Wednesday, May 22, 2024
Christopher Columbus is presumed to be the scowling figure in this 1519 painting by Sebastiano del Piombo.

Christopher Columbus is presumed to be the scowling figure in this 1519 painting by Sebastiano del Piombo.

Discussion over ending the celebration of Columbus Day in Cambridge is returning for discussion. City officials suggested Monday that they were leaning toward removing Christopher Columbus entirely in favor of a more general celebration of Italian-American heritage, while introducing a separate Indigenous Peoples Day celebration in honor of the people who were displaced, enslaved and killed after the explorer crossed the Atlantic.

The idea of changing local celebration of Columbus Day – a federal holiday since 1937 – appeared in December on the City Council agenda, drawing lengthy and spirited public comment, but has languished as unfinished business since then.

Conversation about the proposal with stakeholders in the community were carried on by one of the motion’s original sponsors, councillor Nadeem Mazen, and vice mayor Marc McGovern, they said Monday. The other sponsor of the motion, Dennis Benzan, lost a reelection bid and didn’t return to the council in January.

Committee work

“We’ve heard from a lot of constituents and I think there’s a lot of interesting momentum behind this, maybe even a win-win solution,” Mazen said. “But we’ve yet to find out, and that’s the basis for moving it to committee.”

The topic will be taken up by a joint meeting of the council’s committees on Neighborhood and Long Term Planning, Facilities, Arts and Celebrations (led by Mazen) and Civic Unity (led by McGovern), the council decided in a unanimous vote.

The same committees will examine the idea of putting a “non-citizen representative” on the council to be elected by residents who are ineligible to vote in municipal elections because of their citizenship, the council decided in another Monday vote. The representative would be able to introduce policy orders and speak on them, in a proposal by Mazen and Mayor E. Denise Simmons, but not vote.

Italian-American celebration

The idea of dual holidays isn’t new – it was raised in December by local Italian-Americans such as lawyer Anthony Galluccio, a former councillor and mayor, who hoped a modified holiday would take place closer to Thanksgiving in hopes that “Italian-Americans not be pitted against indigenous peoples.”

Neither he nor McGovern, who said he is half-Italian and raised in an Italian family, said they had a debate about removing Columbus as the day’s figurehead.

“An Italian heritage holiday has been around for a long time called Columbus Day. And it’s not really fair to have [Italian-Americans] lose that, but … changing the name wouldn’t be a loss as long as it’s replaced with something else. It would almost  be like a cleansing,” McGovern said. “You know, I don’t want Columbus representing me, based on what I know.”

“It’s a balance between making sure that we correct the historical record but also not slight a community that has cherished a holiday for a very long time,” McGovern said.

“We literally weep”

In December, supporters of Indigenous Peoples Day such as Mahtowin Munro, co-leader of United American Indians of New England and a former Cambridge resident, testified to the impact of seeing Columbus Day come around annually: “We literally weep when we think of the genocidal cataclysm that began with Columbus and his men,” Munro said.

Now Native Americans may have the second Monday in October for themselves, a yearly date to celebrate taking something back from Columbus.

Moving the idea to the committees would allow the idea of dual holidays to be discussed more openly and transparently, McGovern said.

There is no date set for the joint meeting.