NJ family on culture-war front lines over Columbus Day cancel

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Three generations of a New Jersey clan are on the front lines of a culture-war fight over Christopher Columbus, their Italian heritage — and, they say, historical truth.

It’s boiling over because a school district voted to remove all holidays from the school calendar, replaced by “Days Off.”

The family’s youngest member, 19-year-old Chiara Ricupero, is bearing the battle scars.

“I’ve lost all my friends from high school except one,” the college freshman told The Post, describing the furious backlash she’s endured in her hometown of Randolph, NJ, for speaking out against the local school board’s cancellation of Columbus Day.

“I was told I was an embarrassment, I was told I was disgusting, I was told ‘eff you,’” Chiara said.

“They say I’m insensitive,” she said of her peers. “But they’re not even trying to understand why this day is so special to me.”

Three generations of an Italian-American family (from left) Chiara Ricupero, Maria Ricupero, and Alfredo Fanelli are fighting the Randolph, NJ school district that removed labels from all holidays on the calendar to de-celebrate Columbus Day and other controversial holidays.
Three generations of an Italian-American family (from left) Chiara Ricupero, Maria Ricupero, and Alfredo Fanelli are fighting the Randolph, NJ school district’s decision to remove all holiday names from the calendar.
Helayne Seidman

Chiara’s mom Maria Ricupero, a middle-school history teacher in a neighboring district, was outraged last month when the Randolph Township Board of Education voted — without debate or an opportunity for public comment — to chop Columbus Day from the district’s calendar in favor of the politically correct Indigenous People’s Day. Ricupero’s two younger children attend district schools, and Chiara, her eldest, is a 2020 graduate of Randolph High School.

Along with her 73-year-old dad Alfredo Fanelli, a retired Italian language professor and first-generation American, and daughter Chiara, a history major at Franciscan University of Steubenville, Ohio, Maria helped launch a local Facebook group to fight the board’s decision.

“Chiara had just researched a paper on Columbus and his significance to Italian Americans,” Maria, 47, recalled. “We said, okay, you’re the expert on this for us.”

At a raucous June 10 district meeting, the teen delivered a passionate speech about the holiday that brought the crowd of 130 to its feet — before some residents, angered by the board’s tightening restrictions on their speaking time, staged a walk-out. Twenty-five advocates took the floor during the four-hour assembly, with only three of them backing the calendar change.

“I don’t understand how it promotes inclusion and diversity to exclude and really degrade a particular ethnic group,” Chiara told the board. “That is what you are doing when you take away Columbus Day from Italian Americans … One group’s oppression does not outweigh another’s.”

RANDOLPH HIGH SCHOOL
The Randolph school district voted to remove all holiday names from the school calendar and simply label them all “Days Off.”

Rather than reverse its decision, the board doubled down, voting unanimously to erase the name of every holiday on the district calendar, from Martin Luther King Day to Christmas, labeling each one a “Day Off” instead.

“Talk about cancel culture,” Fanelli said. “All of a sudden we went from canceling Columbus to canceling everything. And it was done so easily. That’s what shocked us.”

The vote triggered an avalanche of public scorn, drawing national news coverage and sparking a Change.org petition demanding the board’s removal that had racked up 4,288 signatures by Saturday.

After revisionist scholars accused Columbus of cruelty to the people who once populated the Caribbean islands, municipalities across the US, including New York City, are considering ditching Columbus Day in place of a new holiday, Indigenous Peoples Day. Dozens have done so.

But according to the Ricupero family and other Columbus defenders, the man has gotten a bad rap.

“The history has been so twisted,” Maria said.

Some modern writers, she said, give credence to the biased reports of Francisco de Bobadilla, a Columbus rival who schemed — but failed — to replace him as governor of Hispaniola.

Others accuse Columbus of genocide because he brought European diseases to the Americas. “Germ theory didn’t exist in 1492,” Maria objected. “How can you blame Columbus for spreading disease when he had no idea he was doing it?”

(From right) Maria Ricupero, Chiara Ricupero, and Alfredo Fanelli want to keep Columbus Day on Randolph, NJ school calendar.
(From right) Maria Ricupero, Chiara Ricupero, and Alfredo Fanelli want to keep Columbus Day on the Randolph, NJ school calendar.
Helayne Seidman

Meanwhile, the holiday has deep historical resonance for Italian Americans, who overcame decades of often violent oppression — including the 1891 murder of 11 Italian immigrants at the hands of a New Orleans mob, what some researchers call the nation’s largest mass lynching — as they sought acceptance and assimilation in the US.

“Italian Americans see Columbus as a grandfather almost, as an ancestor, because he was the first Italian to come into this new world,” Chiara explained.

“But he also represents the idea of perseverance through adversity,” she said. “Columbus Day is about remembering the oppression but also celebrating how far we’ve come.”

That, she added, is what has put Columbus Day in social justice warriors’ cross-hairs.

“They want us to only see color; they want us to see the differences between us,” Chiara said. “And they want to believe that they are oppressed.

“Instead of becoming victorious in who they are, they want to be victims.”

The school board will hold an emergency meeting Monday to reconsider the calendar change. A district spokesman refused to comment on the controversy.

“They poked this mama bear,” Randolph resident Tracey McGuire wrote on the protest group’s Facebook page this week. “I am fed up and will be there. Enough is enough.”

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