A cheerful march: The Columbus Day Parade returns to East Boston

Big Dave, the clown, at the Columbus Day Parade in East Boston, on Sunday, Oct. 7. Photo by Flaviana Sandoval / BU News Service
Big Dave, the clown, at the Columbus Day Parade in East Boston, on Sunday, Oct. 7. Photo by Flaviana Sandoval / BU News Service

By Flaviana Sandoval 
BU News Service

BOSTON — Big Dave, the clown, woke up early on Sunday to put on his makeup. He colored his long, bushy beard with spray paint in stripes of neon green, pink and purple. His Mickey Mouse T-shirt had been ready since the previous night.

He finished the look with a giant yellow bowtie, decorated with red dots, and picked up a colorful flower patterned hat on the way out. Dragging his “magic wagon,” as he likes to call his little red plastic wheelbarrow filled with toys and candy, Big Dave joined the Columbus Day Parade in East Boston, waving at the curious spectators and throwing sweets at children sitting on the sidewalk along Chelsea Street.

The annual Columbus Day Parade took the streets of East Boston on Sunday, Oct. 7, to commemorate Christopher Columbus’ expeditions to the Americas and celebrate Italian heritage in the City of Boston.

As hundreds of spectators crowded the sidewalks with their folding chairs, squadrons of martial bands, military units, colonial militia re-enactors, civil associations and high schoolers from all over Massachusetts walked along the 2.8 miles journey from Suffolk Downs, in Chelsea, to East Boston’s Maverick Square.

The parade has been celebrated in the City of Boston since 1937. In odd-numbered years (2017, 2019) it takes place in the North End, along Hanover Street. In even years (2018, 2020), the parade kicks off at Waldermar Avenue, Chelsea, marching down Bennington Street and into Maverick Square, where it turns into Meridian Street and ends in Central Square.

The 2018 Columbus Day Parade in East Boston was organized by the Columbus Day Parade Committee and sponsored by the East Boston Veterans Council.

Although it is mostly an Italian-American tradition, the parade has seen a surge of new diverse organizations requesting to join, especially in years when it happens in East Boston, home to a wide Hispanic community.

This year, the parade featured traditional dance from El Salvador, women in flamboyant costumes from the Caribbean Carnival and a delegation from the Chilean community in East Boston.

The commemoration of Columbus Day has sparked controversy in recent years, with many Americans making the argument that the violence and slaughter that characterized Christopher Columbus’ expeditions in no way deserves to be celebrated.

This year, for instance, the City of Somerville decided to observe “Indigenous People Day,” on what is traditionally Columbus Day, as a way to recognize native people who died following European settlement in America.

With the decision, Somerville joins a list of cities across the U.S. that have shifted towards the celebration of Indigenous people’s Day, including Los Angeles, San Francisco, Seattle, Cincinnati, and even the city in Ohio named after Columbus himself, where Columbus Day is no longer a city holiday.

At the Sunday parade, though, the mood was festive. Whole families sat by the sidewalk to share drinks and chips, kids played their toy trumpets, while others chased after street vendors selling animal-shaped balloons and stuffed characters like Sponge Bob and Pikachu.

Jasmine Hernández, one the vendors pushing a cart filled with toys and balloons up Chelsea Street, came to the parade for the second year in a row. She arrived at the event at 11 am, to catch early buyers.

“We usually come out two or three hours before, depending on the parade’s request. Obviously, our boss likes to get us here earlier, so that we can make the money. When the parade is over we probably stay another 10 minutes, and catch what’s called ‘the blowout’ at the end, when people finally want to buy,” she said.

Hernández earns commissions over her sales. On a day like this, she can go back home with as much as $400 or $500, depending on how much people buy.

“This has been a good crowd, they’re buying. Is more motivation for us,” she said. “I like this job for the experience, because the work is hard: up and down hills, 95 degrees, 100 degrees, doesn’t matter, we come out.”

Attendees filled the air with whistles and enthusiastic applause, as the Veterans Department of Massachusetts marched along the street, followed by the Drifters of Aleppo on their noisy karts. Miss Boston and Miss Massachusetts also made an appearance, wearing their glowing crowns and waving from top of a convertible.

The crowd danced to an Italian tarantella when the Order Sons of Italy in America walked by, their music mixing in an odd combination with Michael Jackson’s Thriller, played by a truck in the distance.

Anna Perkins has lived in East Boston for the past 10 years. Every other year, when the parade takes place in the neighborhood, she steps out of her house in Chelsea Street to watch it. “I like the costumes and the bands,” she said, as her 2-year-old son laughed playfully at the funny faces of a tuba player.

“There’s a lot of fun stuff. It’s awesome,” said Gina Camicia, from California, who moved to Boston about a year ago and was watching the parade for the first time. “I’m definitely coming back next year.”

As the parade came to a close, Big Dave cut off the balloons attached to his magic wagon and distributed them amongst the children. He took a zip from a water bottle and laid down on the ground in front of the parade’s small stage in Meridian Street, completely exhausted. He has been marching on the parade for as long as he can remember, every time it is held in East Boston.

“It’s all for the kids,” he said. “It’s all for the neighborhood and the kids.”

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