By Ana Hernandez-Bravo
“In fourteen hundred ninety two, Columbus sailed the ocean blue.” Most school children learned this simple rhyme in order to properly learn about the discovery of the new world and the man who changed the world by getting lost.
In 1971 President Richard Nixon declared that Columbus Day would be a federal public holiday that would fall on the second Monday in October. This of course means that banks and other government offices are almost always closed but public schools are not and most people do not get a day off from work meaning that the “holiday” passes by with much thought.
Yet with the recent passing of a holiday that most people don’t even bat an eye at, there is controversy about it and misconceptions about the man whose journey was commemorated.
To begin with, many people have the wrong impression of Christopher Columbus. He is many times portrayed as the brave individual who took up the challenge of finding a new world that was full of possibilities.
To begin with Columbus did go on this long journey but it was done not as a “brave individual” but in the name of the Queen of Spain whom it took eight years to convince her to support his idea. Then, of course, Columbus should not be remembered as the best of navigators because his intent was to get to India, which he missed by a long shot.
Columbus technically did not discover America. He did discover the “new world” by landing on an island in the Bahamas that was home to the Taino or Arawak tribe. So technically what he did do was open the door to interactions between Europe and the Americas.
Also many people forget that Columbus was not an adventurer seeking to explore and bring knowledge to the world but a tradesman that was looking for a shorter trade route.
Unfortunately, when Columbus returned to the island (Haiti) he was outfitted by the Spanish for an even larger second voyage in 1493 that soon lead to the oppression of the native peoples whether by him or the others who followed later.
Although this is not the history that is usually attached to Columbus, there still lies within his discovery the oppression of the native populations of the Americas.
However, America, being the diverse country that it is harbors many different interpretations of the celebration of Columbus.
Since it was speculated that Columbus was Italian, some Italian-Americans view Columbus Day as a celebration of Italian American heritage and was first celebrated in 1866. Yet the first recorded observance of Columbus Day dated back to 1792 and was held by the Tammany Society.
Some people have instead tried to put a more positive spin on the commemoration by celebrating an alternative yet related issue.
Latin America, and some Latino Americans, celebrate Día de la Raza, day of the race, which is about celebrating the first encounters between Europeans and the various populations of the Americas. This is important because of the production of the Mestizo race and culture through the years of battle, difficulty and deaths of many of the indigenous peoples who first interacted with the Europeans.
Many people today look down upon this commemoration and instead see it as a celebration of conquest and genocide. James W. Loewen’s book Lies My Teacher Told Me: Everything your American History Textbook got Wrong included an updated version of the traditional rhyme that reads “In fourteen hundred and ninety-three, Columbus stole all he could see.” It is the kind of feeling those who find the holiday offensive agree with. Notably Native Americans and the Indigenous people of Latin American and the Caribbean see this as the beginning of the slave trade and exploitation.
Berkeley has decided to observe Indigenous Peoples Day instead. Venezuela also changed the name of the holiday to Día de la Resistencia Indigena (day of the indigenous resistance) in 2002. Their sentiments against Columbus Day are so strong that last year activists in Venezuela knocked down a status of Columbus that was in Caracas on their re-named celebration.
Colorado has a big movement towards the transformation of Columbus Day. Much of this is due to the leader of the American Indian Movement, Professor of Ethnic Studies, Ward Churchill at the University of Colorado at Boulder. His views of Columbus Day also center on the fact that the celebrations centers on genocide.
There are even websites such as guerilla science (found at //blog.guerilla science.com) that are against the celebration of Columbus Day and invite the general public to post comments about their message. This year their statement is “In 1492 the genocide of the new world began…in 2005 we say never again to imperialism.”
Also there is the Transform Columbus Day Alliance, found at trans formcolum busday.org, which opposes Columbus Day and hopes to work toward the future that is positive and against what Columbus brought to the Americas.
Other people have been keeping up with archaeological discoveries that show that Vikings set foot in the Americas, such as Newfoundland, in the year 1000, way in advance to Columbus’ discovery. This has sparked some to completely ignore Columbus Day on the 12th and instead celebrate Leif Erikson Day on the 9th of October.
Columbus Day will probably remain one of the controversial celebrations and commemorations of a historical event. Although both sides of the celebration do not agree on what Columbus Day really represents, each has the right to celebrate it in their own way. Whether it be renaming the holiday and celebrating the existence of a different culture or taking the time out on the rush to work or school to note that 513 years ago Columbus opened the door to the beginning of the history of the Americas, the man who was looking for a shortcut left his mark on history for better or worse.