With Italian-Americans still facing discrimination in the early 1950s, Bill Martin’s father changed the family name. “Martinuzzi,” he said, became “Martin.”
The president of the Associated Italian American Charities of Maryland shared the anecdote to explain why he and many other Italian-Americans still feel such a strong sense of loyalty to Christopher Columbus.
“People who came here didn’t have a lot of Italian heroes to look up to,” Martin said. “He became that figure.”
The annual wreath-laying event at his monument in Harbor East before the 127th Baltimore Columbus Parade Sunday took on a markedly defiant note this year. It followed a narrow City Council vote late last year that nearly stripped Columbus of his holiday within city limits, and the destruction of the oldest memorial to the Genoese explorer in the United States, in Herring Run Park.
Critics say the 15th-century navigator shouldn’t be honored with statues and a holiday because he initiated the transatlantic slave trade and committed violence against the people native to the lands he discovered.
Martin and the other speakers at Sunday’s commemoration acknowledged the controversy, but insisted their celebration focuses on his daunting voyages and how they paved the way for their immigrant ancestors.
“Columbus was neither perfect nor a villain,” Martin said. “He was human and an adventurer. He wasn’t a saint or a criminal; he wasn’t good or just; but he was well-intentioned. His faults are offensive in today’s world, but his achievements changed history forever.”
Alfredo N. Massa, the master of ceremonies and president of Columbus Celebrations Inc., noted that organizers have striven to make the holiday festivities more inclusive, and more than a dozen Latin-American groups accepted an invitation to participate in the Sunday afternoon parade.
In addition to being the home to the oldest Columbus statue, Massa said, Baltimore hosts the longest-running Columbus parade in the country. He promised it would continue to do so.
“We’ve taken a little bit of a beating in the last year, year and a half,” he said. “But we’re going to stand firm.”
Italian heritage and tradition have become intertwined with Columbus Day, Massa said. Baltimore is home to about 16,500 Italian Americans, according to the Census Bureau.
City Councilman Brandon Scott sponsored a bill last year to rename the day for indigenous people and Italian-Americans. It fell short of the eight votes required to pass. Italian-American heritage groups had lobbied council members to maintain the observance as Columbus Day.
“It’s part of our culture,” Massa said. “We feel very strongly about the fact that it is our holiday. Columbus Day is our holiday.”
Councilman Ryan Dorsey raised the issue again more recently when he took a survey following the destruction of the Columbus monument in Herring Run Park in August. He suggested the 225-year-old obelisk should be replaced with another memorial, reflecting “current-day values.”
Steve Cohen, state deputy of the Maryland Knights of Columbus, said the Catholic service fraternity has commissioned its own poll and found that Americans nationwide support the celebration of Columbus Day 2-to-1.
Donald Castronova has donned his homemade, old-fashioned Italian garb and played Columbus in Baltimore’s annual parade for nearly 50 years. The 73-year-old Jarrettsville man cherishes the role.
He rattled off anecdotes from over the years: using his sword to ward off a few people who tried to commandeer his boat float; stopping in the middle of a parade to take down the mast so it could fit under a pedestrian bridge; watching Mayor William Donald Schaefer jump with shock when a cannon fired during his speech.
“It’s an honor, I mean that,” Castronova said. “I’ve met all kinds of people. It’s always fun.”
Former state Sen. John A. Pica, the incoming chairman of the parade committee, said he understands the criticism of Columbus’ legacy. But for Italian Americans, he said, the journey holds symbolic value.
“That avenue between Western Europe and the U.S. allowed travel, commerce and the introduction of Italian culture, and it became the highway for our families to come here,” Pica said. “Nothing can diminish that achievement.”
Chris Romano, 50, came to Baltimore from Olney to carry a Knights of Columbus banner in the parade with his sons Giovanni, 10, and Dominic, 7, and their grandfather, Ralph, 73.
“It’s important to us,” he said. “It means something to us that we honor him and what he’s done.”