Time marches on for city's Columbus Day festivities

Baltimore's budget travails may have canceled the annual Columbus Day parade, but it won't stop the city's Italian-American community from celebrating its heritage, as well as the accomplishments of one of Italy's favorite sons.

A citizens' parade, led by a visiting military band from Rome, will highlight Sunday's Columbus Day celebration. While it might lack the glitz and pageantry of the old parade, which for years was highlighted by the arrival of Columbus himself on a float, organizers refuse to be fazed. Baltimore's Italian-Americans remain proud of their community, they say, and of their 120-year-old tradition of celebrating Columbus' arrival in the new world.

"It's an important part of American history," says Maria Serafina, who is serving as volunteer coordinator for the day's festivities, which include a Mass at St. Leo's Roman Catholic Church on Exeter Street and a band concert and street festival after the parade. "This is a good way to honor the Italian-American heritage of the United States — and it's perfect, to have a band here representing Italy."

That would be the Banda dell'Arma dei Carabinieri, the band of the Italian national military police. This is the band's first-ever visit to Baltimore, with 50 of the band's 103 members making the trip.

"It will be a beautiful thing, to see them parade in their full regalia," says Francesco Legaluppi, consul general of Italy stationed in Baltimore. "We feel strongly that when there is such an attachment, such an excitement on behalf of the Italian-American community, that's something we need to recognize."

Baltimoreans have been parading on Columbus Day at least since 1890. For years, organizers proudly trumpeted their reputation for holding the country's longest-tenured parade in honor of Columbus, who was born in 1451 in Genoa (although he was sailing for Spain when he reached the shores of what would become the Americas).

The tradition was jeopardized last year, when Baltimore officials canceled their sponsorship of the parade, citing declining attendance as well as the city's tight budget. But scores of city residents, including many whose members have lived for generations in Little Italy, staged their own parade. The tradition was saved, if scaled-down.

"It's obviously not the 5th Avenue [Columbus Day] parade of New York," says Legaluppi. "But in a sense, we're taking it back to where it started, as a parade within the Italian-American community."

The stars of the day should be the Carabinieri band, whose members will be playing a mix of Italian and American marching music, Legaluppi says. Besides performing on Sunday, the band is scheduled to play a pair of concerts today: 10 a.m. at War Memorial Plaza, in a salute to the mayor and city of Baltimore, and 4 p.m. at Fort McHenry. There's also a free concert set for 2 p.m. Saturday at the Harborplace Amphitheater.

Maintaining the tradition of honoring Columbus is more than just a matter of pride, says Serafina, a first generation Italian-American and president of Little Italy Hands and Hearts, an outreach ministry running out of St. Leo's. With the Italian-American media presence defined by TV shows like "The Sopranos" and "Jersey Shore," she says, a celebration like this is good publicity.

"I think it's a beautiful way to celebrate the Italian culture in this country," Serafina says, "without making us look like a bunch of Guidos."

chris.kaltenbach@baltsun.com

If you go

Little Italy's Columbus Day celebration begins Sunday with a 9:30 a.m. mass at St. Leo's Roman Catholic Church, 227 S. Exeter St., followed at 10:30 a.m. by a parade from the church to the Columbus Monument, at the corner of President Street and Eastern Avenue. Following an 11 a.m. wreath-laying ceremony, the Banda dell'Arma dei Carabinieri will perform. Go to littleitalymd.com.

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