Columbus Day in the Age of Cultural Wars

Unless you believe that cultural diversity means speaking only English, or that culture is defined by the Anglo-Saxon way, then you know there is an ongoing cultural war being fought across the country. The cultural war has many levels of intensity – from basic arguments over what is culture, to accusations of cultural misappropriations. Some historical events, that have nothing to do with culture, are intermixed into the debate to argue an unpalatable point of view to the majority. The confederacy statues and imagery that glorifies subjecting to slavery certain people, because of the color of their skin is an example of this. The debates over the confederacy iconography has nothing to do with culture and everything to do with pushing forth the idea that the American Civil War was about state’s rights over the truth – keeping slaves. But culture creates dubious celebrations to fulfill the cultural identity of someone that feels alien in their place of residence.

This is especially true to the United States where many cultural celebrations are embraced to make a culture group feel as if they belong in the country. The Irish celebrate St. Patrick’s Day while the Hispanics celebrate Cinco de Mayo and other Latino days related to their ethnic origins, for example the Puerto Rican Day in Manhattan.

Some of these celebrations are official national holidays, while others are just days in which the culture is celebrated during the day, although for the most part, work and daily activities continue. But Columbus Day is a government-sponsored day created to celebrate the culture of an immigrant group to the country – the Italians.

Like present day immigrants, Italian-Americans were demonized by the U.S. natives. In the 1800’s, as they immigrated in large numbers, they faced discrimination in their new home. To overcome the discrimination, Italian-Americans looked for and found a symbol under which they could rally behind as their ethnic identity. They found Christopher Columbus as the symbol they needed. Interestingly and mostly forgotten is that when the idea for celebrating the discovery of the Americas, two contenders were at play in the U.S. They were Columbus and Leif Erikson, the Viking who has been credited with discovering the American continent.

Eventually, with the help of the Knights of Columbus, a Catholic fraternal service organization, Franklin Roosevelt established Columbus Day as a national holiday. The Italian-Americans had their cultural identity and the Catholic Church had their cleansing symbol to obfuscate the true horrors of Catholicism in the Americas.

Columbus Day in the United States was and continues to be controversial. Although it remains a national holiday – most government offices are closed – there is acrimony arising around the holiday.

As they say, to the victor goes the spoils… to that we must add, …and the approved version of history.

The approved version of history teaches everyone that Columbus Day celebrates the arrival of Christopher Columbus on October 12, 1492. In the United States, the celebration is today, while in most of Latin America, it is on the 12th. Many Italian-Americans celebrate Columbus Day as their day of heritage.

In México, the day the American continent was discovered has been embroiled in controversy since the 1800’s. The celebration is referred to as Día de la Raza, or Day of Race. There are those that argue that the discovery of the American Continent was the day slavery was established in the continent. This is not true as slavery existed in the continent before the arrival of the Spaniards. Others argue that the Spanish brought two cultures together to create modern day México. However, the controversy rages on today.

As an aside, the country, Colombia is named after Columbus.

The problem with history is that it is in eyes of the victor – it masks the reality and wraps it around a simplistic and oftentimes a wrong version of history. In the United States, the culture wars have led to even more distortions of historical truths designed to fill a distorted reality. Let’s start with the obvious – the name Christopher Columbus.

It is generally accepted that Cristoforo Colombo was his birth name because he was born in Italy, although his Italian birth has been questioned by some historians. Regardless, the anglicized version of his name is Christopher Columbus. This is true for most western European countries as well.

However, Colombo changed his name to Cristóbal Colón when he emigrated to Spain, much like many immigrants to the United States over the years have anglicized their names. Since Colón himself changed his name, then we must accept that Colón is he preferred version of his name.

As such, it should not be translated or anglicized. (By the way, it’s México, not Mexico)

This brings us to the next fallacy over Colón, his so-called discovery of the American continent. The Americas had already been discovered by the Vikings. And even before them, other wanderers through the Bering Strait crossing, has been suggested by some.

What Colón did was to begin the colonization of the Americas – not discover it.

This is where the palatable and erroneous history distorts away from the reality.

Although the Spanish crown rewarded Colón with an admiralty and made him Governor General of the new Spanish colonies, his cruelty led the Spanish to dishonor him. Colón established the encomienda system in the Americas, whereby the Native Americans were forced to labor as a tribute to Colón. Although the Spanish used the encomienda system before, the large-scale slavery of conquered populations was implemented in the Americas.

Colón wasn’t interested in proving the world was round – that had already been proven before – nor did he explore for exploration sake. Colón simply wanted to get rich from gold, by whatever means necessary. When he first encountered the Native Americans – his first thought was how easy it would be to enslave them.

Colón’s cruelty was so severe that he was arrested by Francisco de Bodadilla, who had been appointed by King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella, and sent back to Spain in chains. The Spanish royals pardoned Colón for his crimes because the gold from the Americas was filling their treasury. The documented crimes against Cristóbal Colón are slavery, sexual slavery and atrocities against those that refused to work his gold mines and those who rebelled against his authority.

Today, Cristóbal Colón would be charged with crimes against humanity and join the ranks of people like Adolph Hitler in the pages of history.

And yet, many are celebrating his legacy today. Open a school history book today and you will be hard pressed to find an honest discussion about the true legacy of Cristóbal Colón.

What makes today’s celebration even more egregious is that Cristóbal Colón never stepped foot in North America. The closest that Colón came to North America was the Caribbean islands. But that little fact, along with his true history, is an impediment to the carefully crafted history, over decades, designed to create an illusion that allows the demonizing of people that do not fit the mold of an assimilated American.

This is where the cultural wars reside and why some are rebelling while others are asking – what’s the deal with the statues?

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