October 15, 2004


Of Columbus and Other Heroes

By Heriberto Escamilla

As a young child, my impressionable mind was molded by the world that I saw unfolding around me. More than anything the world was an unpredictable place. While the early morning crow of the roosters, the foul smell of chickens, the unforgiving spines of nopales seemed to follow us everywhere, the place where I laid my head at night was often unfamiliar. Those early days also taught me that while the jacales we called home changed, my mother and father did not. The big people in my life, my uncles and aunts were always there. To me they were infallible, the people that created and maintained the land, lifted the sun across the sky and ordered the rain that always smelled so good.

So later in life when I heard stories, when the big people taught me that George Washington never told a lie, that Andrew Jackson was a great hero and that Christopher Columbus discovered America, my heart naturally accepted these truths. I converted these strange sounding names into real images and proudly placed them alongside the other big people in my life and like all good children tried to be a little more like them. When my father demanded the truth and I feared telling it, the voice of George Washington joined a chorus of many that shamed me into submission. When schoolyard tough guys challenged me, “Old Hickory”, the warrior that bravely killed the red-skinned savages was among the many pushing me to stand my ground. And on those first days at school, faced with walking into the unknown, daring Columbus was there reminding me of his three month journey into completely uncharted waters, defying those that warned of demons, sea monsters and falling off the world’s edge.

But all big people were once little and subjected to the forces that molded their worlds; they are indeed fallible. I have since learned that the “truth” big people taught me about these heroes doesn’t quite add up anymore. George Washington, whose actions were instrumental in the creation of a nation, also owned slaves. He therefore must have in some way accepted that some people were actually less than human and could be treated as property. In The Trail of Tears, Gloria Johado paints Andrew Jackson as a despicable creature that provided disease infected blankets and spoiled food to natives displaced to Oklahoma. Our childhood hero also championed the Indian Removal Act of 1830, a measure others used to justify the senseless slaughter of thousands.

And what can we say about Christopher Columbus? History has not completely established whether or not he was the first European to “discover” the Americas. Arturo Rubio in his article Vikings in America tells us there is enough evidence to prove the Vikings made as many as 5 voyages to the new world about 500 years before the natives of Hispanola greeted Columbus.

There are also questions of motives. His own diary entries suggest that contrary to what I learned in school, Columbus was not just interested in establishing new trade routes. With their chests still swollen from driving the Moors and Jews out of Europe, the Spaniards were looking for other places to “civilize”. The following excerpt of a letter to King Ferdinand, taken from an entry into Columbus’s diary certainly shows this, “Your Highnesses, as Catholic Christians, and princes who love and promote the holy Christian faith, and are enemies of the doctrine of Mahomet, and of all idolatry and heresy, determined to send me, Christopher Columbus, to the above-mentioned countries of India, to see the said princes, people, and territories, and to learn their disposition and the proper method of converting them to our holy faith”.

Other writings tell us that Columbus and the hordes that followed him used curious methods for achieving this noble cause. Narratives of the time describe the Spaniards “stringing Indians up on wide gallows.” Hans Koning, in “Columbus: His Enterprise,” writes “These executions took place in lots of thirteen,” in memory of the Spaniards’ Christian Redeemer and the 12 apostles. Koning goes on to tell us that “Men, women and children ... were hacked to pieces” and sold “to the Spaniards for feeding their dogs.”

The conversion took other forms as well. The Jack Weatherford in Indian Givers tells us that between 1500 and 1650, the Europeans extracted and shipped back home approximately 200 tons of American gold. In modern terms, this amounts to 2.8 billion dollars. The silver produced by mines in Cerro Rico, Bolivia, Potosi, Zacatecas, Guanajuato, Taxco, Pachuca, Durango and Fresnillo exceeded this amount. According to this author, these riches helped fuel the industrial revolution that catapulted Europe into the modern era, leaving the oppressed peoples of the new world behind. Yes indeed the noble Columbus and his followers sparked the conversion, one from which the proud people of the Americas have never recovered.

But do we hold Columbus responsible for the carnage that followed him? Certainly we can blame him and those under his immediate command for those they killed directly. But is Columbus responsible for the actions of the people inspired by his words and deeds. Do we lay blame on Jesus and Mohammed for the thousands of lives dispatched by the Crusaders, or even more relevant today, the bloodshed in the Middle East? How does one apportion responsibility?

Let us propose these questions are matters of opinion and personal belief. People must answer such questions for themselves. As we stand here today, we have no way of knowing how others will use our words and deeds in the future; we struggle controlling our own behavior, without adding responsibility for others. At the same time, we live in a world of relationships where the words issued from our lips resonate and move others, especially the young minds that surround us. The story of Columbus teaches us about respecting people as feeling, thinking and sacred creations, without regard to where they were born, the color of their flesh or the name they give to our creator. We are created equal.

The story also teaches us about power and salvation. Let us propose that we can never educate or enlighten people through the exercise of force. The very word “educate” in Latin means “to bring up”. We don’t elevate people by striking them down. This applies to educating our children as much as it does to nations. Resorting to force and violence in any relationship always exposes the real intent, domination. Washington, Jackson and Columbus are now part of history; but the consequences of their actions still live with us. I propose that we learn from their actions, whether we judge them wrong or right, and chose heroes that eschew violence and truly enlighten.

Escamilla is a psychologist and senior program evaluator for an organization that evaluates social service programs.

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