BLOOMFIELD, NJ — Bloomfield UNICO, the Italian service organization, held its 26th annual Columbus Day observance this past Monday morning, Oct. 10, at the Christopher Columbus monument on the Green, across Broad Street from the Civic Center. Always a charming public event in Bloomfield, it attracted a small gathering of fourth-grade essayists, parents, principals, police officers, firefighters and school district officials, including Bloomfield Superintendent of Schools Sal Goncalves. The young essayists had participated in a UNICO contest about Columbus.
But the occasion was marked by an unusual reticence from Paul Alongi Sr., the event’s longtime emcee, Christopher Columbus champion and former UNICO president, who ordinarily extols the importance of the Italian explorer and the holiday. But Columbus has come under fire from various groups for his role in opening the doors of the New World to slavery. Some N.J. communities have even canceled Columbus Day observances, but Bloomfield’s was only quieted. Nonetheless, Alongi made clear that the children essayists came first and, in their enterprise, had found honest and appreciative words for Columbus.
“I take great honor in saying I founded this essay contest,” he told the gathering of about 70 appreciative individuals. “We’re happy to prolong our essay celebration, and we look forward to doing it again.”
As he does each year, Alongi said the event was a two-parter: awarding the essay winners and then a pancake breakfast in the Civic Center. He added that he was filling in as emcee for current UNICO President Tom Pelaia.
There were 13 fourth-grade essay contest winners: first-, second- and third-place winners, and ten honorable mentions. The winners were awarded $100, $75 and $50, respectively, and their schools received Barnes & Noble gift cards for the same amounts.
“It’s nice to recognize these children,” Alongi said.
Goncalves expressed his pride in the contestants and acknowledged UNICO’s contributions to the Bloomfield community.
“I’m a first-generation” American, he said. “My mom was Italian and my dad was Portuguese. I know something about traveling around the world.”
Bloomfield Councilman Nick Joanow was asked to speak. He did not disappoint.
“It’s time to consider what Italians have done for America and continue to do,” he said. “I’m not Italian; I’m Greek, from the other side of the river. But there’s a binding agreement between Italians and Greeks. It’s olive oil. How can you have a meal without olive oil?”
Joanow, a former educator, thanked the children and the teachers for their efforts.
Alongi returned to the podium and noted that the Columbus statue on the Green was erected 45 years earlier by UNICO at a cost of $27,000.
UNICO member Tina Buontempo presented checks to the school media specialists on behalf of the three winning students. In honor of all essayists, she rewrote the popular rhyme “In fourteen hundred ninety-two / Columbus sailed the ocean blue.” Buontempo’s update: “On Oct. 10, twenty twenty-two / We’re taking the time to honor you.”
“We started in July to make this happen,” she said. “It was an at-home project, but the media specialists made it happen and worked with the students.”
Alongi then concluded the ceremony.
“I’d like to say something about Christopher Columbus,” he said. “There are facts, but they’re overlooked. But there’s one conclusion: There was tremendous effort and discovery. Columbus should always be honored.”
Photos by Daniel Jackovino