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Columbus Day/Indigenous Peoples Day Thoughts
Alfredo Ramos Martínez, La Malinche (Young Girl of Yalala, Oaxaca), 1940
So far as I can recall, I have never celebrated Columbus Day. I mean, I remember getting the day off from school when I was a kid, and I remember the bond markets being closed when I worked on Wall Street. But I’m not Italian, and the civic celebrations of Columbus Day never impressed themselves on my consciousness the way, say, the celebrations of St. Patrick’s Day or the West Indian celebrations on Labor Day did.
Nor do I have any particular interest in celebrating the man, who was a pretty lousy specimen from all I can discern. He was an incompetent explorer to begin with, having badly miscalculated the circumference of the earth in planning his voyage. He was a much worse governor, enslaving the Taino people he met who offered him kindness, brutalizing them not only in his quest for gold or other items of value to bring back to Spain, which they lacked, but gratuitously, to satisfy his crew’s lusts. Nor is this a retrospective view; Queen Isabella was appalled to receive the slaves Columbus sent her in lieu of the Indian riches he had promised (she considered them her subjects, not her property), and Columbus was eventually arrested and shipped back to Spain to stand trial for his criminal conduct as governor of Hispaniola, and was stripped of the title the crown had previously granted him in recognition of his achievements.
There are any number of figures from the early years of Iberian colonialism who are more interesting than Columbus, and more obviously deserving of being remembered whether or not they are celebrated. Vasco da Gama was also brutal, but was a far more accomplished navigator and politician, who actually reached India and thereby reshaped European trade, and who opened the door for little Portugal to become a world maritime power. Hernán Cortéz was a fascinating and enigmatic figure who conquered an empire and, ultimately, founded a new nation. Bartolomé de las Casas did not explore, exploit nor conquer; rather, he was a historian and reformer, playing a key role in fighting the enslavement of the indigenous peoples of New Spain. What Columbus had going for him mostly was luck—luck that Ferdinand and Isabella were in a giving mood after the conquest of Moorish Granada, lucky that North America happened to be in his way as he sailed west toward the Far East, lucky, according to the story, that a lunar eclipse happened to be due at just the right time to allow him to perform a miracle and thereby save him from starvation. That’s a weird reason to celebrate a man.
So I have no objection to dispensing with Columbus Day, and I certainly have no objection to a day formally recognizing and celebrating the peoples who lived on Turtle Island before any Europeans arrived, and who live here still.
But the latter is not really a replacement for Columbus Day, and that does leave something of a hole, a hole where our own origin story should be, an origin that begins in the terrible encounter of 1492. Precisely because Columbus was an Italian working for Spain who left no real legacy of his own, he was a kind of empty vessel into which we could pour the myth we preferred to write, a myth of the New World. That’s what Columbus represented for the European settlers, before he filled the role of Italian-American and Catholic hero, and why there are places all over America named for him: because he proved that Alexander was wrong and there were new worlds to conquer, and that you could start over again from scratch.
You can’t, of course. North America wasn’t a blank canvas and the European settlers were not free artists of themselves. But we are still here, we descendants of settlers and of the immigrants that the settlers descendants invited (or grudgingly accepted) to follow, just as they, the indigenous peoples of this continent, are still here. My hoping that they grow more numerous, reclaim more of their culture, and become ever-greater contributors to human history on this continent does not mean that I hope for American history to be erased. If the Columbus myth is one we want to jettison, what do we want to replace it with? What’s the story we want to tell about why we are here, about what the “we” might be that abides?
I remember in college reading Octavio Paz’s essay, “Hijos de la Malinche,” and being struck by it profoundly as speaking a language that was new to my American ears. Paz dissects the Mexican character in terms of a mythic founding family, Cortés and his indigenous translator and concubine, a founding father and mother who, as he reads the archetypal Mexican mind, must both be rejected, the one for violation and the other for being a victim of violence—or of seduction, because, as Paz explains the common view at the time, if she was willing to serve Cortés not only does not exonerate her but exacerbates her spiritual descendants’ disgust. He was grappling with the founding Mexican myth of mestizaje and the terms on which it was achieved. That’s not America’s founding myth; we were not founded on conquest, subordination and transformation, the Templo Mayor of Tenochtitlan demolished and its stones used to build the Catedral Metropolitana de la Asunción de la Santísima Virgen María a los cielos. We were founded on expulsion, extermination and replacement. We don’t want to celebrate that, anymore than Mexicans want to celebrate the actual story of their origins. But they have a mythic family to look back to as an origin of their own national family, a story they can retell and transform to work better for the national family that exists.
We don’t really have that here, and I think we feel that lack. Americans are pleased to think of themselves as descendants of Pocahontas in large part because they saw her as someone who had joined us, because what is all around is us, and not the them from whence she derived. We don’t have a story that makes us a part of her family. I’m not sure we can. But while we can’t, there’s still that hole where the commemoration of that encounter ought to be.