Monday, October 10, 2005

Día de la Raza

Thanks to Carm for this educational piece.


Día de la Raza

A celebration of the modern Latin American and the contradictions of the Columbus celebration.

To sum up the great profits of this voyage, I am able to promise, for a trifling assistance from your Majesties, any quantity of gold, drugs, cotton, mastic, aloe, and as many slaves for maritime service as your Majesties may stand in need of.
-Christopher Columbus

Hispanics have a particular concern when it comes to the celebration of Columbus. It used to be that Hispanics would argue with Italians over who had more of a claim to the Columbus expedition. While Columbus was Italian, his expeditions were funded and powered by the Iberian nations of Spain and Portugal. These two nations would dominate the European exploration the Western hemisphere in cooperation with the talents of other Latin nations. Today, it seems as if it's everyone versus the
American Indians [] on whether to celebrate the life of Columbus.

For Hispanics, the dilemma is that our cultures and languages [] are heavily influenced by Native Americans (referred to as indios in Latin America). Beyond the influence of indio culture, we share much of the same blood, and therefore history. The same can be said of the Africans who would become slaves in the Americas. Many call the attacks on Columbus revisionist history, but that claim loses weight in light of the fact
that history was being revised as it was written. Every action, regardless how malevolent, was justified in the name of the Church. Our accepted history isn't the work of unbiased intellectuals, but rather religious and political zealots seeking fortune. The rest of the story has also been recorded, but is seldom presented.

It cannot be said that Columbus was simply a product of his times. In every era and region where there has been slavery, there has been an abolitionist. In every era there was brutality, there were voices of opposition and advocacy for the abused. This isn't a case of applying modern morality to past actions, but rather a case of applying any morality at all. Some journalists have tried to turn the tables by
equating the rituals of Aztecs [] and other groups with the brutality of European conquerors in the New World. The
contradiction is that this righteous morality has always been applied to our indio ancestors, but the actions of our European ancestors have always been viewed merely as a product of their time and culture. Most people are aware that cannibalism or human sacrifice existed in the Americas, but those same people often believe that claims of Columbus' legacy of brutality and slavery are fiction. We also accept the idea that widespread slavery and nation-felling were morally acceptable compared to the confined atrocities that occurred in a few of the original indio nations.

In the case of Columbus, his primary moral opponents were Fray Bartolomé de las Casas [] and Queen Isabella. Queen Isabella was a strong advocate of Columbus, his patroness, but she would also finally come to question his policies and would later have him arrested. Fray de las Casas himself left a legacy of paradoxes. He did own Arawak slaves, but was the first to document atrocities against the natives as atrocities and not as righteous
necessities. He argued that they had souls and should be treated with dignity. Unfortunately, he also was one of the first to recommend using Africans instead of the Arawak as slaves.

Columbus was a magnificent navigator and naval commander. Contrary to one of the most widespread urban legends, he was not [] among the first to believe the earth was round. This had been known for centuries. He does have the distinction of being the first European (that we know of) to make conscious repeated journeys while mapping his route to the Americas. Columbus also established the first European government in
the islands and became governor. This is where his image tarnishes. Las Casas, who journeyed with Columbus, would document such horrors as gambling to see who could cut a person in half with one stroke of the sword. This is only the beginning of the documented atrocities.

Columbus' government would be the first to institute an official form of slavery and an active onslaught of brutality against the natives. He would define the rest of the conquest for many. Las Casas is sometimes credited with the Spanish "Black Legend []"
that painted them all as savages.

It is important to note that there were those who behaved with respect towards the Arawak. Queen Isabella recognized the Arawak as her subjects, to be protected and treated with at least a basic sense of dignity. When Columbus sent back hundreds of Taino [] indians to be sold as slaves, Queen Isabella ordered them free and returned to their land.

Eventually, the European colonists and sovereigns became so discontent with Columbus' mismanagement that he was arrested and shipped back to Spain in chains. He spent the rest of his life trying to regain his governorship over Hispaniola [].

The government of Columbus 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. It is an irony that the only two
individuals celebrated with national holidays in the United States of America are Columbus, a man who ended his career in disgrace for his policies over Spanish subjects and cost many their lives, and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., who gave his life fighting for the dignity of every man. Not every sin of the first colonists can be laid at the feet of Columbus. Even he wrote about his colonial subjects, "I take my oath that numbers of men have gone to the Indies who did not deserve water of God or man." Still, you have to wonder how the first meeting of the two hemispheres would have gone if Columbus had applied the same strict management to his own people that he did to the Arawak he conquered.

There's a saying that Columbus landed in 1492 and nine months later the first latinoamericano was born. El Día de la Raza is celebrated on Columbus Day. It either replaces it or is combined with the holiday, depending on the nation celebrating. The U.S. celebrates on the second Monday in October; most of Latin America celebrates it on the 12th. El Día de la Raza[] celebrates the birth of our current identity, with its bittersweet history and contradictions. Our ancestors fought against each other sometimes, fought together other times and created families from the very beginning. Columbus Day won't find me celebrating Columbus, the man, but I will be grateful that I have all the ancestors I do, from all over the globe.

-KJ Balogun