Monday, October 10, 2011


I will not be joining the Neo-Stalinist, Orwellian, “politically correct” rewriting of history for purposes of political manipulation of “Columbus Day”. Instead, I will celebrate the human spirit of discovery.

In North Anglo-Saxon America, with its emphasis on the individual, what is celebrated is the individual achievement of a man. From a cultural point of view that’s understandable. In Latin America what is observed or celebrated is “El día de la raza”; literally “the day of the race”. It celebrates the multi-ethnic, multi-racial composition of the Americas, contrary to the almost racist connotation that some “radical” sectors now imply with the term of "la raza".

Since no human individual is perfect—much less any historical figure—what should never be overlooked in Columbus is our common human patrimony. We commemorate the human spirit of exploration, of discovery, of empirical research, of courage, of going against the current, against superstition and obscurantism.

When in 1992 I was invited to be in a panel on the 500th anniversary of the Discovery of the Americas by Europe, sponsored by The National Endowment for the Humanities, I made some discoveries of my own.

As the Hispanic representative I discovered I was supposed to be there as the token victim of Columbus. I soon discovered that the purpose of the conference was not to develop a fresh and new historical consideration, a “corrective balance”, but an effort to reinvent history for a political purpose. I also discovered that some who claim to help us in fact want to keep us down.

The anti-Columbus Day “correction” hides a new version of the Black Legend. We are no longer talking about the spirit of discovery, courage and ingenuity, the gallantry and valor of the Spaniards, Portuguese, Italians and Europeans in general.

We are not telling our children that they too share in the founding of this country and that before Jamestown there was San Juan; that before Plymouth Rock there was St. Augustin; that before Denver and Las Vegas there was San Francisco and Los Angeles; that before Lewis and Clarke there was Coronado. Nor are we telling them that all of these experiences have some things in common. They were all founded on sacrifice, hard work, sweat and tears, and yes, ambition and greed, but also self-denial.

No, we are now telling our children that before the arrival of their Spanish ancestors there was paradise, after the arrival of their ancestors only genocide, disease and pillage. Euphemisms have been developed in lieu of the dreaded word “discovery”.  “The encounter”, “the exchange”, “the clash” are phrases that are supposed to make us feel better and lift the indigenous from the ignominy of having been discovered by "others".

Yes, in the process of indeed discovering something that was truly unknown to them, there were abuses committed by Europeans. But contrary to the paradisiacal view that politically correct “corrections” want to rewrite, European arrivals were actually shocked and thought they had arrived at the very gates of hell after witnessing indigenous practices of human sacrifice.

The question for educators is this: how do you intend to lift the "self-image" and self-understanding of a generation of Hispanic students when they are told that at least half of their heritage is nothing but a heritage of brutes and genocidal maniacs? What this history should teach us all is not just how evil some historical figures may have been, but that we all have the potential to be just like them; or to be the opposite.

Spanish conquest was distinct from all others in that from the beginning it developed an ethical process of self-examination. Even though in their historically limited world-view the “Indian” was lower in the order of things, yet they had a place in the human order and incorporation. Other conquests simply set out to remove them and in many cases simply to exterminate them. For the Spanish, as a whole, there was no “a good Indian is a dead Indian”.

As a result of that history—and because soldiers and “conquistadores” were not the only ones who came with and after Columbus—Spain emerged as a world pioneer in the philosophy and jurisprudence of human rights. Missionaries, appreciative of the level of culture they found were responsible for the preservation of invaluable indigenous cultural artifacts, documents and codices of the time.  It was those same missionaries who came to their defense. It was they and the Spanish crown, not a commission of 20th Century historians who were responsible for the eventual arrest and removal of Columbus.

The process of discovery continues. We are still discovering each other. And thus, I will celebrate the spirit of Fr. Bartolomé de las Casas for standing against Columbus and defending the "Indians", and the spirit and contributions of Fr. Francisco Victoria, O.P. and Fr. Francisco Suárez, .S.J. who became the acknowledged “fathers of international law and human rights law” as part of that process.

Even Fr. Bartolomé de las Casas—who in his effort to defend the Indians ironically also became one of the greatest contributors to the Black Legend—in the end protested against the "New World" being called "America", in honor of a traveler named Amerigo Vespucci. He thought that in all due credit it should have been named Colombia.

So, without overlooking Columbus’ shortcomings I will celebrate the fusion of cultures that is the Caribbean.  I will celebrate the courageous resistance of indigenous people and the resilience of Africans.  And I will celebrate the positive human qualities of Columbus, his courage and vision, and the spirit of discovery of his era for as Victor Hugo said, “The glory of Columbus is not so much in having arrived, but in having lifted anchors.”