What’s in a name?
This long weekend, we should discuss who Christopher Columbus really was, what he did, and why he should not be celebrated
Imagine a holiday celebrating something like cultural appropriation. It is easy to see why such a holiday would be insensitive, why it would offend many people, and why it would be abolished in the blink of an eye. It seems rational then to assume that a holiday named after a man who didn’t appropriate, but instead displaced, enslaved, and destroyed cultures would be absurd, right? Well, Columbus Day does exactly that; it celebrates a man who came to America, saw people who lived differently, and began a conquest of their land and way of life.
I was born in Honduras and grew up in Costa Rica, two countries where Cristobal Colon (the Spanish name for Columbus) is a common part of any elementary school curriculum. We are taught all about his voyages, ship names, and conquests growing up. Furthermore, our ethnic identity as Hispanics originates from what we call mestizos: the children of a Spanish colonizer and an indigenous woman. Finally, the official language in both countries, and thus my own, is Spanish. These facts may seem simple and straightforward, but they draw a powerful and clear connection between my identity as a Central American and the Spanish influence in the region. And guess who started it all? Columbus.
Although my identity is a flag I will proudly wave up high, there is also a dark and shameful side to it. This darkness involves neglect, denial and disrespect towards indigenous populations. The main source of disrespect is that we always seem to talk about Native People in the past tense while they are very much alive and well. In many countries, they often live far away from urban and metropolitan areas, which limits their access to opportunities and further threatens their heritage. Some argue that they are proud of these territories and lands, but we must remember that not so long ago, the whole country and continent was their home. And still, some people continue to disrespect their rights to this day. In the last five to 10 years, there have been attempts to expropriate the town of Boruca in Costa Rica, home to the Brunka people, in order to flood it and turn it into a dam. Considering all of this, it may be true that they have an attachment to this land they inhabit, but the reality is that they have that same attachment to all of the land their ancestors owned; this is just what was left to them after the rest was stolen.
And this is where Christopher Columbus comes back into the picture. To many, his name may be a synonym for heroism, adventure, and determination. Even in my history classes as a kid, he always seemed to be associated with discovery, expanding horizons, and challenging the norm. The holiday began as a celebration of Italian-American culture in the U.S., but Columbus was specifically chosen as the namesake hero. However, under all the laud and Ulysses-like adoration, a less glamorous aspect of his conquests has been buried: genocide.
In a letter to the monarchs Ferdinand and Isabella, Columbus wrote: “...the people here are simple in war-like matters . . . I could conquer the whole of them with 50 men, and govern them as I pleased.” He clearly had a low opinion of these indigenous people from the beginning, and his intentions to subdue them were far from subtle. To make matters worse, his disrespect was often dehumanizing. To him, they were in a separate category: worth much less than himself, with inferior skills and lower intellect. Even his “positive” observations about them were condescending and highlight his negative perception of them. This can be seen in his journal, where he wrote: “It appears to me, that the people are intelligent, and would be good servants and I believe that they would easily be made Christians, as they appear to have no religion.” In the same way we may call a dog “intelligent” if it rolls over on command, Columbus used this word to describe the Native Americans he believed would make good servants —all because he misinterpreted their difference in culture as inferiority and their divergence from his belief system as lack thereof.
Knowing all this, having a holiday named after such a man is a bitter pill to swallow. Not because the convergence of two cultures and worlds should not be commemorated, but because he catalyzed one of the biggest atrocities in the history of mankind. Through violence, disease, and destruction of their culture, indigenous populations throughout the continent were nearly eradicated by colonizers who followed Columbus’s footsteps. Initially, some diseases such as smallpox or syphilis were brought across the Atlantic accidentally. Nevertheless, this would later be used to the colonizers’ advantage, as evidenced in a letter by Sir Jeffrey Amherst, who wrote: “You will do well to try to inoculate the Indians [with smallpox] by means of blankets, as well as to try every other method, that can serve to extirpate this execrable race.” This, along with other acts of violence such as war and invasion, led to a dramatic decrease in the indigenous population throughout the Americas. For example, in the United States, the indigenous population decreased from an estimated 10 million in 1492 to less than 300,000 by 1900.
Instead of turning a blind eye to the horrible things Christopher Columbus did, we should fully shift the focus of this day towards honoring our indigenous ancestors. As I mentioned earlier, this mixing of cultures is what marked the beginning of the Hispanic identity. Therefore, this holiday could be all about finding common ground and making amends; about being the middleman between our colonizer and Native American ancestors. And this should be reflected in what we call it.
Although the challenge behind finding a politically correct name is a force to be reckoned with, there are certain places that have already taken some first steps towards doing so. States like Alaska, Vermont, and Minnesota, along with over 50 cities including Los Angeles, Seattle, and Denver, have renamed Columbus Day “Indigenous Peoples’ Day.” In Costa Rica, the equivalent is celebrated every Oct. 12, and I grew up knowing it as what roughly translates to “Cultural Encounter Day.” Finally, other countries in Latin America call it some interestingly varying names, such as “Hispanic Culture Day” in Spain, “Day of the Race” in Mexico and “Indigenous Resistance Day” in Venezuela.
So, during this holiday weekend, we should definitely sit back and have fun with friends and family. We should take advantage of this well-deserved break. But while we do so, we should keep two questions in mind: “What am I really celebrating?” and “What can I do to make things right?”
Rene Reyes is a member of the MIT Class of 2022, intending to major in Urban Science and Planning with Computer Science and minor in Mathematics.