In Defiance of Columbus Day

Editor’s Note: We asked our regular contributors to share their thoughts about one of the most controversial topics we can think about. Yesterday, we shared Jonathan’s views. Today, we share Néstor David’s response.


So Jonathan Marcantoni’s article defending the celebration of Columbus Day basically relies on the following points. First, we shouldn’t mythologize historical figures or hold them up to modern standards, otherwise known as presentism (I learned a new term). That’s fair I suppose. Then his argument completely goes to hell.

After making the case for a more reasonable interpretation of the man, the myth, Colombo himself, Marcantoni places the emphasis on the symbolic value of Columbus Day, which is pretty much the same concept as blaming Columbus for everything that happened after 1492. It’s just a different set of priorities. People may think they hate Christopher Columbus, but they’re mostly projecting that negative connotation on the historical legacy of colonialism. So whether positive or negative, the symbolic value of Columbus Day is the only constant. Furthermore, Marcantoni ascribes the mestizaje of cultures to this symbolic understanding of Columbus’s legacy. Again, that is the exact same thing as hating Columbus for what he represents and giving him credit for something he didn’t personally do. He didn’t sail across the Atlantic to fulfill the Neo-Baroque wet dream of Alejo Carpentier or promulgate ‘la quinta raza.’ So if Americans are suckers for myths, then throw Marcantoni’s article on the pile.

Moving on, mass genocide and disease happen to be conflated with Columbus’s legacy, like it or not. History is as much perception as it is facts… you know, if we’re going for that whole raw interpretation thing. Legacy is the same as having a brand and right now, Christopher Columbus is the Volkswagen of historical figures. I’m not saying he should be blamed for these things, but again, you can’t give Columbus credit for the joining of two different continents if you’re going to ignore the consequences of his actions. Conversely, you can’t give George Washington credit for the New Deal.

Next, we are supposed to ignore Columbus the slave owner and tyrant. Why? Because “the natural state of man is manipulative and selfish, and that goodness is the real anomaly.” Woah, I thought we were talking about history and facts. When did we step into a philosophy classroom to discuss ethics? It’s one thing to acknowledge the atrocities committed by the Aztecs and Incas, but quite another to let yourself get carried away–not unlike Washington Irving writing a biography about Christopher Columbus that contributed to the myth that he thought the world was flat. Moreover, we’re not talking about good versus evil. We’re talking about winners and losers. History is written by the victors. Walter Benjamin said that…and then it became history.

The losers in this case had their history erased, cultures destroyed, and land taken away. Did the Europeans do it intentionally and unrepentantly? Who the fuck cares? Of course the Spanish utilized the things they learned from the indigenous cultures. Haven’t you ever heard the story of Thanksgiving? It’s called survival and tact. Moreover, the Spaniards did way more to destroy native cultures than preserve them. It’s more of a question of what survived rather than what was left behind. Diego de Landa is just one example of someone from the clergy that went out of his way to erase the history of indigenous peoples. He would probably laugh at the idea that the book he wrote, a guide to help facilitate future evangelization, helped researchers decipher the Mayan alphabet and provide documentation of Mayan culture and religion. The Spanish did leave behind their own firsthand accounts–many of which are rife with exaggerations and inaccuracies. No fact checkers back then, so what we get is what we get. Hell, even the guy who tried to protect the indigenous people is a controversial figure. You can’t cite Bartolomé de las Casas without mentioning that in his early writings he advocated the use of African slaves instead of indigenous ones. So even when the Spanish tried to help, they caused more suffering, i.e. the Transatlantic Slave Trade. Bartolomé eventually reformed his beliefs, but the damage was done…kind of like the way Columbus casually suggests in his first letter after his first voyage to the Americas that it would be pretty sweet for Spain to colonize these islands he found.


So why celebrate Columbus Day? Because history is just a cycle of 1492s and migration is great? Wait, I thought we were trying to avoid broad assertions? Also, Darwinism? A hardened stance against nostalgia and sentimental mythologies among the Latino community? Don’t mind my sarcasm, I just find this to be an extremely poor attempt at critical thinking.

For example, you can’t belittle the idea of reviving ancient cultures in one paragraph and then state that human history is a long series of rebirth. That’s a horrible contradiction. Rebirth and revival are synonyms.

Here’s the only salient point the author seems capable of making:

We can recognize the enormous loss of life and knowledge that occurred as a result of European conquest without denying that the conquest is also a part of who we are.

The only difference I have with that assertion is the context in which we interpret it and Columbus Day is definitely one of the weaker options. At the very least, Día de la Raza acknowledges the hybridization of cultures without subsuming the complicated legacy of one man. Then again, I also believe that attempts to rebrand Columbus Day as Indigenous Peoples Day goes one step further in preserving the legacy of what was lost. We already know what was gained through colonization and I know I wouldn’t exist without it, but it’s selfish to think that I should be grateful when it must also be reconciled with over 500 years of mourning. Also, there’s approximately 60 million indigenous people in the Americas. Are they celebrating, too?

Lastly, it should also be known that Columbus Day exists in the United States for two reasons:

  1. After the American Revolution, the United States sought to distance itself from England in order to establish its own national identity. Fair enough. John Cabot, another Italian explorer, had already been recognized by the British Empire as a pioneer for his voyages to the North American mainland–only a few years after Columbus sailed to the Caribbean. The United States, in looking for a suitable national hero, picked Columbus over Cabot to distinguish itself from England.
  2. In 1934, the Knights of Columbus, the world’s largest Catholic fraternal service organization, successfully lobbied President FDR and Congress to declare Columbus Day a federal holiday.

So that’s the history of Columbus Day: bureaucracy and petty nationalism. Hurray!


Néstor David Pastor runs social media for Radio Ambulante. He’s a writer, a musician, a grad student and, oh yeah, a Puerto Rican and Peruvian all-star. Follow him @n_davidpastor.

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