Monthly Archives: October 2013

Why I Celebrate Columbus Day

My boyfriend is obsessed with time travel. He loves “Back to the Future” and never misses any new film with even the slightest time travel twist. We were both history majors in college and do lots of nerdy history-related activities together. However,  I have been very clear with him that if he were somehow able to actually travel in time, I would not be going with him. As I have pointed out to him repeatedly, in practically in any era but our own, ours would be a forbidden love. Not to mention, American history hasn’t been particularly great to women nor Mexican guys. When I watch Mad Men, it doesn’t make me want to jump in a time machine. Ditto for El Norte.

If I’ve learned anything in my study of history, it’s that people are jerks. Even historical figures who we can agree did some really good things often also did some really bad things (poster child: Thomas Jefferson).

Which brings us to Columbus Day. If you aren’t convinced that we are living in an era of rapid change, let me just point out that when I was in first grade, we actually CELEBRATED Columbus Day. By 9th grade, we were assigned to read “Lies My Teacher Told Me” over the summer. By college, we were celebrating MLK Day and Cesar Chavez Day and pretending that whole Columbus Day thing never happened.

In college, one of the first primary sources I ever read in depth was Columbus’ journals, in which he reveals himself to be a mega-jerk, to put it mildly. He writes: “As soon as I arrived in the Indies, on the first Island which I found, I took some of the natives by force in order that they might learn and might give me information of whatever there is in these parts.” The more you read, the more bizarre it seems that very nice first grade teachers across America were urging young children to celebrate this guy just 20 years ago.

If you think I’m conflicted, well, think how Mexico feels (to get quickly up to speed, read this essay and google images for Dia de la Raza).   Yes, that’s right, American people: “Columbus Day” has a different name outside of the U.S.:

  • Mexico: Dia de la Raza
  • Spain: Dia de la Hispanidad
  • Venezuela: Día de la Resistencia Indígena
  • Costa Rica: Día de las Culturas

That pretty well sums it up. When Europeans crossed paths with the indigenous peoples of the Americas, it was not a win-win. However, it was absolutely a world-changing event for everyone involved, a turning point in history that brought all of us to where we are today. I don’t think Mr. Columbus is someone we should celebrate, but I think that what happened in 1492 is something that we should remember and talk about and argue about because this history matters to all of us. And this Oct. 12, I will remember all of the bad things that we humans have done to one another. And then I’ll give my boyfriend a big hug, marvel at the twists and turns of history that brought us both to right here and be grateful to all the humans who stood up and spoke out and fought to create this better world we live in today.

Some more food for thought: A call for replacing Columbus Day with Bartolome Day (featuring a lot more reasons why Columbus really was the worst).



Filed under California history