ELIZABETH, NJ — Gathering on the steps of the historic Union County Courthouse in Elizabeth on Friday, Oct. 9, Union County Board of Chosen Freeholders and UNICO hosted the 12th annual Columbus Day flag-raising in recognition of the holiday and in celebration of the local Italian American community.
“Union County, along with UNICO National N.J. District X, gather here every year on the Friday before Columbus Day in order to celebrate and honor our rich Italian American heritage,” said Anthony Bengivenga, UNICO District X governor and board member of the Italian American One Voice Coalition, during the event.
Bengivenga described what Italian immigrants to this country had to endure and highlighted what UNICO does.
“As governor of District X, I oversee 10 chapters in Union County, with two chapters in Somerset County,” said Bengivenga. “During the late 1800s and early 1900s, Italian immigrants suffered great discrimination, but we were determined to become hard-working, successful American citizens.
“Many Italian American organizations, such as UNICO, show their generosity by giving back to their communities,” he continued. “UNICO National and our 95 chapters give back by donating scholarships, cancer research, mental health causes and other national charities, including $1 million in scholarships, and also within science and the arts. We donate to food banks and to those less fortunate. Read all about UNICO National on our foundation website at www.unico.org. One hundred percent of our foundation charity funds go directly to charity, since our members and officers take no salary at all. As a board member of the Italian American One Voice Coalition, we work diligently to preserve our heritage and to fight negative stereotypes of Italian Americans.”
Special guest A.J. “Buddy” Fortunato, publisher of the Italian Tribune, talked about the importance of the holiday in the Italian community and of remembering past generations.
“Today, we’re here for a celebration, a celebration of the life of Christopher Columbus,” said Fortunato. “A celebration of heritage, of culture. A celebration of recognition of the contribution and accomplishments of the sons and daughters of Columbus, who is, without a doubt, Italy’s greatest contribution to America.
“Our country, America, discovered by an Italian and named for an Italian, is envied because its fabric consists of many fibers, ethnic fibers, producing a product of strength and character. You might say that Christopher Columbus was a bridge builder whose energy, foresight and devout religious beliefs led to other bridges. I am often asked, ‘Why remember and salute not only Columbus, but Pulaski, Martin Luther King Jr. or St. Patrick?’ My answer is simple — to forget is to forget your parents, your grandparents and to forget your heritage.”
Soon after, the Italian flag was raised with the American flag, signifying the unity within the community.
“Every year, we have an Italian flag-raising to honor the Italian American culture and heritage. Columbus Day weekend is a special time for us in Union County,” said Freeholder Chairperson Alexander Mirabella at the event. “It’s a gorgeous day, which is nice. It’s great to see so many people come out, to take time out of their day to honor the Italian American contributions. We’re proud of all our heritages here in Union County. It’s a great melting pot in the state of New Jersey and we honor all the different nationalities. We’re a very inclusive county and we want to make sure we keep it that way, so we honor everyone. It’s great.
“The Italian community is near and dear to my heart as an Italian American myself. I’ve been traveling back and forth to Rome and to Italy many times, because my daughter went to college in Rome for four years, so we went back and forth. We even bought a place over there, too, so we’ve gotten a chance to go there and spend some time, which is wonderful. It’s very important. Growing up Italian American was wonderful.”
“Today’s a very important day, as we are celebrating Columbus Day,” Union County clerk Joanne Rajoppi said at the event, echoing Mirabella’s sentiments. “I happen to be part Italian, and I’m very happy to celebrate all of the Italian American contributions to this country. I feel wonderful about today’s event. We had great speakers who reminded us that, as a community, we have a lot to be proud of. I feel extremely positive about the Italian community in culture, in theater, in arts, in music, in literature, in government. We’ve had some great examples of good Italian Americans giving themselves through their talents.”
Photos by EmilyAnn Jackman