WINDSOR TERRACE — In a series of moves that caused confusion, the New York City Department of Education (DOE) eliminated Columbus Day from its list of official school holidays, replaced it with Indigenous People’s Day, then abruptly changed course again when faced with a backlash.
Columbus Day, which falls this year on Monday, Oct. 11, will now be known by the double moniker of “Italian Heritage Day/Indigenous People’s Day.”
Despite the last-minute inclusion of Italian Heritage, the fallout from the DOE’s Columbus controversy shows no signs of abating any time soon.
The controversy erupted Tuesday when, without advance notice, the DOE posted its holiday calendar for the upcoming 2021-2022 school year. There was no mention of Columbus Day on the calendar. Instead, Oct. 11 was listed as Indigenous People’s Day.
“Columbus is sacred, especially to Italian-Americans,” Bishop Nicholas DiMarzio told Currents News. Removing the holiday from the city’s schoolchildren “is kind of an insult in many ways,” he said. “I just don’t think we should insult anybody by taking away a symbolic character that helps define the history of a people and their pride because we want to enhance the pride of another group. We should do both.”
“But I also see it as an affront to the Church,” he added.
Bishop DiMarzio described the legendary explorer as a deeply religious man.
“He was a very, very faithful man. He was a Third Order Franciscan. He led his men in prayer on the boats each day. He brought missionaries with him,” he said.
In recent years, several cities across the U.S. have scrapped Columbus Day celebrations and replaced the holiday with Indigenous People’s Day amid charges that the Italian explorer subjected indigenous people to extreme violence and cruelty during his travels to the New World.
In several cities, protesters have toppled statues of Christopher Columbus or defaced the monuments with graffiti.
However, the DOE’s move caught many by surprise and caused a significant backlash.
The Columbus Heritage Coalition reached out to Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s office requesting that he overturn the DOE’s decision. The organization is also considering taking legal action.
The issue is bigger than changing the name of a school holiday, according to Angelo Vivolo, president of the coalition.
“We’re doing this in support of Italians, in support of Columbus. But we’re supporting every ethnicity and every race so no one is discriminated against,” he told Currents News.
Leaders of the Federation of Italian-American Organizations (FIAO) of Brooklyn. Ltd., the group that sponsors the Brooklyn Columbus Day Parade, issued a statement blasting the decision.
“We are disappointed that a holiday that celebrates the contributions of Italian-Americans to New York City has been erased by the Department of Education,” read the statement signed by Chairman Carlo Scissura and President Jack Spatola. “Their small step to at least acknowledge Italian-American day is a start. But doing this without meeting or discussing with the Italian-American community in New York City is not acceptable and is a clear lack of transparency on their part.
“It’s shocking that the entity entrusted with educating children would act in such a disrespectful manner to hundreds of thousands of New Yorkers.”
Andre DiMino, a member of the executive board of the Italian-American organization One Voice Coalition, said lumping the two holidays together is wrong.
“Celebrate Italian-Americans with the day they always had, which is Columbus Day, and celebrate Indigenous People’s Day on another day,” DiMino said. “Why dilute them both by putting them together?”
DiMino also charged that the DOE’s move is an attack on Catholics, calling the decision an attempt “to destroy our faith and our heritage.”
Bishop DiMarzio said the DOE is engaging in revisionist history.
“I don’t think we want revisionist history. We want all history. Teach all of history correctly,” he said, adding that eliminating Columbus Day is denying Italian-American students their right to learn about their history and heritage.
“It’s a process of revisionist history that has been going on for quite a while. I’m not sure what they’re going to do with the Columbus Day Parade,” the bishop said.
Councilman Mark Treyger, chairman of the City Council’s Education Committee, told reporters the DOE didn’t consult with his committee before eliminating Columbus Day. Treyger said he was getting numerous calls from people outraged by the move.
Even City Hall appeared to be caught by surprise. A mayoral spokesman said they disagreed with leaving out Italian Heritage and wanted it to be included in the holiday.
Two lawmakers who represent neighborhoods in the Diocese of Brooklyn, State Senators Diane Savino (Brooklyn) and Joseph Addabbo (Queens), issued a joint statement condemning the DOE’s action. Savino and Addabbo said they were not satisfied by the DOE’s attempts to make amends by rebranding the holiday Italian Heritage Day/Indigenous People’s Day.
“In one blockheaded decision, they have harmed both communities and fanned the flames of division,” their statement read.
“Italian Heritage Day/Indigenous People’s Day will celebrate the contributions and legacies of Italian-Americans and recognize that native people are the first inhabitants of the land that became our country,” DOE spokesperson Danielle Filson said in a statement. “By including these holidays on our calendar, we are honoring the past, present, and future contributions of indigenous communities and Italian Americans.”
This article has been updated.