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Columbus Day Parade beats the rain as hundreds celebrate Italian heritage

Ron Onesti, president of the Joint Civic Committee of Italian Americans, said the day was one to remember and a time to celebrate Christopher Columbus and what his accomplishments mean to Italian Americans.

The Columbus Day Parade travels south down State Street in the Loop, Monday afternoon, Oct. 11, 2021.
The Columbus Day Parade travels south down State Street in the Loop on Monday afternoon.
Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times

The Columbus Day Parade drew hundreds of proud Italian Americans to downtown celebrating the explorer whose place in history has grown more controversial over the past few years, both nationally and locally.

The 69th annual parade, organized by the Joint Civic Committee of Italian Americans, kicked off Monday afternoon, heading south on State Street from Wacker Drive. It ended at Van Buren Street — just before the Chicago area was drenched in rain.

Leading the parade was a motorcade of motorcycles and featured floats from prominent Italian Americans in Chicago. It also included the South Shore Drill Team and marchers and dancers representing other countries, including Thailand, Bulgaria, and Poland — all dressed in traditional clothes.

Ron Onesti, president of the Joint Civic Committee of Italian Americans, said the day was time to remember and celebrate Christopher Columbus and what his accomplishments mean to Italian Americans. Still, the ongoing movements to replace Columbus Day weighed heavy on his mind.

“Columbus Day, for us Italian Americans, is a sacred day of tradition and honor and it has been for over 130 years,” Onesti said at the end of the parade. “Today, against many obstacles, we had our parade. Several other ethnic groups marched with us today celebrating their heritage. That is what this day is all about. We celebrated, we reflected but now the real work begins.”

Onesti said his organization agrees the discussion of Columbus and his legacy must be broadened; he said he’s willing to find a middle ground with those troubled by the Italian explorer and his impact.

“More stories about all our histories need to be told and amends need to be made,” Onesti said. “We want to learn the good, the bad, the ugly truths about our own American history but what cannot be done is to replace what is perceived to be a one-sided narrative with another one-sided narrative. We should add facts to the accounts and not subtract them.”

Onesti said his group is issuing an open invitation to Indigenous communities to sit down to talk about finding a solution.

“This is not only an olive branch, we’re extending an entire olive tree. We want to come together,” Onesti said.

The movement to replace Columbus Day with Indigenous Peoples’ Day has only grown as waves of protests over city monuments that followed the police killing of George Floyd. Critics of Columbus see him as representing genocide, racism, imperialism and slavery.

It is within that context that the Chicago Public Schools decided to change Columbus Day to Indigenous Peoples’ Day last year. There also was the decision to remove three Columbus statues in Chicago after intense protests — though the Joint Civic Committee of Italian Americans is suing the Chicago Park District for its return.

Last year, the city launched the Chicago Monuments Project to assess its public statues and monuments, including the Columbus statues. That effort is ongoing, though the group did issue a list of 41 monuments and statues it deemed “problematic.”

Last week, the Cook County Board of Commissioners voted to defer a resolution that would permanently change Columbus Day to Indigenous Peoples’ Day. This is the second time this year a vote on the issue was delayed.

The ongoing battle on whether to keep or remove Columbus Days from the calendar was also on the minds of many at the parade.

Franco Paliferro created his own Spartacus costume to ride on float in the Columbus Day parade on Monday afternoon, Oct. 11, 2021.
Franco Paliferro created his own Spartacus costume to ride on a float in the Columbus Day parade on Monday.
Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times

Franco Paliferro, who dressed in a self-created costume of Spartacus, said he was there primarily to support returning each of the statues to where they were. He said Italian Americans should be allowed to have culturally significant statues, as other ethnic groups in the city do.

“I’m a little disappointed the statues are gone because we never said bad things about other statues but ours, I don’t know why they took it down,” Paliferro said.

Brice Notardonato Ellett, 49, felt the same way.

“Columbus is extremely important and it’s great we are back here celebrating with people that share my family’s heritage,” Notardonato Ellett said.

Notardonato Ellett said his family has gone to nearly every Columbus Day Parade over the past two decades. His 16-year-old son Arcangelo Ellett was proud to celebrate his Italian heritage but disagreed with this father on the importance of Columbus.

The teen didn’t like Columbus being the face of celebrating Italian heritage and he didn’t mind the statues being removed.

“I don’t believe Columbus represents Italy at all and my family might not agree with me but that is just how I feel,” Arcangelo Ellett said. “I’m here today because I’m proud of my Italian heritage but I don’t agree with Columbus.”