BETHEL, Conn. -- Bethel resident Tulio Belardinelli, who has been celebrating Columbus Day in his town for over 20 years, considers the day a large part of his heritage.
"My father, Angelo, came to Danbury in 1919 from Marche, Italy, when he was 17. He came here for a better life. Things were slow right after World War I," said Belardinelli, 79. "He worked as a hatter at the Frank H. Lee Hat Co. in Danbury."
Belardinelli was one of about 30 people who attended the 35th annual Columbus Day celebration in Bethel on Monday, which was the federal and state holiday.
The parade kicked off with a white boat, towed by an SUV, that left Caraluzzi's Bethel Food Market parking lot, proceeded down South Street to Blackman Avenue and ended up at P.T. Barnum Square.
Inside the boat were Bethel residents Gina Clarizio, dressed as Queen Isabella, and Mike Mastroianni, dressed as Christopher Columbus.
The ceremony was attended by Bethel First Selectman Matthew Knickerbocker, and Selectmen Paul Szatkowski and Richard Straiton, along with state Sen. Toni Boucher of Wilton, who also represents Bethel, New Canaan, Redding, Ridgefield, Weston, and Westport.
Addressing those in attendance, Knickerbocker said Columbus Day celebrates the spirit of entrepreneurism and exploration that Columbus brought to the New World.
"Columbus was the first person to open up global trade around the world because he opened up trade routes that had never existed before and people followed him.
"He is also responsible for a tremendous amount of biodiversity because with that trade, people started bringing plants to other parts of the world and it became part of the cuisine in those areas."
Knickerbocker said Columbus had a great impact, not only on economics, exploration and science, but also on the biodiversity of the world.
In the town of Bethel, there are many successful Italian businesses, which reflect that Italian Americans have brought tremendous success to the U.S., he said.
"They fought for our country, they brought craftsman, woodworkers, tailors, entrepreneurs, business owners of all kinds," Knickerbocker said. "They contributed to our educational system and they made us what we are today."
Clarizio said it's important that Americans continue to recognize Christopher Columbus' contributions. "We wouldn't be here today to protest, to vote, to do anything if it wasn't for him.
"A day doesn't go by that there isn't a group of one or another that doesn't try to tear down Christopher Columbus," she said. "The latest effort comes from a White House petition that seeks to change Columbus Day to Explorer's Day. The petition fell short. The lack of enthusiasm among Americans to make the change is not a surprise."
She said Columbus' legacy is his name. "It's found almost everywhere -- colleges, broadcasting companies, spacecrafts are named after Columbus, and even the nation's capital. His name bearings and stone tributes are reminders of his greatness. History was on his side."
Szatkowski said he has been coming to the Columbus Day celebration in Bethel for 20 years.
"We are honoring all the successful Italians in Bethel, as you can see from the business owners here in town, including Patsy the barber, the Rizzo family, Belardinelli Tire, La Zingara, Armando Mae Roma, Caraluzzi's and more."
Belardinelli said he plans to return every year to Bethel's Columbus Day event.
"This celebration is a great tradition and a way to remember the culture and how it all started," he said.
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