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Rochester Residents Voice Differing Positions On Columbus Day Holiday


Communities all around the United States have recently examined Christopher Columbus’ legacy more closely and paired or replaced it with Indigenous Peoples Day in response to concerns for racial fairness at the federal level.

Italian Americans and Native American communities both celebrate their heritage in unique ways.

Columbus Day was first observed as a way to honor Italian immigrants who had to flee persecution across the United States.

“We celebrate our heritage first and then we celebrate Christopher Columbus when he came here to discover America,” the president of the Italian Civic League, Quintino DiCesare, said. “When he came here he discovered a new land, and today they do the same thing to go to the moon, to Mars.”

But for many, the holiday represents the persecution and colonization of Indigenous peoples.

“When I was a little girl growing up, we celebrated Columbus Day, which I did not care for in the least, except for the day off,” Tonawanda Onondowaga member Trish Corcoran said. “I liked the day off, but I don’t know how an Italian could support him. He was brutal to his men on the ship. He was brutal to the Taíno people and all the Indigenous people that he came in contact with.”

When President Joe Biden declared “Indigenous Peoples Day” for the first time two years ago, it gave efforts to refocus the government holiday honoring Christopher Columbus their biggest push to yet.

Corcoran and DiCesare each offer a unique perspective on how they observed the occasion.

“It wasn’t just that he gave them diseases or that he enslaved them or that he sold them or took them or killed them,” Corcoran said. “I can’t fathom that a human being with a heart could truly support him as being somebody that you should look up to as a hero.”

“A lot of people hate Christopher Columbus, they say he was bad [and that] he was a criminal,” DiCesare said. “[They say] he was this [or] he was that. Today we have the same problem with migrants. Some people like it, some people want it [and] some people they don’t want it.”

Both DiCesare and Corcoran were motivated to get active with their local communities in Rochester, with Corcoran taking on the role of educator and advocate for the Indigenous People’s Day Committee and DiCesare taking on the role of president of the Italian Civic League.

“We love Italy because I came from there in my 20s,” DiCesare said. “It was not too nice and not too easy — the language, the new things. Then when you come here you start to build up your family.”

“My mother was an educator and she was very much into social justice,” Corcoran said. “And then also other wonderful women that I’ve known that I’ve been inspired by the things that they’ve done in the community and the changes that they’ve made and the people they have helped.”

Indigenous People’s Day and Christopher Columbus Day are both recognized, and both groups continue to emphasize their cultures and histories using various strategies.

“People cling things because of tradition, people don’t like change very much,” Corcoran said. “There’s so many great Italians to celebrate, he’s just not the one to celebrate so I’m glad the change is coming.”

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