Columbus Day: The Contradictions of The Columbus Celebration

Date Put forth on October 8, 2007 by XicanoPwr
Category Posted in Columbus Day, History/Historia, Immigration, Indigenous/Indígena, Raza


Today, youth across the nation are told by our government that Christopher Columbus merits honor and celebration because it marks the arrival of Columbus to the Americas. Most nations of the Americas observe this holiday on October 12, but in the United States the annual observance takes place on the second Monday in October. It was Franklin Roosevelt who first suggested in 1934 that all states adopt October 12 as Columbus Day, later in 1971, under Richard Nixon; the second Monday of October officially became established as a federal holiday to honor the explorer.

The October 12th celebration is commonly known in many countries in Latin America as Día de la Raza, a holiday that is comparatively recent. Before I go on, it is important to address the meaning of “la raza” because I can already hear the complaints how the name of the holiday is just more proof raza means “race.” The Spanish the word raza carries the meaning of an extended community bound by cultural ties in addition to those carrying similar physical traits. During that time, the word raza was used in a cultural sense to reference the contended affinity between Spanish-speaking peoples on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean. However, one must also be aware that during the early 20th century it was not surprising to find intellectuals employ racist theories because this was also the height of the eugenics movement.

The origin of Día de la Raza or Fiesta de la Raza goes back to the beginning of last century. In 1913, Faustino Rodriguez San Pedro, Chairman of Iberoamerican Union, proposed that 12th October be called Fiesta de la Raza and be celebrated throughout Spain and Latin America. Spain would later change the rename the holiday to Fiesta de la Hispanidad. In Costa Rica it is called Día de las Culturas and in the Bahamas it is called Discovery Day.

In 2002, Venezuela decided not to recognize Columbus and instead honor the native populations who suffered at the hands of Columbus and the Spanish conquistadores who came after him in their search for gold. Venezuelans refer to October 12 as Día de la Resistencia Indigena (Day of Indigenous Resistance).

The problem that arises among some Latinas/os is that our cultures and languages are heavily influenced by Native Americans. While people celebrate Columbus Day, it is crucial that we remember what this day represents because we cannot escape our past, and we shall never move forward unless we reconcile ourselves to our past and to nuestros hermanos y hermanas across the little river. Our accepted history is not the work of unbiased intellectuals, but rather religious and political zealots seeking fortune. In the US, Native Americans were dispossessed, subjected to mass murder, and locked on separate, Apartheid-style “reservations.” The same can be said of the Africans who would become slaves in the Americas. Every action was justified in the name of the Church.

The only reason Queen Isabella and King Ferdinand finally agreed to sponsor Columbus in 1492 was largely due to Isabella’s desire to spread Christianity and to compete with Portugal for new sources of wealth. The first thing Columbus did after arriving on shore was to take possession of this new land in the name of the Spanish throne, imposing a European bureaucratic order and intellectual structure over a region that did not practice these particular customs. The ship’s recorder entered in his journal on Thursday, October 11, 1492, the following:

The Admiral [Columbus] called upon the two Captains, and the rest of the crew who landed, as also to Rodrigo de Escovedo notary of the fleet, and Rodrigo Sanchez, of Segovia, to bear witness that he before all others took possession (as in fact he did) of that island for the King and Queen his sovereigns, making the requisite declarations, which are more at large set down here in writing.

Mainstream history is often perverse; it tends to cherry pick certain historical documents and overlooks others, such as Columbus’s own journals and letters. These documents reveal how Columbus had the authority take possession of the New World through the power of the word. Historian Stephen Greenblatt writes, “For Columbus taking possession is principally the performance of a set of linguistic acts: declaring, witnessing, recording” By declaring that the island was nonexistent to inhabitants, it allowed Columbus to rename the lands, rivers, peoples, and the authority to kidnap the natives and force them to learn Spanish and convert to Christianity. The power of the word was nothing short of a christening of the New World under Spanish rule. Greenblatt notes, “Such a christening entails the cancellation of the native name – the erasure of the alien, perhaps demonic, identity – and hence a kind of making new; it is at once an exorcism, an appropriation, and a gift”

Throughout history, we have widely accepted the view that the extinction of these peoples at the hands of the Spanish should be seen as a blessing and for all of its cruelty. We are also told that the rituals of the Aztecs and other indigenous groups equal the brutality of European conquerors in the New World. The contradiction is that this righteous morality has always been applied to our indigenous ancestors, but the actions of our European ancestors have always been viewed merely as a product of their time and culture. We also accept the view that widespread slavery was morally acceptable compared to the confined atrocities that occurred in a few of the original indigenous nations.

It is easy for history to be lost, to seep through the cracks of cultural memory. In this time of historical amnesia, questioning the nature of history is relevant to current political discourse. What is often left out is how the Spanish Inquisition also played an important role in the “New World.” The inquisition was controlled by King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella and carrying out the task, Ferdinand and Isabella appointed a Dominican monk, Tomas de Torquemada as the Inquisitor General. Although the Spanish Inquisition has achieved the greatest historical notoriety, the Portuguese institution was regarded as being more rigorous and cruel. The Portuguese inquisitors were sadly known as “devours of human flesh.”

The establishment of the Holy Office of the Inquisition in Spain in 1478, the expulsion of the Jews from Spain in 1492, and the admission of almost 100,000 Spanish Jews into Portugal are backdrops to the colonial history. The methods of the Spanish Inquisition, like all forms of Christian religious trials, were the negation of every principle of justice known to man. No age group was spared the horrors of the Spanish Inquisition. Records showed that women as old as ninety and girls as young as thirteen were either tortured or burnt.

The genocide of indigenous peoples and the annihilation of age-old civilizations known as the Black Legend of Christopher Columbus’ “discovery” of the New World and has been recorded by Fray Bartolomé de las Casas. Prior to Columbus’ return trip to Hispaniola, Pope Alexander VI issued his papal bull Inter Caetera, which gave and granted the regions and lands discovered beyond the Atlantic to the kings of Castile and their successors.

We have indeed learned that you, who for a long time had intended to seek out and discover certain islands and mainlands remote and unknown and not hitherto discovered by others, to the end that you might bring to the worship of our Redeemer and the profession of the Catholic faith their residents and inhabitants, having been up to the present time greatly engaged in the siege and recovery of the kingdom itself of Granada were unable to accomplish this holy and praiseworthy purpose; but the said kingdom having at length been regained, as was pleasing to the Lord, you, with the wish to fulfill your desire, chose our beloved son, Christopher Columbus, a man assuredly worthy and of the highest recommendations and fitted for so great an undertaking, whom you furnished with ships and men equipped for like designs, not without the greatest hardships, dangers, and expenses, to make diligent quest for these remote and unknown mainlands and islands through the sea, where hitherto no one had sailed; and they at length, with divine aid and with the utmost diligence sailing in the ocean sea, discovered certain very remote islands and even mainlands that hitherto had not been discovered by others; wherein dwell very many peoples living in peace, and, as reported, going unclothed, and not eating flesh. Moreover, as your aforesaid envoys are of opinion, these very peoples living in the said islands and countries believe in one God, the Creator in heaven, and seem sufficiently disposed to embrace the Catholic faith and be trained in good morals. And it is hoped that, were they instructed, the name of the Savior, our Lord Jesus Christ, would easily be introduced into the said countries and islands. Also, on one of the chief of these aforesaid islands the said Christopher has already caused to be put together and built a fortress fairly equipped, wherein he has stationed as garrison certain Christians, companions of his, who are to make search for other remote and unknown islands and mainlands. … And we make, appoint, and depute you and your said heirs and successors lords of them with full and free power, authority, and jurisdiction of every kind; with this proviso however, that by this our gift, grant, and assignment no right acquired by any Christian prince, who may be in actual possession of said islands and mainlands prior to the said birthday of our Lord Jesus Christ, is hereby to be understood to be withdrawn or taken away. Moreover we command you in virtue of holy obedience that, employing all due diligence in the premises, as you also promise — nor do we doubt your compliance therein in accordance with your loyalty and royal greatness of spirit — you should appoint to the aforesaid mainlands and islands worthy, God-fearing, learned, skilled, and experienced men, in order to instruct the aforesaid inhabitants and residents in the Catholic faith and train them in good morals.

This papal command marked the beginning of colonization and Catholic Missions in the New World. What is not told in our history books, upon Columbus’s return to Hispaniola with 17 ships and more than 1,200 men, he ordered the enslavement of six indigenous women for the purpose of allowing his crew to rape them. In eight years, Columbus’s men murdered more than 100,000 Indians on Haiti alone. Overall, dying as slaves in the mines, or directly murdered, or from diseases brought to the Caribbean by the Spaniards, over 3 million Indian people were murdered between 1494 and 1508.

What Columbus did to the indigenous in the Caribbean, Cortez did to the Aztecs of Mexico, Pizarro to the Incas of Peru, and the English settlers of Virginia and Massachusetts to the Powhatans and the Pequots. Columbus’ government was brutal and violated human dignity and the moral senses of his contemporaries. He was the first to establish institutions of slavery and brutal conquest that would lead to the demise of the nations and people who already called the Western Hemisphere their home. He is also responsible for completing the modern Latin American identity by introducing Europeans, Africans and Asians to the family identity of the Americas.

Growing up, we are told that Columbus should be hailed as a brave explorer whose daring, perseverance, and navigational knowledge led to the “discovery” of America. In reality, this country honors a man who opened the Atlantic slave trade and launched one of the greatest waves of genocide known in history. And because of this, we live in a culture that includes the principle that if somebody else has something we need, and they won’t give it to us, and we have the means to kill them to get it, it’s not unreasonable to go get it, using whatever force we need to. We are also taught to spin historical atrocities to deflect accountability and avoid responsibility. To this day, the Catholic Church denies taking part in the greatest waves of genocide known in history and is spinning the black legend, claiming it is a negative propaganda campaign developed in the 1500’s by the English and Dutch to demean Spanish history, culture, and character of Hispanic people.

So it should not be a surprise in this colonial society “whiteness” is still being rewarded and “Indianness” continues to be stigmatized. Many of the colonized are quick to forsake their native culture in a quest to become more “white,” both physically and culturally. The desire to shed one’s native ethnic identity is one of the most devastating consequences of colonization. In short, life since 1492 has been a process of de-Indianization – the quest to consciously and unconsciously separate ourselves from our indigenous roots.

Praised for its socio-political critique of American society, I Am Joaquin by Rodolfo “Corky” Gonzales remains at the core of Chicano cultural identity. I acknowledge I am the conqueror and conquered, however, you won’t find me celebrating Columbus on Columbus Day.

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6 Comments

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  1. Gravatar Icon Nezua Limon Xolagrafik-Jonez Oct 9th, 2007 at 5:46 am

    great post, ‘mano.

    I AM THE MASSES OF MY PEOPLE AND I WILL NOT BE ABSORBED!!!

  2. Gravatar Icon Blogesque Oct 9th, 2007 at 8:50 am

    It will never cease to amaze me that even with all that Church-approved rapine, pillage and plunder, Central and South America are the biggest remaining Catholic strongholds in the world. The Catholic Church is responsible for those horrors of history every bit as much as Spain is, yet it seems the Church is rarely criticized as harshly as the Spaniards. In fact, it often escapes criticism altogether.

    Christopher Hitchens is right: religion poisons everything.

  3. Gravatar Icon luisa Oct 9th, 2007 at 9:05 pm

    great post!

    “We are also told that the rituals of the Aztecs and other indigenous groups equal the brutality of European conquerors in the New World. The contradiction is that this righteous morality has always been applied to our indigenous ancestors, but the actions of our European ancestors have always been viewed merely as a product of their time and culture. We also accept the view that widespread slavery was morally acceptable compared to the confined atrocities that occurred in a few of the original indigenous nations.”

    well said.

    every so often, columbus day falls of my birthday. this was that sad year.

  4. Gravatar Icon CSTAR Oct 9th, 2007 at 11:41 pm

    One thing which your post raises in my mind is the issue of “la hispanidad”. On the one hand one can legitimately view this concept as artificial, fundamentally racist and exclusionist. Why exclude portuguese speakers for example, now quite numerous in the US, particularly in New England. On the other hand, it is “la hispanidad” which ultimately may link the very (economically and culturally) diverse spanish-speaking diaspora in the united states, particularly in these trying times of hostility towards immigrants. I don’t consider myself a nationalist of any kind, but yet I do feel solidarity to those that share my native tongue (the language spoken to me in the crib), and my sympathies lie with them regardless of their legal status in this country or of other considerations.

    I don’t have an answer to these questions, but these are issues worth thinking about.

    In any case, you provided a good thoughtful post! Thanks.

  5. Gravatar Icon XicanoPwr Oct 10th, 2007 at 7:51 am

    Blogesque – I guess it is easy to blame a person or a group of people for the rape and pillaging than it is to blame a whole institution. I guess if you are able to instill fear for centuries, it makes it harder to break away.

    luisa – Thank you. I am assuming October 8 was your birthday. In that case, happy belated birthday.

    CSTAR – I have wondered about that too. I know Brazil’s main language is Portuguese and was part of the Portuguese empire. In a technical sense, Hispania did include Portugal. You do provide some food for thought.

  6. Gravatar Icon Michaelr Oct 10th, 2007 at 11:19 am

    This is an important piece of information…great post. I wholeheartedly agree that Christopher Columbus should not be honored. His contribution to history bears too much resemblance to Adolf Hitler and Pol Pot. So much of the fiction taught in public schools, is passed off as history, and once it’s labeled as history it is passed off as fact. Confronting the past is as ugly as observing the present European domination of the planet began with this man. Christopher Columbus was a vital cog in establishing the caste system that still exists today in the Western Hemisphere. Only Gold, Glory, and Slavery was on his mind when he set out from Palos, Spain.

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