THE COLUMBUS CONTROVERSY

ImageBy Dan La Botz

We in the United States celebrate Columbus Day mostly because of the enormous immigration of Italians that took place in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Some 4.1 million Italians entered the United States between 1880 and 1920, more than any other group in so short a time until the contemporary Mexican immigration. The white, Protestant, Anglo-Saxons who claimed descent from the original founders of American looked down at the Italians because their complexions were dark and their religion was Catholic.

In a desire to be accepted in the United States, the Italians argued that an Italian from Genoa, Christopher Columbus, though he had sailed for the Spanish Catholic Ferdinand and Isabella, had been the real discover of America. By the time of the four-hundredth anniversary in 1892, Columbus Day had become associated with American patriotism, nationalism and Americanization campaigns meant to uplift the unwashed and benighted Southern and Eastern Europeans.

The Italians could thus claim that they had gotten here even before the English Protestants landed the Mayflower at Plymouth Rock. The decades long Italian fight for the inclusion of Columbus Day in the country’s calendar was finally won by the lobbying of the Catholic Church’s Knights of Columbus and the U.S. Congress and President Franklin Delano Roosevelt made October 12, Columbus Day, a national holiday.

Columbus may well have been Genoese, though the matter is disputed, but whether or not he should be seen as a forerunner of the United States is a matter of debate. Columbus’ motivation in searching for a route from Europe to Asia was to be able to help finance another Christian Crusade to take back Jerusalem and the Holy Lands from the Muslims. When he arrived in the Caribbean and first saw the natives, Columbus described them as being as beautiful and innocent as Adam and Even in the Garden of Eden, and in the next breath suggested that they could be enslaved to pay for the further exploration and conquest of what he had not yet recognized was the New World. He did in fact capture and enslave some Indians and carried them to Europe, though Isabella ordered that they be freed and returned. When European diseases unknown to the Indians caused massive epidemics that eventually wiped out 90 percent of the indigenous population, the Spaniard imported African slaves to work in the mines and plantations of Spanish America.

The Day of the Race

In Mexico, as a result of a series of revolutions in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, the small Spanish ruling group, the white elite of landlords and merchants, was forced to cede power to a new more modernized capitalist class made up of mestizos, that is, people of mixed race. As a result mestizaje or race mixing became a kind of national ideal. So since1928 Mexico has celebrated October 12 as El Día de la Raza or the day of the race, meaning the new race created by the mixing of the Spaniards with the Indians who were the continents indigenous inhabitants and with the Africans who had been brought as slaves.

In Mexico City, where I lived for some time, there is a park with a beautiful set of statues on a huge scale, perhaps 30 feet long with three somewhat larger than life figures which might be said to depict the reality of El Día de la Raza. In the middle is a statue of beautiful child about a year-old, perhaps taking his first step toward the viewer. On the right hand side is a Spanish conquistador in his armor, his sword raised in a heroic stance. And on the left is an Indian woman sitting in a chair, behind her a shield and the broken bows, arrows and spears of what we know to be her deceased father, brother, and perhaps her husband. As Mexicans know only too well, the mestizo is the product of war, murder, rape and subjugation.

Meanwhile, in the United States since the 1980s rightwing conservatives have embraced Columbus Day as representing Western values in the face of the threat from other forces from socialism to Islam. They argue that Columbus should be seen, as one source puts it, “as a representative of the spirit of inquiry, Christian religious zeal, and the notable achievements of Western Civilization.”

The Day of Resistance

When the 500th anniversary of Columbus’ so-called “discovery” of America came along—I say so-called because the indigenous people had discovered America several thousand years before—a great international debate took place concerning the proposed celebration of the event. The indigenous people, especially where they are most numerous in Bolivia, Peru, Guatemala, Mexico, but also in Canada and the United States, objected vehemently to the idea of celebrating either Columbus Day or the Day of the Race. So October 12, 1992 was widely celebrated throughout the Americas as the Day of Indigenous Resistance, though it evolved into a day of resistance of all of the oppressed of whatever nationality. Clearly the significance of October 12 has become a touchstone for understanding attitudes toward war, conquest, racism, and even rape. One might best celebrate the day by asking whether or not we want to place ourselves in the Columbian tradition of conquest or in the indigenous tradition of resistance. As for myself, I will go with the latter.

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