug just because of his Italian upbringing.
With that said, Boston joins over two dozen Massachusetts cities and towns in recognizing Indigenous Peoples Day, a movement that has garnered allies within the Italian American community.
“The membership of Italian Americans for Indigenous Peoples Day is thrilled that Boston Mayor Kim Janey has listened to the voices of Indigenous people and taken this important step toward truth and justice,” said Heather Leavell, one of five co-founders of the Italian Americans for Indigenous Peoples Day. “By establishing Indigenous Peoples Day, Boston will honor the histories, cultures, and resilience of the First Peoples of this land – those who were here long before our ancestors arrived on these shores and are still here today. We welcome the opportunities this holiday will bring us to move forward together in healing and reconciliation.”
Despite Janey’s order the North End Columbus Day Celebration Committee still celebrated the holiday in the Paul Revere Mall Prado on Sunday.
“Columbus Day is for the Italian Americans to celebrate what they did when they came over here, all our ancestors,” said the Committee as a whole in a statement. “It’s more about the Italian American Heritage than celebrating the name Columbus.”
This year’s honored guests and recipients of the Committee’s Michael A. Nazzaro Community Service Award were James Luisi and the staff of NEW Health.
“Jimmy (Luisi) and his staff have gone above and beyond the call of duty over the past year and a half helping those most in need and affected by COVID-19,” continued the statement. “Mike Nazzaro, born and raised in the North End, was a small business owner and served as our State Representative. During his tenure, Mike protected the neighborhood from the era’s urban development push and helped make the neighborhood the vibrant community it is.”