A fanfare, a way to take pride in something, a communal gathering — the annual Columbus Day Parade means many things to many people. Tens of thousands of people from 100 groups participated in the event, which is in its 79th year, as a million more looked on from the sidelines, once again establishing itself as the world’s largest recognition of Italian American culture. But for Lisa Ackerman, the Executive Director at Columbus Citizens Foundation, as well as Manhattan’s Italian American population, the nearly eight-decade-old procession is just one piece of a larger mission.
“People were fiercely proud of being newly minted American citizens, but they also felt strong ties to their Italian roots,” Ackerman said of early Italian immigrants like her grandmother, who came to the U.S. from Sicily in the 1900s.
The second Monday of October has historically been celebrated as Columbus Day, but in recent years, with the explorer’s legacy under scrutiny, cities and states across the U.S. have chosen to honor Indigenous Peoples’ Day instead. In 2021, New York’s governor Kathy Hochul — who was an active participant of the Oct. 9 event — officially acknowledged Indigenous Peoples’ Day as a notable observance.
Ackerman said the parade is not, and has never been, about celebrating Columbus as an explorer. Rather, she believes he was a symbol that united Italian Americans and their achievements.
“More than anything, it’s a celebration about being Italian American, New Yorkers and Americans — and the rich tapestry of diversity from Native Americans to all those newly arrived in the United States,” she said.
Marian Pardo, board chair of the foundation, said that, for as long as she can remember, she’s been exposed to her heritage. Pardo believes that, though Columbus Day has evolved, the parade is a day designated for the celebration of Italian culture, and other groups have their own days to celebrate in a similar vein.
“There is room on the calendar for every group to have its own special day, and there is room in our hearts to celebrate each other every day,” Pardo, 77, said. “There is no need to take away important symbols from any group.”
The Columbus Day Parade tradition first began on October 12, 1929, when Generoso Pope, an Italian immigrant and businessman, led a parade from East Harlem down to Columbus Circle. The parade became an official celebration of Italian heritage in 1944. While the parade has stood its ground for almost eight decades, Ackerman said the foundation seeks to do more than just host one celebratory day.
In addition to teaching in the Pratt Institute’s Graduate Center for Planning and the Environment, Ackerman has worked full time with the foundation since 2019, which she said has about 500 members and 90 Young Adult Auxiliary members, who are ages 22 to 24. In addition to paid staff like Ackerman, who carry out the operations of the foundation, there are both board and volunteer committee members who contribute to the activities.
“All membership organizations face the question of relevancy,” Ackerman said. “We hope there will always be people of all ages interested in their Italian heritage.”
Ackerman oversees a scholarship program that provides nearly $2 million to high school and college students each year. Since the program’s inception in 1984, the foundation has distributed $36 million in scholarships.
Francesca Santacroce, who grew up surrounded by her own Italian culture — with a father from Sicily and her mother’s parents having immigrated from Naples — is just one student who benefited from the foundation’s scholarship programming.
Santacroce, 26, remembers her strong Catholic upbringing and the value her parents placed on education, though they struggled financially. She first learned of the foundation through her younger sister’s elementary school principal, who recommended the CCF elementary scholarship. In the family interview, she was encouraged to apply for the college scholarship.
“I vowed from that day to give back to the CCF in any way I could,” Santacroce, who is a part of the Young Adults Auxiliary, said.
Santacroce graduated from New York University in 2019 with a bachelor’s degree in biomolecular science and is currently a second year medical student at St. George’s University School of Medicine in Grenada. She received $20,000 for her four-year undergraduate degree, as well as an additional $10,000 through the Morgagni Medical School Scholarship for her four years of medical school. She credits these scholarships for easing the financial burden of higher education.
“I would not have been able to attend undergraduate or graduate studies without all the financial support from scholarships and sponsors,” Santacroce said.
To be eligible for a scholarship, Ackerman said the applicant must be at least 25% of Italian descent, hold a 3.5 GPA and demonstrate financial need. Around 50 scholarships are awarded each academic year — 25 for high school, 25 for college and two for medical school — in addition to an immersive summer abroad program. The foundation also offers Italian language classes on-site.
“I’m like the ringmaster overseeing it all, but it’s a lot of fun,” she said. “It’s really celebrating the diversity of being in a city that’s got people from so many different places. Hopefully it’s a place where people come to be with other like-minded people, and celebrate culture in the broadest sense.”
Joseph Fabrizi, who graduated from St. John’s University in 1986 before receiving a master’s degree in commercial real estate investment and development from NYU, waved his handheld Italian flag as he sat on the foundation’s float.
Fabrizi, whose family is actively involved with the foundation, believes strongly in the monetary contributions it provides.
“Like our President Frank Fusaro once said, ‘These are our boys, these Italian American boys are our boys and if we don’t help our boys, no one’s going to help our boys,’” he said. “That’s what I stand for here today, educating the young Italian American men and women, who otherwise might not have the punch to enter into these higher level learning institutions.”
Pardo — who is now retired, but serves on the board of trustees at JPMorgan Mutual Funds — agreed with Fabrizi. As a board chair at the foundation, she supports fundraising strategies and works with various Italian organizations on a common goal.
As a first generation American from Reggio Calabria, Italy, Pardo’s father was an involved member and supporter of the Order Sons of Italy in America. Pardo earned a scholarship from the organization, which enabled her to graduate from Barnard College in 1968.
When Pardo moved from Long Island to Manhattan, she sought a way to give back to a community she said had given her so much. This is where the Columbus Citizens Foundation really comes into play for her. Whether participating in the parade or collaborating with those who share her Italian heritage, Pardo aims to promote a deeper understanding of Italian culture to the wider community.
“We’re not stereotypes,” Pardo said, “we are dedicated, accomplished people who want to make the world know how much we feel about our heritage, how much we feel about being Americans, and how lucky we all are that our ancestors did what they did. Because this is still the best country in the world.”