Pride, heritage parade in streets

Columbus Day festivities draw immigrants both old and new to discover Little Italy

October 08, 2007|By Kelly Brewington | Kelly Brewington,Sun reporter

The bocce tournament was in full swing by the time the float carrying the mariachi band came snaking through Little Italy's skinny streets.

A cultural fusion was on display yesterday at the city's 117th Columbus Day parade, complete with a float representing the city's Hispanic Business Association, plenty of local high school marching bands and the standard, and always popular, Frank Sinatra impersonators.

"Columbus opened the door for immigrants to come to the United States," said Angelo Solera, a Hispanic community advocate who helped coordinate the participation of Hispanic businesses. "We are proud to celebrate."

"We'd actually like to see more ethnic communities in Baltimore come out and celebrate this day," said Vince Piscopo, president of the nonprofit Columbus Celebrations Inc. "We think every community can do this together."

The parade culminated in a Little Italy festival featuring an annual bocce tournament, vendors selling Italian wines and performances by Italian tenors.

It was a fitting finale for a place whose Italian heritage was proudly on display, said Ralph Petti, 67, of Perryville. And it was just the excuse he needed to visit the old neighborhood. Though he hasn't lived in Little Italy for six decades, he seemed to know everyone by nickname.

Petti walked through spectators along South Exeter Street, selling handcrafted red, white and green beaded bracelets to raise money for St. Leo Roman Catholic Church. But he ended up giving away just as many as he sold.

"This is the kind of place, that even though you leave, you know that you always belong," he said. "I still feel like this is my neighborhood."

A block away, Gia "Aguia" Blattermann maneuvered her lawn chair into a slice of shade along the bocce court, diligently keeping score. Under the punishing sun, her teammates took part in the 14th annual tournament, sponsored by the Little Italy Community Association.

"We think it's lovely the parade is here," said Blattermann, 60, who still lives in the High Street rowhouse in which she was raised shortly after her family moved to Baltimore from Sicily. "It's like it's happening in our own homes."

A fierce competitor, Blattermann helped make bocce in Little Italy co-ed in 1994, against some protest from her fellow players.

"Some of the men weren't too happy - we have our little disagreements," she said. "But that's how it is sometimes when you are in a big family."

The parade has changed a lot since Sam Culotta first donned period costume impersonating Christopher Columbus in parades through the 1950s. Back then, the parade route ran from City Hall to Druid Hill Park and the crowd was huge, he said.

He boasts that over 62 years, he missed only one parade - when he was in the hospital having heart surgery. Yesterday, he strode along the parade route in a Colonial-looking cape, while friend Don Castronova portrayed Columbus atop a nearby gondola. As Culotta passed the grandstand, the crowd gave him a rousing applause.

Culotta, 83, fell into the role of Columbus, taking over for his uncle, who portrayed the Italian explorer in parades years earlier.

"It's just tradition," he said. He still attends regular Sons of Italy meetings, where he says third- and forth-generation immigrants make up a "very faithful nucleus," constantly gathering for family events and revelry.

Said Culotta: "We have a lot of pride."

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