Our Shared Heritage: Columbus

I want to talk about Columbus today.

I want to talk about shared heritage.

It helps me understand some of the strange ways that Chileans and Americans (Usonians?) think.  More importantly, if we don’t understand and claim the unpleasant past, we will never confront the unpleasant present or prevent a disastrous future.  (Cliche, I know.)

During this weekend, Columbus is acknowledged all over the Americas.  From the United States to the Bahamas, from Honduras to Chile, people are talking about when this Spanish-funded Italian explorer showed up on the shores of the “New World.”

Many Latin American countries, including Chile, call this day la Día de la Raza and celebrate the Hispanic race.

This sentiment is echoed by the Spanish celebration of Columbus Day, which has been called Día de la Raza, Día de la Hispanidad, and now simply “National Day.”

All over the Americas, there has been a growing backlash, especially in support of indigenous communities, who frequently reclaim the day to celebrate their cultures.

But what does this day mean?

In all of the Americas, the arrival of Columbus meant the beginning of widespread exploitation, displacement, and genocide of the indigenous peoples.  In most cases, this went beyond the people to the rape of the land, its flora, fauna, and resources.

This is colonialism.  This is imperialism.  This is the legacy of the white supremacist capitalist patriarchy, which we’ve inherited as inhabitants of the New World.

This is the violence that lies just above the supernatural in Latin American literature, where magical realism found a home amidst this traumatized mestizo culture.

This is rape culture.  This is laissez-faire culture.  This is the culture of condemning poverty mentality, of excessive waste and wealth, of victim blaming and in-God’s-naming.

It’s our history.  It’s our heritage.  All of us.  And it will not disappear simply by no longer celebrating it.  Unfortunately.

A Day of Reflection and Evaluation

In an interview with Observatorio Ciudadano’s co-director, José Aylwin, the lawyer and indigenous rights activist asserted:

This should be a day in which Chile reflects on its past, its ethnic diversity, about the assimilation and negation with which that diversity has been treated, in order to be able to project toward the future not as a nation-state…but rather as an intercultural state….

The idea of creating an “intercultural state” is a complex one that has not worked in the United States while cultural hierarchy and dominance still rests with mainstream WASP culture.

If we want to recognize unity and diversity, we need to understand that our heritage as individuals includes not only our physical bloodline, but also the intricate historical bloodlines that have created the society within which we live today.

Inheritance isn’t always a good thing.  Sometimes we inherit debt or ignominy.  As Usonians, we all bear the shame of slavery, genocide, and oppression.  My heritage is one in which my compatriots were systematically subjected to horrific and inhuman treatment.  In my present, my compatriots still suffer the brutalities of such a violent history.

We all do.  For some, that means the brutality of rape.  For others, the brutality of living in a food desert.  For the one percent, it may mean the brutality of losing one of the most redeeming characteristics of humanity: empathy.  For all of us, it undermines our chances to live healthy and happy lives.

Let me make myself clear here: I am not saying that we are all the same, that we are all Americans and should simply accept each other.  We are different; we’re perceived and treated differently, and we live different experiences according to innumerable factors.  The “brutality” of losing empathy is not the same as the daily brutality of racism.

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am saying that we have one heritage.  That we are trying to live and operate in one shared society.

I am saying that until white kids start hearing about native history and Black history as our history, we’re not going to understand or value our compatriots.

Until Chileans stop talking exclusively about how the Mapuche never gave in to the conquistador’s gun and start talking about how indigenous peoples are still being forced to give in to the economic monsters of big business and mining that infringe on more and more native lands, we’re not going to live in peace and equality.

Until we understand the oppressive system that we’ve inherited, until we take responsibility and recognize that it’s part of each of us, we’re not going to be able to do anything to change it.  We want to live up to the standards of liberty and equality, but we want to do so applying the same system that slave owners and perpetrators of genocides saw fit.

So in honor of Columbus Day, I am going to be observing a “heritage week,” a week in which I look to the past to reflect on all of the legacies we’ve inherited—the good and the bad—and evaluate how we need to address the present remnants of those legacies in order to move forward into a more equitable society.

What do you think we should do about Columbus Day or Día de la Raza?  How should we observe it?  Should we acknowledge it at all?

For other Columbus legacies, check out my post on pickpocketing.

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3 thoughts on “Our Shared Heritage: Columbus

  1. Pingback: Mapuche Chilenismos: How to Confuse Dominican Preschoolers | Chilean Adventures of the Pelirroja Peligrosa

  2. Pingback: Welcome to the AA meeting: Assimilating Activists… | Chilean Adventures of the Pelirroja Peligrosa

  3. Pingback: Pickpocketing: The Reverse Secret Santa | Chilean Adventures of the Pelirroja Peligrosa

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