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Having lived in Ecuador for the better part of 16 years, I like to use October as an opportunity to reflect on my national identity and question why the United States is so committed to the “discovery of America.” This year has been exceptionally challenging for me, for it is the first time I have been physically present in the United States during Columbus Day in many years.
(Andres Alvarado, of the Kichwa community of Tzawata, doing traditional dance in the Plaza de Teatro in Quito, with Isaac Peñaherrera of Nina Shunku accompanying him on the drum.)
My Ecuadorian friends often ask me, “Why do you observe ‘Columbus Day’ in the United States?” At a loss for how to answer them, I decided to ask the same question to college students over the last week just to see what kind of answers I would get. It became clear that we celebrate this day out of ignorance, for so few (perhaps less than 10%) had a sound understanding of our history. And mind you, these were intelligent students. One student, shocked to learn certain truths, said, “Why don’t I know this? I have a 4.0 and earned near perfect SAT scores. I thought I was smart.” To this I answered, “Smart doesn’t mean you are free from a colonized education.”
Here is what some of you will consider basic information, but remember that brilliant college students at top notch liberal arts colleges did not know it.
Columbus has little to no relationship with what is today the United States of America. Columbus was an Italian (about 50% knew this fact), sent by the Spanish, yet most of what we recognize as the colonization in the United States has its origin from English settlements. Columbus was not the first European to “discover” America - the Vikings predated his voyage by hundreds of years (about 40% knew this).
When I insisted on us determining why we celebrate this holiday, many answers from students suggested we recognize Columbus because his achievements represent our American values, citing the creation of a land of opportunity and the pursuit of liberty; however, there is no evidence that he had interest in these founding principles, nor any intention of establishing a “land of opportunity” where settlers could practice religious and political freedom. In fact, it is well documented that his primary goal was to extract material wealth from the “new world” and ship it back to the “old world.”
(Daniel Acosta and Mayra Aimacaña of the community of Pintag exploring the conquest during our Rehearsing Change program in our class, Theatre for Social Change.)
My conversations became increasingly troubling when I found out that virtually no students (well under 10%) had been exposed to highly respected scholarship describing Columbus and his men as ruthless conquerors, ordering the torture and murder of indigenous peoples who failed to bring him the riches he wanted. This led me ask further questions that I had assumed were common knowledge.
Of these later questions, what I found most shocking was that still under 10% knew the following: 1) Columbus died without ever knowing he had discovered the Americas; rather, he thought he had found the West Indies. 2) He never landed on the territory of what is now the United States. I asked students what year did Columbus arrive to what is now referred to as North America, and many said 1492. When I said that is when he first arrived to the Caribbean, and he would later return to the region on other voyages, leading them to guess various years, and most were stunned to hear that he had never arrived to what is the USA. In other words, Columbus has about as little to do with our country as George Washington has to do with Ecuador, even though I see him on my dollar bills every day (Ecuador is dollarized). 3) We are the only country in the Americas that celebrates the day as “Columbus Day.” All the other countries choose not to celebrate the man, and instead recognize the impact he had on the hemisphere and the humans that inhabit it.
At this point, I would usually get the question, “So, I don’t get it, why do we celebrate the day?” And this is my question for us all. Clearly there are historical reasons related to Italian Americans and their desire for recognition as part of the American story; however, if this is truly the purpose then college students would know about this story. I think the answer is clear, but my diatribe will not include such political musings. Instead I will share some thoughts coming from conversations with my friends in Ecuador.
(A mural created in and by the community of Tzawata, with collaboration from the Nina Shunku Association.)
We cannot celebrate Columbus Day because it is a disgrace to our history and the story of the people on this continent. Not only was Columbus a perpetrator of violence, but how can we say he “discovered” a land where millions of people already lived? Columbus did not discover a new world, he “covered” it.
He covered it with a group of people who had no other wishes than to exploit America’s natural resources and get rich. He covered it with a religion, which while inherently good, was utilized to manipulate the masses and justify genocide. He covered it with violence - differing statistics indicate that somewhere between 10 and 100 million indigenous peoples lost their lives. The most conservative estimate is equal to more than 150% the amount of Jews who died in the Holocaust. He covered it with what most of us consider to be negative values, such as deceit, greed, gluttony and adultery. And he covered relatively peaceful societies with one of the most violently oppressive and destructive regimes known to the history of man.
Many American nations (and states, cities and institutions in our own country) have elected to treat this day as a time for reflection, recognizing the meeting of two worlds and the long-neglected rights/cultures of indigenous peoples. We cannot change actions from the past, but we can change how we relate to the past so as to transform our future. What I found in speaking with bright college students was not that we are insensitive to historical violence; rather, we are simply not aware of the truth. October 12 should be a day in which we search for truth about our history and identity.
- Daniel Bryan, Resident Director of Rehearing Change