What We Owe Columbus (And What We Don’t)

Oct 12, 2015
10:59 AM
Statue of Cristóbal Colón in Barcelona, Spain (Andrew Moore/Flickr)

Statue of Cristóbal Colón in Barcelona, Spain (Andrew Moore/Flickr)

I hated my father for a long time. Maybe hate is too strong a word; let’s say my thoughts about him were consumed by a smoldering resentment: first for what he did to my family, then for what he didn’t do — namely, stick around. Yet even now I cannot deny that a small part of me still loves him deeply, if only for the mere fact that he gave me life.

And so it is with Christopher Columbus for many, if not most Latinos. His name stirs up painful memories but, nonetheless, he is the man who started it all. He is why they’re here. The point was made in a recent op-ed by Jonathan Marcantoni, who made a strong effort to remind us that, despite how much liberals love patting themselves on the backs for their public curses of the man who stumbled upon the Americas in 1492, Latin America, the United States and indeed perhaps the entire world would not exist as it does today were it not for that happy and tragic accident.

While I think no serious person can deny the debt Latinos owe Colón (if I may use his Spanish name) for their very existence, I fail to understand why Marcantoni and so many others insist that there be a day dedicated to the man, along with statutes, parks, avenues and other honors. Latinos can of course acknowledge the pivotal role that men like Colón have played in their heritage without rewarding undue praise for what he did. The Columbian voyages precipitated one of the most horrific rapes of land and humanity in the whole history of the world; from those atrocities, however, from the rubble of once great civilizations, arose new nations and cultures that would one day rival those they replaced. Latinos are the product of a vicious historical crime, and they know that well enough. But as with the children born of violence done to their mothers, they would rather not see monuments built in the ravager’s honor.

Obviously we cannot blame Colón for every drop of blood spilt, every rape, every lash of the whip perpetrated during the over 300 years of colonial rule, but he did set a precedent that others would follow. Was it not Colón himself who, after meeting the Arawaks in the Bahamas, wrote in his log how “with fifty men we could subjugate them all and meek them do whatever we want”? Was it not the admiral’s men who stalked the island of Hispaniola in search of gold to seize, women to rape, and children to enslave? Was it not he who loaded 500 natives onto ships and sent them to Spain, where the surviving half were sold into slavery? We shouldn’t judge him for the actions taken by those who followed his map, but surely he is to blame for the barbarity committed by those who followed his example.

Much has been made of the barbarity displayed by the indigenous peoples themselves, notably the Aztec, who slaughtered thousands of people during the four-day reconsecration of the Great Pyramid at Tenochtitlan. In his essay Marcantoni makes a point to say that the indigenous peoples who met either a bloody or sickly end at hands of the conquistadors were not all “pure-hearted, highly-evolved, peace-loving victims.” He quickly adds that he isn’t suggesting the natives “deserved what happened to them,” but then why mention the savagery of the Native Americans in a defense of Colón? The indigenous peoples whom the first Europeans met indeed were just as brutal as they in many ways. However, blood does not wash away blood.

“Injustice most definitely occurred under Spanish rule,” Marcantoni writes, “but from a historical perspective, such cruelty is commonplace, and may just be a part of human nature.” That may be so, but again that doesn’t make it any less unjust. One cannot judge morality of certain behavior based on how often it occurs, for if that were the case, it would seem school shootings are becoming less and less immoral by the week.

At this point I find myself thinking about the founders of the United States, who are praised by nearly all North Americans even though they believed and committed incredibly vile stuff. Thomas Jefferson of course is the man who both wrote that “all men are created free” and raped his wife’s enslaved half-sister Sally. Her six children were born into slavery and were freed by Jefferson only when they reached adulthood, though Sally officially remained a slave into her fifties. George Washington owned over 100 slaves, only one of whom he freed during his lifetime, though his will did grant freedom to the rest. Notwithstanding their sins, no one is calling for Washington to be removed from the one-dollar bill or arguing the complete baseness of Jefferson’s legacy. After all, it was a Black civil rights leader who famously relied on Jefferson’s words nearly two centuries after they were written.

Dominican girls dressed in Taíno costume (Global Panorama/Flickr)

Dominican girls dressed in Taíno costume (Global Panorama/Flickr)

Ultimately, the question is what to do with Colón and his holiday. Fortunately, the question already has an answer: the alternative observance of Indigenous Peoples’ Day. Beginning in the Seventies, as historians and history teachers developed more critical approaches to American history, people started tempering their reverence for Colón and his so-called “achievement” — which was really just an accident fueled by ignorance and greed — deciding that it wasn’t such a great idea to dedicate a day to someone whose mere haplessness unleashed centuries of slavery and destruction. By 1992, the quincentennial of Colón’s arrival in the Americas, a group of activists had pushed the city of Berkeley, California to replace Columbus Day with Indigenous Peoples’ Day, a day on which to consider how Native American societies were affected by the European invasion. Four states — Hawaii, Alaska, Oregon and South Dakota — do not observe Columbus Day whatsoever, with Hawaii and South Dakota using the day to commemorate the states’ Polynesian ancestors and Native American heritage, respectively. Other locales have traditionally celebrated Italian heritage, as Colón is widely believed to have been Genoese by birth (though some evidence now suggests he may not have been Italian at all). Of course, throughout much of Latin America, the second Monday in October goes by another name: Día de la Raza, which admittedly is a dumb designation, since there is no race, Latino or otherwise. (A Día del Pueblo would be more fitting, but it’s still problematic.)

I prefer Day of the Americas, which is what’s celebrated in Belize and Uruguay. While honoring the indigenous peoples who first called this continent home, it also pays tribute to the first Europeans who settled here, people who came not to pillage and do harm, but to start a new life in a new world — just as those who immigrate to the United States have done for the past 200 years. It is due to the sacrifice of so many indigenous lives — not to mention the slaves dragged here from across the sea — as well as the pioneering spirit of many Europeans, that created the conditions which would eventually bring this writer into existence along with millions of others.

Ironically, those who continue to observe Columbus Day merely focus on the most unfortunate aspect of American histories and cultures, specifically how they came to be. That would be like a person naming his birthday after the man who raped his mother. Certainly those who understand and appreciate the full history that begin on October 12, 1492 want to remember what Colón and the other conquistadors (and Christian missionaries) did, because forgetting Colón would be just as bad as celebrating him. But placing his bumbling, bloodthirsty voyage at the center of that history misses the forest for the trees: the Americas (and the world) are what they are today largely due to who Colón was and what he did, but that doesn’t make the peoples of the Americas Columbian; we’re American, all of us, from Hudson Bay to the Straits of Magellan (both named for European explorers, incidentally).

Tomb of Cristóbal Colón in Seville, Spain (Miguel Ángel/Creative Commons)

Tomb of Cristóbal Colón in Seville, Spain (Miguel Ángel/Creative Commons)

The man they called Don Cristóbal Colón died in 1506 and, after stays in Santo Domingo and Havana, was interned at the Catedral de Santa María de la Sede in Seville, Spain. Today may mark the anniversary of when, at two o’clock in the morning, one of Colón’s men aboard the La Pinta first reported “¡Tierra! ¡Tierra!” but today is not Colón’s day; it belongs to the peoples produced by the lethal wake of his voyages. Latinos are one of those peoples, who came about not by Colon’s so-called “discovery” of these lands, but by the centuries of daily interaction, exchange and struggle that ensued.

By observing Day of the Americas instead of Columbus Day, the peoples of Latin America and North America, along with the indigenous, choose not to commemorate where they came from, but where they are going; not who their forebears were, but what their futures hold for them. In that way, October 12 becomes a celebration not of death, but of life.


Hector Luis Alamo is a Chicago-based writer and the deputy editor at Latino Rebels. You can connect with him @HectorLuisAlamo.