As we all know, annual celebrations of Columbus have been under assault for decades, with cities and states across the country either flat-out eliminating them or supplanting them with celebrations honoring Native Americans.
The latest major municipality to deep six Columbus Day was Los Angeles, where the city council voted 14-1 to replace it with Indigenous People’s Day following a fractious public hearing that attracted national media attention.
But here in Illinois, our celebration still stands and Native Americans have a day of their own, thanks to the quiet persistence of one man.
It can be argued that Anthony DeLuca was born to play a pivotal role in the preservation of Columbus Day.
The grandson of Italian immigrants, he grew up in southwest suburban Chicago Heights, working for most of his early life at his family’s waste removal business.
“I’m a proud American of Italian descent,” DeLuca shares. “I have such fond memories of our traditional Christmas and Easter celebrations, and we regularly attended the San Lorenzo fest and Festa Italiana.”
The Admiral of the Ocean Sea also played a key role in shaping his sense of identity. “When I think of my grandparents and the struggles they went through, and the difficult road my parents had to travel, working so hard in such a tough business, Columbus was an icon to them,” he explains.
DeLuca bought his first home in Chicago Heights in 1993, transitioning to the public sector soon afterward. An eight-year stint as a school board member, secretary and president was followed by six years as mayor, culminating in his election to the House of Representatives in 2009.
“I loved working in my family’s business but I found my true calling in public service,” he says. “I feel passionately about serving my community and it’s gratifying to have a positive impact on the lives of so many people.”
Along the way, he picked up an array of skills that served him well when Columbus Day came under assault.
“If you’re facing opposition, you need commitment, determination, organization and the desire to see things through, but you also have to be diplomatic,” he says. “You need to meet people where they are, explain it in terms that they can relate to, address their concern, and treat them as fellow human beings in order to garner their support.”
When he received word that a colleague was about to introduce a resolution into the State Government Administration Committee that would replace Columbus Day with Indigenous People’s Day, he made an impassioned plea that led to a partial victory, but DeLuca didn’t stop there.
“The resolution was amended so that both celebrations occurred on the same day, but that wasn’t acceptable,” he explains.
So DeLuca took his appeal directly to the committee. “It got pretty emotional,” he recalls. “I explained what Columbus Day meant to my grandparents, my parents and me. One of the things I remember clearly is how surprised the members were at how important the issue is to Italian Americans.”
The vote went DeLuca’s way, after which he worked hand-in-hand with the sponsor of the original resolution to craft an addendum to a bill that kept Columbus Day on the second Monday in October and declared the last Monday in September Indigenous People’s Day. The House and Senate unanimously passed the bill, and Governor Rauner signed it.
“Not too many bills win the unanimous approval of both chambers and the governor,” DeLuca proudly notes. “It demonstrated a strong to commitment to both days in the state of Illinois.”
It also demonstrated DeLuca’s skills as a legislator, as well as the ability of the right person in the right place at the right time to make a huge difference.