Los Angeles City Councilman Joe Buscaino has long been effusive about his Italian heritage, bringing opera singers to City Hall and posting YouTube videos about his family’s tomato sauce and his parents’ move from Sicily.
Councilman Mitch O’Farrell, a member of the Wyandotte Nation, is equally passionate about his Native American roots. When he took office four years ago, he was sworn in by his tribe’s chief, who performed a traditional blessing at the event.
O’Farrell wants the council to rename the holiday, at least on the city calendar, as Indigenous Peoples Day, arguing that Columbus’ arrival in 1492 resulted in centuries of anguish for the continent’s native population. Buscaino, on the other hand, has been pushing for a different name change — last week, he floated Diversity Day — to prevent Italian Americans who have long celebrated Columbus Day from feeling excluded or replaced.
The two men at the center of the Columbus Day debate come from different worlds. Buscaino, a former officer with the Los Angeles Police Department, grew up in a working-class Italian family in San Pedro. His dad was a commercial fisherman, while his mother skinned fish at a cannery on Terminal Island, according to a video on Buscaino’s Italian heritage.
Since winning election in 2012, Buscaino has used his office to promote the culture and accomplishments of Italy and Italian Americans. He drummed up tens of thousands of dollars from the city budget to support Italian American Heritage Month. Last summer, he took his family — and three council colleagues — on a business and cultural exchange trip to Italy.
O’Farrell, for his part, grew up in a suburb of Oklahoma City, in a section of the state referred to as Tornado Alley. His grandfather twice served as chief of the Wyandotte tribe in Oklahoma. His mother, who worked at one point as a researcher for the Citizen Potawatomi Nation, told stories about performing in powwows and warned there was a darker story behind Columbus Day.
After taking office, O’Farrell has identified funding for Native American Heritage Month and spoken out against the Dakota Access Pipeline project, saying it would harm the ancestral lands of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe.
O’Farrell compared his proposal to the ongoing campaign to remove statues of Confederate military figures from the Civil War.
Emiliano Martinez, a sound engineer who lives in O’Farrell’s district, described Columbus as a symbol of genocide. “He’s the same as Hitler to us,” said Martinez, who is Native American.
O’Farrell’s plan would require the city to celebrate Indigenous Peoples Day on the second Monday in October, the same day as the federal Columbus Day holiday, which serves as a day off for city employees. As part of the proposal, the city would celebrate a separate Italian American Heritage Day on Oct. 12, the day of Columbus’ arrival.
Buscaino has criticized that idea, arguing in the L’Italo-Americano newsletter last year that council members should not “replace one culture for another.” Two months ago, Buscaino unveiled a plan for renaming Columbus Day locally as Immigrant Heritage Day — a move that would have pushed Indigenous Peoples Day to August or September.
In recent days, Buscaino has discussed the idea of having Columbus Day renamed locally as Diversity Day.
“We want a day that’s going to embrace Los Angeles, not divide Los Angeles,” he told The Times last week.