Proscribing Columbus Day
“Columbus sailed the ocean blue in fourteen hundred and ninety-two.” It was in our history books, and our classroom teacher took special care every October to teach us the one-line chant. I never missed the question about Columbus when it came up on school tests; I had memorized the line. I had also colored a picture, always staying in the lines, of Columbus’ three ships and took it home. Mom and Dad never said a word; they weren’t Italian and didn’t care what Columbus had done.
Yet Columbus’ name and his deeds have lived on for over 500 years, and, every October, we take a close look at this Italian seafarer and wonder about his origins, his thoughts, and learn of the loss of favor he suffered in his later years when the Spanish royalty turned on him, took his governorship away and stripped him of landholdings that were promised to his descendants.
Born in Genoa, Italy, sometime before October 31, 1451, Columbus earned a reputation as a maritime explorer for the Crown of Castile, after convincing King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella that he could find a short route to Asia that would eliminate rounding the southern coast of Africa. With a blessing from the royal couple and a mandate to accomplish what he had pledged to do, he set sail.
Life took an astonishing turn of events for Columbus when he anchored in what is now the Bahamas on October 12, 1492. His three ships, the Niña, the Pinta and the Santa María, arrived on the shores of an island he named San Salvador. Later he would explore Hispañola (today the Dominican Republic and Haiti) and other nearby islands in the Caribbean. He noted that the Indian tribes he encountered were “kind and gentle,” yet this did not stop him from beginning a campaign of domination and enslavement, which would be the undoing of the so-called “savages” who inhabited the regions he claimed for Spain.
Had the native Taino Indians known that their civilization would be destroyed by the newcomers, they might have taken up arms and vanquished Columbus and his sailors before they got off their ships, but, they did not know their own dark future.
By 1836, the gloriousness of Columbus’ exploration of the New World was challenged by Oaxacan historian, Don Carlos María de Bustamante, and he declared that October 12, 1492, was the most villainous day in history, as it established slavery in America. However, in 1892, 400 years after the landing of Columbus, Mexico was still celebrating Columbus’ achievements, rejoicing in the discovery of America and the advancement of European culture westward.
Twenty-six years later, in 1918, Antonio Caso also took a less sanguine view of the Columbian experience; instead of praising European domination, he turned his attention to the people who had risen from the epoch of subjugation: La Raza, the people of mixed indigenous and European blood. In 1928, Mexico officially declared the Día de la Raza as a national holiday. José Vasconcelos, Mexican philosopher and politician, expanded the concept of La Raza to that of a universal race encompassing all ethnicities: La Raza cósmica.
In recent decades, the questioning of Columbus’ stature as the “discoverer” of the new continent has been supported by the realization that other explorers had preceded him in the Americas, such as the Norsemen of Scandinavia. Mexican Americans, Latinos and Chicanos have all joined forces in downplaying the importance of Columbus Day, and now prefer to celebrate Día de la Raza.
Stella Pope Duarte was born and raised in South Phoenix. She began her award-winning career in 1995 after she had a dream in which her deceased father told her that her destiny was to become a writer. Contact her at stellapopeduarte.com.