Columbus Parade Helps Italians Celebrate Heritage in Bensonhurst Amid Changes

The proud traditions of Bensonhurst’s Italian-American community will be on full display when the 37th Annual Brooklyn Columbus Day Parade takes place on 18th Avenue (AKA Cristoforo Columbo Boulevard after the Italian name for the explorer) on Saturday, Oct. 6.

New York City will hold a parade on Columbus Day Day, Monday, Oct. 8, on Fifth Avenue. But Brooklyn likes to host its own parade.

Sponsored by the Federation of Italian-American Organizations (FIAO) of Brooklyn, the parade is a longstanding Bensonhurst tradition that still draws large crowds every October, despite the fact that the neighborhood has undergone a sea of change in recent years, transitioning from a predominantly Italian-American community to one that is largely Asian-American.

The FIAO’s success in keeping the Italian-flavored parade alive and thriving amid changing demographics is due to the organization’s willingness to embrace those changes, while at the same time promoting cultural pride, according to FIAO President and CEO Carlo Scissura.

“To me, the parade is a celebration of Italian culture and culture in general,” Scissura told this newspaper.

The FIAO has reached out to its Asian neighbors and invited them to take part in the festivities.

Last year’s parade, for example, featured Chinese dragon dancers along with marchers waving Italian flags and dancing the Tarantella.

“The parade has been going on for decades. It always draws a large turnout of spectators and marchers,” Scissura said.

The parade gets under way on Oct. 6 at noon on 18th Avenue and 60th Street. Participants, including members of Italian organizations, church groups, dancers, students from local schools, marching bands and colorful floats, will make their way up the avenue to Benson Avenue, where the FIAO’s headquarters, Il Centro (Italian for “The Center), is located and where the reviewing stand will be.

The 2018 Brooklyn Columbus Day Parade Grand Marshals are: Joseph Bruno, former commissioner of the New York City Office of Emergency Management; Frank Naccarato, past president of the FIAO; Det. Stephen Agosta of the 62nd Precinct; and Ursula Annio, principal at P.S. 748.

“We have a great group of grand marshals this year,” Scissura said, adding that they were chosen because of their records of service to the city, the borough and the Bensonhurst community.

The grand marshals will be the guests of honor at a special brunch six days before the parade. The event will take place on Sunday, Sept. 30, at Sirico’s Caterers, at 8023 13th Ave. Like the parade, the brunch is sponsored by the FIAO.

Founded in 1977, the FIAO is a multi-faceted organization that offers educational programs, immigration assistance and social service referrals to more than 15,000 people a year. The organization also operates several after-school centers where more than 10,000 children play sports and get help with homework.

The FIAO’s balance of tradition and inclusiveness can also be found at Il Centro, the organization’s new headquarters which opened to great fanfare in June in a ceremony that included a ribbon cutting attended by Matilda Cuomo, mother of Gov. Andrew Cuomo.

Il Centro is the first Italian cultural center in New York City, according to Scissura, who is the president of the New York Building Congress.

The six-story, 44,000-square-foot Il Centro houses classrooms, an interactive learning library, a fitness center, a gymnasium, an auditorium and an indoor pool on the fifth floor that boasts floor-to-ceiling windows on three sides offering views of Bensonhurst, Coney Island and the Manhattan skyline.

People of all nationalities have been flocking to Il Centro since it opened to take English language lessons, practice yoga, learn to swim, enjoy dance lessons and take history classes, among other self-improvement activities.

In addition to Asian-Americans, Bensonhurst has become home to large numbers of immigrants from Russia, Poland, the Middle East and Central America in recent years.

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