These are the things I remember seeing when I went to a Columbus Day Parade a few years back. But of course, those weren’t Christmas colors.
Veterans in uniforms slowly walked by. Men carried Italian flags on one side, and the American flag on the other. Police cars and cops on motorcycles would flash their lights and sound their sirens to amp up the celebration while marching bands passed by, one after another, playing classic Italian songs.
For some reason, I had forgotten that Columbus Day was all about Italians. But what exactly are we celebrating here? All I remember growing up was making colorful art projects depicting La Niña, La Pinta y La Santa Maria – names repeated so many times they stayed stuck in your head like a relentless childhood tune.
It’s a bit confusing, because Columbus was far from a hero. This was a man that was driven by money, power and fame. A man who immediately saw an opportunity of wealth and recognition when he arrived in the Bahamas thinking he had landed in India and was greeted by the indigenous people there. He knew he had to prove himself to the Spanish crown, which of course financed his voyage of colonization after he showed them the spices and riches he had discovered in Hispaniola, now known as Haiti and Dominican Republic.
However, on his second voyage, Columbus enslaved the indigenous people and forced them to mine for gold and to rebuild the settlement that had been destroyed by a hurricane and bad weather in general. As karma would have it, the poor climate and lack of wealth found in the land did not work in his favor. King Ferdinand had him arrested due to the mismanagement of Hispaniola, and though he was never convicted, he lost most of his titles and his wealth. After one last unsuccessful voyage, he spent the last two years of his life bitter and disillusioned, still believing that he had discovered a shorter route to Asia.
So this is the man we are going to celebrate on October 12th? A man who didn’t even know what he had actually happened upon? Who butchered and enslaved the natives of the land he had allegedly “founded?” A bit ridiculous, I would say.
So I started asking myself, how is Columbus Day celebrated in other countries?
In Spain, the Fiesta Nacional, “national day,” or El Día de la Hispanidad is celebrated as a national holiday. This was established on the international Columbus Day as a compromise between conservatives in order to highlight the status of the monarchy and Spanish history. This day is also seen as Spain’s Day of the Armed Forces, which is celebrated with a military parade in Madrid each year, though the holiday has little importance to Spaniards in general and is normally foreshadowed by other festivities that occur on the same date.
A dear friend from Spain took a second to explain the celebration to me. He depicted the discreditable scene of the king, reunited with political parties and militias, to watch as part of the armed forces pathetically marched past with their tanks and government owned weapons of war, rarely used today. The celebration is so deplorable that last year they had to rent planes because they didn’t have enough arsenal to show off with. My friend, then, proceeded to clarify, “But I am not Spanish. I am Catalan. Where I am from, we don’t participate in this.”
Most Italians (not to be confused with Italian-Americans) I have spoken to didn’t even know when Columbus Day was. In Italy, his achievements were never really acknowledged, perhaps because most of his financing came from Spain. Celebrations can be found in Genoa, his birthplace, but it is not a national holiday.
So why do Italian-Americans put so much emphasis on Columbus Day, especially in New York? Especially when the truth is that he never even stepped foot in what is known today as the continental United States, and the countries he actually did walk upon try to ignore his existence completely.
In most Latin American countries, El Día de la Raza replaces Columbus Day, which is a national holiday, though some countries have opted to change the name of the celebration to be more politically correct since “Day of Race” may sound a bit offensive and discriminatory. Argentina now celebrates Día del Respecto a la Diversidad Cultural (Day of Respect for Cultural Diversity).
In Nicaragua and Venezuela, the day was changed to Día de la Resistencia Indigena (The Day of Indigenous Resistance). In Chile they call the holiday El Día del Encuentro de dos Mundos (The Day of the Encounter Between Two Worlds), and the list goes on. Though different countries use different names for the holiday, the idea is the same. It is the celebration of the resistance against the arrival of Europeans in the Americas and at the same time the birth of a new identity, product of the encounter and fusion of the indigenous people of the land and the Spanish colonizers.
These governments, such as infamous Bolivarian Revolution activist Hugo Chavez, changed the name of the holiday in order to promote and bring back to light the history and the rights of the indigenous population to their nations. Argentina, for example, has over 1,600 indigenous communities, which represent the reality of the aboriginal people in the country. The National Institution of Indigenous Issues has a record of over one million residents that self-recognize as indigenous.
In the last couple of years, the efforts made by the aboriginal communities, together with public policies, have made possible the integration and exchange of cultures in different areas, with major emphasis on education. For example, in 2012 a public school in Buenos Aires started celebrating El Día de la Pachamama. Pachamama is a goddess admired by the indigenous people of the Andes who presides over planting and harvest, also known as Mother Earth. This was a great way to integrate the Andean or Kollaheritage to the cosmopolitan Buenos Aires lifestyle these kids live. The Kolla’s are the indigenous people of Western Bolivia, Chile, and Argentina, specifically living in the Salta Provinces.
To celebrate, the Indigenous people gather in the main squares of Buenos Aires with their rainbow squared flags and traditional aboriginal clothing, holding signs of protest and demanding equality. Others play their quenas (The traditional flute of the Andes) passively resonating beautiful melodies in the background of all the mess, just happy to be there representing their people. You can hear the wind instruments as the parade of indigenous citizens march down 9 de Julio, the widest avenue in the world, with their headdresses and colorful regalia dancing their traditional dance.
Now, why can’t Columbus Day in New York be that way?
Though the new name of the holiday in Argentina is a lot more appealing politically, it would be even more attractive if it were actually practiced. Paula Landoni has a hostel in Humahuaca, Jujuy, a city in the northern region of the country where most of the Andean indigenous population can be found. She is from Buenos Aires, born and raised, but fell in love with the people and the northern culture after visiting during a school trip at a young age. Later in life, she decided to buy a hostel and live most of the year there, where the scenery is breathtaking and the locals are calm and caring.
“Changing the name is not enough if the rest of the year continues with no respect towards those who think differently. … “Las diferencias nos enriquecen” (differences enrich us), “or at least that’s what I think,” she said. “It’s what we should have learned after five centuries. So even though we are on the right track, we still have a long way to go.”
Jessica Carro has a Master of Arts degree in investigative journalism from Universidad del Salvador in Buenos Aires, Argentina. She works as a freelance journalist and focuses primarily on South American issues. She lives in Jersey City, New Jersey.