Union County celebrates Columbus Day with a flag raising

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UNION COUNTY, NJ — Although Columbus Day is officially celebrated on the second Monday of October, which was Oct. 11 this year, the Union County Board of County Commissioners and UNICO recognized this holiday with the 13th annual raising of the Italian and American flags at the Union County Courthouse on Friday, Oct. 8.

Union County Board of County Commissioners Chairperson Alexander Mirabella led the celebration. In his opening remarks, Mirabella discussed the role that Italy, which he often visits on family trips, plays in his family. After the event, Mirabella spoke about why he loves this holiday.

“Today, we’re honoring Italian Americans in our county and raising the Italian American flag and celebrating the achievements of the Italian Americans throughout the United States, in particular Union County,” Mirabella said on Friday, Oct. 8. “I love bringing people together from all cultures. As you can see from our crowd here today, it wasn’t just Italian Americans, it was people of all nationalities, religions, colors and sexual orientation. It was wonderful to have a good mixture, and that always warms my heart. I was delighted to hear Commissioner (Kimberly Pamieri-)Mouded’s comments. She’s a wonderful public servant, and I’m really delighted that she was able to give the keynote address today. That really made me feel good.

“We want to continue this flag raising every year,” he continued. “Around Columbus Day, we’ll always be here on the front steps of the courthouse in Elizabeth.

UNICO National Second Vice President Anthony Bengivenga, who is a board member of the Italian American One Voice Coalition, is a longtime supporter of the flag-raising event — he even worked on the first flag raising. Bengivenga spoke about UNICO and about what Italian American heritage meant to him growing up.

“UNICO is an acronym for Unity, Neighborliness, Integrity, Charity and Opportunity. We are an organization of Italian Americans that not only celebrates and promotes our heritage, culture and language, but one of our missions is to do service, to give back to the communities,” Bengivenga said in his speech on Friday, Oct. 8. “When you see events, like in Scotch Plains, where they have a four-day feast on Columbus Day weekend, and you see the crowds there where they raise $60,000, they give all that back to the community. All of us are volunteers. They share their profits with the community.

“I was born and raised in Plainfield. I, along with my brother, Bob, were first generation, because my dad was born in Italy and came here as a little kid with his parents, and my mom’s family came a few years before she was born,” he continued. “Those families, they instilled in us how important family is and how important the food is. Our uncles were a lot older than I was, and they encouraged us to be devoted citizens first, promote our heritage, get an education and do hard work. They taught us to be thankful for these opportunities and to give back to our community by volunteering and donating to worthy causes.”

After a resolution was presented to members of UNICO District X and Plainfield’s chapter of UNICO, Westfield UNICO President Robert Tarte educated the crowd about some of the hardships Italian immigrants had to face long ago.

“Columbus Day celebrates the heritage and contributions of (our) nation’s estimated 20 million Italian Americans,” Tarte said on Friday, Oct. 8, during his speech. “This holiday marks their journey from … immigrants to successful citizens of our nation. On Columbus Day, Italian Americans say ‘thank you’ to the land of opportunity.”

Italian American Police Society of New Jersey President William Schievella, who represents more than 4,000 Italian American police officers throughout New Jersey, praised the Board of County Commissioners and recognized the unity in the crowd.

“Obviously, we know it’s been a tough few years, with COVID and everything that we’ve been through, and it’s great to be outside,” Schievella said on Friday, Oct. 8, during his speech. “I want to commend the Union County Board of Commissioners. At a time where many other counties were getting rid of important celebrations of everyone’s ethnic heritage, Union County still has it. This is a great honor.

“We are all Americans and we come with a collective heritage that we bring proudly. If you look around at this crowd today, you see people of different ethnic backgrounds, especially Italian Americans. That’s what makes New Jersey a great place. The men and women of our organization are proud to serve and in the most difficult conditions; we’re proud of our heritage, proud to be police officers and proud to be Americans.”

Palmieri-Mouded gave the ceremony’s keynote address, outlining her fondest childhood memory — getting to participate in the Columbus Day Parade herself.

“This is certainly an upgrade. When I was about 10 years old, it was my dream to be part of the Columbus Day Parade here in Elizabeth, and I begged my dad to get me onto one of those cars, so he told me that I was in and I was going to be on one of the cars,” Palmieri-Mouded said on Friday, Oct. 8, during her speech. “My sister and I got all dressed up, went to the field. All the convertibles were coming, and, as I was wondering which one was ours, this small sports car pulled up with two seats. My sister and I were shoved in and had barely enough room to wave out of the window, but it was still a highlight that I’ll always remember.”

After the event, Palmieri-Mouded said an Italian-flag raising during Columbus Day weekend was an opportunity to highlight some of the Italian Americans in Union County.

“The event was lovely,” she continued. “We do quite a few flag raisings throughout the year, and this is always a special one. For next year, I hope that we all can continue to stay healthy and be back here again.”

Ed Palmieri Jr. of the Economic Planning Group, Palmieri-Mouded’s father, said he was proud to attend this event, which also signified getting back to a sense of normalcy despite COVID-19.

“This is a celebration of the raising of the flag for Columbus Day in Union County, and it’s something that I’ve been involved in for many years,” Palmieri said on Friday, Oct. 8. “I feel very proud. This is a great day to feel like a proud Italian American. One difference between last year and this year is that we’re healthier, and we’re able to be outside and hold this ceremony like I’ve known in the past. For next year’s event, I hope we have more people, I hope for continued good health and to welcome everyone as we always do.”

Union County Sheriff Peter Corvelli also took the time to celebrate the Italian heritage with the community.

“Another great event put together by the Board of Commissioners, and it’s great to get everyone together,” Corvelli said on Friday, Oct. 8. “We were able to celebrate our Italian heritage and show everyone that it still exists. Regarding next year’s event, don’t change a thing. This was very nice and we appreciate everyone’s time.”

Photos by EmilyAnn Jackman