By Stuart Foster, Contributing Writer
WESTBOROUGH – Westborough residents spoke in favor of the town retaining Columbus Day as a holiday at a Select Board meeting on Aug. 24.
In turn, they opposed the position of the town’s Diversity and Inclusion Committee, whose chair Cara Presley encouraged the Select Board to replace “Columbus Day” with “Indigenous People’s Day” at a July 20 meeting of the Select Board.
“By instituting the new holiday, we will publicly celebrate and raise awareness about the culture and history of indigenous people,” Presley said at the time. “By replacing Columbus Day, we honor the perseverance of indigenous people, despite their suffering at the hands of European colonists, led by Columbus, who overtook inhabited lands and committed genocide of indigenous people.”
Joe Black, representing the Westborough Knights of Columbus Council 85, said that his council fully supported and encouraged a separate holiday for Indigenous peoples, but not at the expense of Columbus Day.
“Both can be observed in the spirit of tolerance, inclusion, understanding and appreciation of history,” Black said.
Black said that a resident petition in favor of replacing Columbus Day, which the Diversity and Inclusion Committee took up last year, was not supported by appropriate scholarship. He recommended a period of research into the topic.
Another speaker, Ken Nascondiglio, described the history of anti-Italian discrimination in the United States including lynchings of Italian-Americans in Louisiana, internment of Italian-Americans during World War II and contemporary stereotypes of Italian-Americans as mobsters.
Nascondiglio said that, growing up in an Italian-American community isolated from the rest of his municipality, he and his family looked forward to Columbus Day each year.
“Our community was looked at as the bad part of town,” Nascondiglio said. “We walked around the city proud for one day of the year.”
Ciaran O’Donnell, who also spoke, criticized the Diversity and Inclusion Committee as lacking transparency and excluding local residents while giving outsiders a platform.
O’Donnell also said that support for the removal of Columbus Day is outside the scope of the committee, which he described as ensuring town services are provided equally and promoting diversity in town services.
O’Donnell also said that the committee is not accessible to working people because it meets at 3 p.m. He said that the committee had not followed due process in this process.
“The petition to remove Columbus Day presented to the committee was a self-fulfilling prophecy for it was inherently biased against Columbus as a person with no regard for historical fact,” O’Donnell said.
Steve Buttiglieri, another speaker, described Columbus as a brilliant navigator whose goal was to establish an all-water route to Asia. He said that Columbus’s diaries demonstrate that he felt positively toward the indigenous people he encountered.
“They contain numerous references throughout to indigenous people as being exceptional in many ways, and still more diary entries profess the love and admiration he had for them,” Buttiglieri said.
Speaking back in July, Presley helped make the case to replace Columbus Day with Indigenous People’s Day.
She also said she recognized America’s history of discrimination against Italian-American people, emphasizing that the effort to change the holiday’s name was due to its association with Columbus himself.
“Replacing Columbus Day is not an erasure of the history of religious and ethnic discrimination and violence that was experienced by Italian-Americans, who deserve our recognition and honor,” she said. “But it is a disassociation from Columbus, a man known to have committed atrocities against indigenous people that would today likely be considered crimes against humanity.”
If Westborough makes this change, it will join a growing list of states and municipalities to have taken similar action.
The effort had faced some questions and opposition even before this most recent Aug. 20 meeting, though.
In July, James DiStefano, the President of the Italian American Alliance of Massachusetts, signed an open letter to the Select Board defending Columbus Day.
Then, at that July 20 meeting, Select Board Member Patrick Welch said that, while he supports Indigenous People’s Day, he was cautious about simultaneously doing away with Columbus Day.
“It seems like this kind of trends more toward exclusion of the Italian-American community,” he said.
After public comments on Aug. 20, Select Board Chair Allen Edinberg said that two Select Board members, Welch and Shelby Marshall, should do further research on the issue and prepare to schedule and plan a listening session at a later date.
In a statement to the Community Advocate on Sept. 1, Cara Presley said that “as the chairperson of the Diversity and Inclusion Committee” she is “confident in the work of the Committee.”
“I stand by our recommendation to the Select Board to adopt Indigenous People’s Day in place of the Columbus Day holiday in the Town of Westborough,” she wrote. “Committee members were unanimous in our vote to recommend the change in holidays, and we see this as a concrete step in promoting equity and increased diversity and inclusiveness in Town government.
“The Committee acknowledges that it is up to the Select Board to make the final decision, and we respect and support any steps the Board may take to further explore the issue before voting on the matter,” she continued.