[News] The Rancid Myth of Columbus

Anti-Imperialist News news at freedomarchives.org
Fri Oct 4 13:59:41 EDT 2013

Weekend Edition October 4-6, 2013

What Happened to the Indigenous Race?

  The Rancid Myth of Columbus


When César Chávez was asked what he thought about the term la raza, he 
answered the question with a question, asking, what was wrong with the 
indigenous race?

The word raza was popularized by José Vasconselos who in 1925 wrote an 
essay titled "La Raza Cósmica" (The Cosmic Race). Vasconcelos was an 
intellectual and intellectuals at the time took it to mean that Latin 
American was comprised of races from all over the world, and that the 
mixture had produced a new people who would transcend the "old world".

But, as in the case of all words, meanings are distorted when they are 
not defined or put into context. In the case of la raza, it was given a 
bad name by some Latin Americans and Spaniards who wanted to play down 
the animosity of many Latin Americans toward Spain and the conquest. 
These leaders took to celebrating Columbus Day, October 12, as the day 
of the "discovery" of the Americas and the mixing of the races that 
included Spaniards.

Without any context, El Día de la Raza validates and accepts the 
argument that the indigenous peoples were fortunate to have been 
"discovered", and receiving the blessing of Jesus Christ. Moreover, they 
argued the Indian benefitted from Spanish culture.  But, history is 
about the truth, and the celebration of a manufactured holiday doesn't 
make it so.

It is offensive to mark Columbus Day as a federal holiday. It is also 
offensive when classroom teachers try to impress their students with 
stories of the Nina, Pinta and the Santa María.

Some cities will even hold Columbus Day parades with Italians, Jews and 
Spaniards fighting for a piece of Columbus. For some of us, it is as 
offensive as celebrating Hitler's birthday, which as far as I know, no 
sane group in the United States wants to claim.

Debunking the Columbus Myth is difficult because it has become legend, 
and it is part of our shared memory. Moreover, people want to believe 
it. They want the holiday, and the manufactured truth that makes 
Columbus an American hero. It is part of a Eurocentric worldview that 
reinforces feelings of American and European exceptionalism.

The truth be told, Columbus was not a great man. In his early career, he 
was conversant with the African slave trade of the Mediterranean and 
Atlantic Islands off the shores of Spain and North Africa that made huge 
profits. Columbus took these memories and their lessons with him to the 

His voyages were for profit ventures; by contract he was entitled to 10 
percent of the profits.  Upon first encountering the indigenous peoples, 
Columbus wrote in his journal on October 12, 1492: "They should be good 
servants .... I, our Lord being pleased, will take hence, at the time of 
my departure, six natives for your Highnesses." When he arrived in 
Spain, the natives were paraded through the streets of Barcelona and 

On his second voyage, Columbus sent back Indians to be sold as slaves. 
In 1493 Columbus wrote to the Spanish Crowns: ""their Highnesses may see 
that I shall give them as much gold as they need .... and slaves as many 
as they shall order to be shipped." Indeed, hundreds of Indians were 
shipped during Columbus' voyages, and in 1505 Columbus' son Diego became 
an African slave trader.

Quoting from Whitney DeWitt, "The Indians that were not exported were 
put into slavery on the island. There was literally no way to escape 
some form of enslavement. Columbus would let the settlers of his 
establishment choose whomever they wanted for their own. One account 
claims that each settler had slaves to work for them, dogs to hunt for 
them, and beautiful women to warm their beds. This degradation of an 
entire group of people seemed not to bother Columbus or the Spaniards in 
any way. They appeared to consider it their right as superiors."

The devastation was horrific.  In 1492, the population on the island of 
Hispaniola (Haiti and the Dominican Republic) was estimated at above 3 
million. Within 20 years it was reduced to only 60,000, and within 50 
years, not a single original native inhabitant was left.

This opened the door for the African slave trade. The great majority of 
African slaves went to sugar colonies in the Caribbean and Brazil. It is 
estimated that 12.5 million Africans were shipped to the New World, with 
about 10.7 million surviving the voyages. About 600,000 slaves were 
imported into the U.S., and at least 200,000 African slaves were 
imported to Mexico, which is significant considering that by the 17th 
century, the population of New Spain  once 25/28 million, dropped to 
less than a million natives, and no more than 250,000 Spaniards migrated 
to what is now Mexico during the entire colonial period.

African slaves did not compromise the major source of forced labor in 
New Spain; the Indians were also made slaves and performed most of the 
forced labor in the fields, mines and other projects.

Columbus set in place a system based on race that was expanded in New 
Spain (Mexico), perpetuating a caste system based on color 
<http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TYyc6Po1XhI>.  The rule of thumb was the 
more Spanish blood or the more Spanish a person looked the more 
privileges he or she had.

The truth be told, Mexicans are still suffering the devastation and the 
racism caused by Columbus. The legacy of Columbus' "discovery" can today 
be seen in the streets of Mexico City where little children sell gum for 
handouts, and poverty is almost solely represented by los de abajo of 
the castas.

Anyone who has any sense of justice or history knows that the ancestors 
of these children built great civilizations with cities larger than 
those of contemporary Europe. They had books that the sons of Columbus 
destroyed; they had an advanced mathematical system, calendars, 
architecture, agriculture, and a defined cosmology. They were destroyed 
by the children of Columbus, who reduced the natives to selling gum.

Celebrating El Día de la Raza is not an innocuous act. Holidays are 
important in forming approved memories. Identity is formed by culture 
that in turn shapes our behavior, beliefs and cultural narratives. 
Holidays are part of our memory and form our narratives.  Popular events 
such as holidays are sanctioned by society, and they act as a form of 
social control that help maintain a social order and a popular 
consensus. It is in this context that terms such as el día de la raza 
are important because they avoid the need for providing a historical 
context, and thus absolve the Europeans for their sins.

I have been criticized for referring to what happened to the indigenous 
peoples as genocide. Critics say that I am engaging in hyperbole. Many 
repeat the cliché that after all it happened in the past. It the process 
it short circuits our long-term memory.

The reality is that Columbus Day denies and minimizes the brutality of 
the Spanish Conquest, and the violent deaths of tens of millions of 
natives throughout the Americas. Some experts estimate that there were 
100 million Indians in the Americas; this number fell to about 10 
million. It denies the brutality and inhumanity of the African slave trade.

The acceptance of Columbus Day elevates Columbus to a position of honor. 
And that is offensive. Whether we like it or not el día de la raza 
imputes meanings, and gives credibility to the myth that Columbus 
discovered the Americas when the reality is as Jalil Sued-Badillo says, 
"Christopher Columbus has the distinction of being the first to 
introduce that new order to America."

I am not a proponent of collective guilt. But, at the same time, it is 
important to answer César's question, what was wrong with the indigenous 

/*RODOLFO ACUÑA*, a professor emeritus at California State University 
Northridge, has published 20 books and over 200 public and scholarly 
articles. He is the founding chair of the first Chicano Studies Dept 
which today offers 166 sections per semester in Chicano Studies. His 
history book Occupied America 
<http://www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/0205786189/counterpunchmaga> has 
been banned in Arizona. In solidarity with Mexican Americans in Tucson, 
he has organized fundraisers and support groups to ground zero and 
written over two dozen articles exposing efforts there to nullify the 
U.S. Constitution./

Freedom Archives 522 Valencia Street San Francisco, CA 94110 415 
863.9977 www.freedomarchives.org
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