GONZÁLEZ: Hey, everybody. I’m Ana.

NUNES: And I’m Alex. You’re listening to Mosaic.

GONZÁLEZ: Alex, finish this rhyme: "In fourteen hundred and ninety-two..."

NUNES: "...Columbus sailed the ocean blue."

GONZÁLEZ: Nice. We all learned that in elementary school, right?

NUNES: Oh yeah, with the Niña, the Pinta, and the Santa María. 

GONZÁLEZ: Right, but Columbus Day has become a lightning rod of a holiday. The debate over why we celebrate a colonizer who never actually stepped foot in the US has led some schools and states to change the name to “Indigenous Peoples’ Day” or not celebrate anything at all.

NUNES: Every year, during the second week of October, the same arguments boil over into protests and essays.

GONZÁLEZ: The whole thing feels as tired as that old rhyming couplet. So, why are we still celebrating Columbus? It turns out, maybe we’re not. In this episode of Mosaic, we take a look at how the oldest Italian neighborhood in Providence celebrates its immigrant history on one of the most controversial holidays in America. 

It’s the Saturday of Columbus Day weekend, and I’m walking down Atwells Avenue in Federal Hill, Providence’s historic Italian neighborhood. In just a couple minutes, there’s going to be a ceremony to commemorate the official start of the 28th annual Federal Hill Columbus Day Festival. 

I pass by vendor after vendor, all setting up for the onslaught of festival goers. There are the ones you’d expect, like Venda Ravioli and Tony’s Colonial Italian market. But there’s also a Greek restaurant, a West Indian smoothie stand, and a Chinese family with a big wok. 

I finally make it to the stage at the corner of Atwells and Depasquale Avenues. In between puffs of cigar smoke, the towering figure of John Lombardi appears at the microphone.

JOHN: Good Afternoon! Come on, let’s hear it. You’re in the greatest neighborhood in the world, Federal HIll. Come on. Where’s that enthusiasm?

GONZÁLEZ: This is State Representative John Lombardi. He’s been representing Federal Hill since 1984. He’s a lawyer, a judge, he even filled in as mayor of Providence once. But he started his life in a big Italian family in Federal Hill.

JOHN: My father was from Sicily, but he wasn't born there, but his mom and his dad were.

GONZÁLEZ: John is second-generation Italian-American. He embodies a classic Italian story of immigration. 

NUNES: His grandparents leave Southern Italy at the end of the 19th century and immigrate to the US through Ellis Island. Then, they move up to Rhode Island to find work and live among the growing Italian community here. 

GONZÁLEZ: Since the 1850s, Italians have been settling on the West Side of Providence because it was a Catholic community.

NUNES: Right. Irish  Catholics came first, then the Italians. Both groups were met with a lot of racism. They weren’t considered white, at least not white like Protestants are white.

GONZÁLEZ: Yeah, so they form their own neighborhoods and clubs and organizations to keep themselves safe and maintain their Italian identity. Federal Hill is one of these neighborhoods. 

JOHN: Everything I've done is in this neighborhood. I went to school here. I spent most of my time here. I mean my house is literally you could hit it with a baseball. It's my enclave, it's where I feel safe, it's where I feel comfortable.

GONZÁLEZ:  When John’s parents pass away, his grandmother raises him.

JOHN: My grandmother never spoke a word of English.

GONZÁLEZ: So, John grows up in Federal Hill in the ‘60s and ‘70s speaking Italian. He describes this time as blissfully ignorant. 

JOHN: And you know we lived in a cold water flat. And in one of the apartments, there wasn't even a tub. We had to go to public baths. So I took showers in school, at the Zuccolo Recreation Center. And then, where the arch is, used to be a bathhouse. And we go there on a Saturday so. But you know what? We never knew we were poor. 

GONZÁLEZ: If you look around Federal Hill today, there aren’t any bathhouses, but there are a lot of 6-family homes, and everything is tightly-packed and walkable. Signs that a lot of people were in the same boat as John’s family. 

JOHN: So you know, it would be like you, your grandmother, your aunts or uncles your cousins all in the same house.

GONZÁLEZ; And every Sunday, the whole extended family would come together over -- what else? Food. 

JOHN: On a Sunday morning, the meatballs would be like, she'd make like 80. And the first 30 of 40 were eaten by my uncles. Then they'd go to church. Then, they come back and eat again. But it's all about eating. You start off with salad or antipasto, and then you'd have macaroni and meatballs with sausage and then you know a chicken or ham or turkey. And then you then pastry. I mean, literally, it was two to three hours. It was just unbelievable.

GONZÁLEZ: At the festival, the food is on full display. Cannolis, raviolis, chicken parm, meatballs, quahogs, fried dough, and sausage. Lots of sausage. 

MICHAEL: My name is Michael, and I run the sausage stand. That’s my sister [Hi, I’m Penny]. It’s a good festival to come to, have a good time. Plenty of food. Good food too, you know? And the kids got rides down the other end. And that’s what we’re here for, fun and games. 

PENNY: The sandwiches are awesome. [laughter]

NUNES: So, let me get this straight: the Federal Hill Columbus Day Festival is three days long? 

GONZÁLEZ: Yeah. The first and last day are just street fairs, with vendors like Michael and music and awards. Day two is the big parade.

Harris Avenue looks like an old Hollywood lot: there are women in traditional Itailian folk dresses, local beauty queens of all ages fixing their tiaras, multiple high school marching bands, police, firefighters, and news anchors. Even Roman reenactors.

QUENTON: The joke was...in Sunday school, when you're supposed to fall in love with Jesus, I fell in love with the Romans.

GONZÁLEZ: This is Quenton. He’s been dressing up in Roman armor for 18 years. He tells me about his get up and explains the Roman influence on Columbus and the Founding Fathers. 

QUENTON: There's things to not admire about the Romans, but there's things to admire about them. And our founders saw things to admire about the Romans. It's part of how this United States was set up.

GONZÁLEZ: I go over to the leader of this group, Andy, “How's it going, Andy? You putting on your, what is that called?”

ANDY: This is the problem, that today we know this is Lorca Segmentada, armor of segments… 

GONZÁLEZ: He’s tying the leather strips on the front of his metal armor. I ask him about why he and his group are marching in this parade.

ANDY I'm not necessarily hung up about Columbus. And the more we learn about him in that time period, the whole exploration time and things like that in early colonial history. I kinda have to sit back and say, “Well, this kind of sucks”. But at the same time, that was done in the past. We have the opportunity now that we can, you know, kind of stop that that tide and say, okay, we can we can kind of start new. 

GONZÁLEZ: They let me try on one of their helmets, we pose for a picture, and I keep it moving.  And I find that, outside of these history buffs, no one is really focused on the Columbus aspect of the parade. They’re more focused on being Italian.

“Can I get around you for a second? Thank you so much. Hi, how are you?”

Up in the first spots of the parade-in-waiting, there are four cars devoted to the Italo-American Club of Rhode Island. I scootch around the North Providence marching band to talk to the guys driving the vintage Cadillac at the very front.

STEVE: We all belong to the Italo-American club. We’re all Italians. We’ve marched in this parade since its beginning. And these are all members of our executive board. Tommy, Tommy and Joe. That’s it. My name is Steven Malane. And it's a great thing to be Italian today.

GONZÁLEZ: Tommy, Tommy, and Joe don’t want to be interviewed, so I ask Steve what they are celebrating today.

STEVE: Well, you celebrate the, you know, all the things that Italians did, and Christopher Columbus. That he came here, and then made a free world. And we're glad to do it, and we'll pass it on to different generations and different people.

GONZÁLEZ: The next car in line has three women in it from the Italo-American Club. The older women in front tell me to talk to the younger one in back. She’s actually from Italy. 

ITALIAN STUDENT: From Bologna. From the North. Yeah.

GONZÁLEZ: And do you have celebrations like this celebrating Christopher Columbus?

ITALIAN STUDENT: No, no, we know we do not. I've been also to New York and I've seen that there are a lot of immigrants from Italy. And they all have this, like, sense of belonging to Italy. It's very strong, you know, and it's nice.Yeah, I feel like why are you so, like, connected to Italy given that you live here? They are even more in love with Italy than I am so…

GONZÁLEZ: The cars start to move. The parade is beginning.

NUNES: So when did Italian-Americans start identifying so strongly with Columbus Day?

GONZÁLEZ: It happens around the same time Italians start immigrating to the US en masse. Columbus Day was first celebrated in the US to commemorate Christopher Columbus “discovering the new world”. But by the 20th century, Italian immigrants are a growing community, looking for a seat at the table.

NUNES: Big public festivals are ways for immigrant communities to have fun, connect with each other, and celebrate their traditions. But they’re also ways for immigrants to make money and claim ownership over a day and a place.

GONZÁLEZ: Exactly, so when President Franklin Delano Roosevelt declares Columbus Day a national holiday in 1934, it’s an acknowledgement that the Italian-American community is here to stay.

GONZÁLEZ: I meet Armando at Trattoria Zooma, an upscale wine bar on Federal Hill. He’s the General Manager.

RICK: This is Armando.

GONZÁLEZ: Armando was born in Naples. He moved to the States when he was 9, and after coming to Federal Hill for college, he stayed.

“What about it is that home away from home? What do you like?” 

ARMANDO: Again it's it's it's the ability to walk down the street and feel like you're you're eating little parts of Italy whether it be you know going to the piazza, seeing the fountain, having an espresso in front. Or just sitting outside of a restaurant having a glass of wine or something of that nature. You just feel like you're at home.

GONZÁLEZ: Armando is prepping his restaurant to serve thousands of people for the Festival. And he really believes in the mission of the weekend.

ARMANDO: You're giving people of our heritage a format to be proud of who they are. And it's not so much about Columbus. But it's about the traditions: the sausage and peppers, the yelling up and down the street. I mean all of these things are things that are close to us. And that's really what matters should matter to us.

GONZÁLEZ: And what would you say to someone who maybe is Dominican and is, identifies as indigenous as well, who might reject the idea of Columbus?

ARMANDO: I mean, you know, my fiance is Dominican. So it's inviting, you know what I mean. This street has made it possible that everyone of any race can come up here and feel comfortable and really believe in this. And what we're doing. And again if you and if you hang out here this weekend you'll see that it's just it's a plethora of everybody.

GONZÁLEZ: There are hundreds of people on the street, yelling and cheering. It’s not exactly the plethora of everybody Armando described, but the crowd is a little more diverse than I expected. The Cianci Educational Fund is throwing buttons and candy to the crowds. One very special family gets a jar of Buddy Cianci’s brand of marinara sauce, which is a real thing you can buy in supermarkets all over Rhode Island. 

“And I saw you just got some pins and a Buddy Cianci jar of pasta…”

PARADE GOER 1: Buddy Cianci gravy in the jar, yup. 

GONZÁLEZ: Buddy Cianci, by the way, is a huge reason why this festival is more than a Catholic procession. 

NUNES: In 1974, he was elected as the first Italian-American Mayor of Providence. And one of his big projects while mayor is to bring business to Federal Hill. 

GONZÁLEZ: So, with a little help from the Federal Hill Business Association and the Knights of Columbus, Mayor Cianci brings Columbus Day to Atwells Avenue. And now, it’s a tradition.

GONZÁLEZ: Are you Italian-American?

PARADE GOER 1: Italian-American and Portuguese. We’ve been doing it since we were children. And now we bring children and grandchildren, so yeah. 

GONZÁLEZ: I thank her and keep following the parade route. I find a guy wearing a bright blue sports jacket and a hand full of gold rings. He and his wife could have just stepped out of a horse race or a Miami cigar emporium.

GONZÁLEZ: Why’d you come out today?

PARADE GOER 2: It’s Columbus Day. It’s an Italian Day. We love it [CANON FIRE]. And we make a lot of noise about it.

GONZÁLEZ: And are you Italian yourself?

PARADE GOER 2: Yes, I certainly am. 100%. Paolino. Yes, and uh, if it was Uncle Mike’s Day. It doesn’t matter. We’re all celebrating a happy occasion. So, it doesn’t matter who’s day it is. It’s a nice day. And it’s an Italian day.

GONZÁLEZ: What would say to someone who doesn’t understand it? How would you explain it?

PARADE GOER 2: I feel bad for you.

GONZÁLEZ: As I walk away, the arch that welcomes visitors into Federal Hill is in sight. It’s the end of the parade route that was mostly a big Italo-American party.

NUNES: It’s nothing like the parade in New York, where they have a giant Columbus replica on a float. People here seemed like they were more focused on their personal nostalgia than the history of the day.

GONZÁLEZ: That’s not the case just two miles down the street.

DARRELL: That looks like enamel paint, too.

GONZÁLEZ: Yeah that’s gonna be hard to get off.

DARRELL: I used to paint cars when I was a kid right out of high school, and enamel was the most stickiest.

GONZÁLEZ: I’m standing in front of a statue of Christopher Columbus at the intersection of Elmwood and Reservoir Avenues on the South Side of Providence. Early this morning, protesters poured bright red paint all over the statue. It looks like blood. It’s the day after the parade, Columbus Day.

PASSING CAR: “F*** Columbus! Genocidal mother******!” 

GONZÁLEZ: On the base of the statue, they chained a plywood sign that reads, “Stop Celebrating Genocide”. It’s a shocking sight, but it seems welcome among all of the people walking by.

WOMAN: My day has been made already. What a joy.

RUBEN: It doesn't belong here, to be honest. I mean, what did Christopher Columbus do for the people? He’s largely celebrated for nothing. For what it says right on the sign. Genocide. Killing people. Massacres.

GONZÁLEZ: This is Ruben. He lives in this neighborhood and is taking pictures to post on social media. He’s Dominican, so he traces his ancestry back to the part of the world Columbus pillaged. The genocide he’s talking about is of the Taíno people, the original inhabitants of the Dominican Republic and the Carribean. Outside of the news crews here, the crowd is mostly people of color. The man to the other side of me is Darrell. He’s indigenous. 

DARRELL: Lotta reaction, huh?

GONZÁLEZ: Yeah. I’m surprised they left it up so long.

DARRELL: I’m surprised they didn’t have a detail on it last night, really.

GONZÁLEZ: As we’re making small talk, the Public Works department rolls up with a scrub brush, a bolt cutter and a power washer. 

They spray the statue with chemicals, scrub, and start power washing it. After about 15 minutes, Columbus is clean again. The camera crews pack up, the onlookers go home, and Christopher Columbus is left to stand another year.

NUNES: Mosaic is a production of the Public’s Radio. Edited by Sally Eisele. With production help by James Baumgartner and Aaron Selbig. Our original music is by Bryn Bliska. Torey Malatia is the general manager of the Public’s Radio. I’m Alex Nunes.

GONZÁLEZ: And I’m Ana González. Thanks for listening.

Support for this podcast comes from Carnegie Corporation of New York, supporting innovations in education, democratic engagement, and the advancement of international peace and security at Carnegie.org.